“This is not normal!”
CBS announcer Tony Romo shouted those words after witnessing a Jaguars flea-flicker-turned–Blake Bortles–rollout that earned Jacksonville a first down late in the third quarter of Sunday’s AFC championship game.
Nothing about the play was normal, but then again, nothing about this Jaguars’ season was normal, either. Jacksonville spent the past decade sharing the title of League Laughingstock with the Cleveland Browns, but the team flipped its narrative this season. The Jaguars finished 10-6 and won their division for the first time since 1999. They added two playoff wins, giving them more victories this season than they had in their previous three years combined. They had the second-ranked defense in the NFL by points, yards, and sacks, and won games without relying on their quarterback. Jacksonville’s magical ride came to an end on Sunday as the Jags fell to the Patriots, 24-20. But just because the team’s season ended shy of the Super Bowl doesn’t mean this year wasn’t a success.
In July, the Jaguars’ official Twitter account asked fans to tweet a GIF of their excitement about the upcoming season. The tweet got almost a thousand replies, most of which savagely roasted the franchise. (Seriously, check out the replies.) But the team, molded by new VP of football operations Tom Coughlin, made it clear that this season was going to be different when it smashed the Texans 29-7 and recorded a franchise-record 10 sacks in its first game. The Jags won our hearts by playing defense with an attitude. Defensive end Calais Campbell became perhaps the league’s best edge rusher. Cornerback Jalen Ramsey trash-talked himself into the spotlight and then proved he belonged there. Running back Leonard Fournette waved on hits. Quarterback Blake Bortles became the real, actual, legitimate starting quarterback of a winning football team (and the cult hero of an NBC sitcom) and a rallying cry for the entire country.
But like all beautiful NFL dreams, the Patriots shattered it. The Jaguars had a nearly perfect game plan against the Pats, dominating time of possession (35:08 to 24:52), and holding New England to just 1-of-8 on third-down conversions through three quarters. Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett did a masterful job of weaving together play calls that opened up easy play-action passes for Bortles, and he also lessened New England’s focus on Fournette. The Jags even checked the signature miracle-play box required to beat the Patriots when linebacker Myles Jack chased down Pats running back Dion Lewis on a trick play and ripped the ball out of his hands.
Amazing play by the Patriots but Myles Jack just rips the ball from Dion Lewis pic.twitter.com/3zuXdVImGR— Eric Rosenthal (@ericsports) January 21, 2018
We even had the setting for what would have been the most epic game ending in NFL history: Bortles, down four points, leading a potential game-winning drive against the greatest coach-quarterback combination of all time to bring one of the most inept franchises in the league to the Super Bowl.
“This is your dream since you were a kid, Blake,” Romo said during the Jaguars’ final drive. “Here’s your life.”
But the Jaguars failed.
Bortles came up short when the team needed him most. After reaching the New England 38, Bortles fumbled. Though the Jags recovered, it set up a third-and-19 at the Patriots’ 47-yard line that the offense failed to convert. On the Patriots’ next possession, Jacksonville’s defense forced a third-and-9 with 1:38 left in the game, but instead of getting the ball back with a chance to win, the defense allowed Lewis to rush for a first down. The Patriots burned the rest of the clock and marched off with an AFC championship, so the wheel of New England dominance continues to spin.
The Jaguars were the most fun ride of this NFL season, and there’s no reason to get off the bandwagon now. Their elite defense isn’t going anywhere, and the members of the team’s defensive core, minus Campbell, are all 27 or younger. Campbell and Ramsey were first-team All-Pros this season, and Jack and cornerback A.J. Bouye might join them on that list next season. Though Bortles may not be back in 2018 if the Jaguars don’t want to pay him $20 million a year, they’re set up well on offense. Fournette is already an elite running back, and Hackett is among the best coordinators in the league. Coughlin’s goal coming in was to bring accountability and discipline to Jacksonville. One season in, he’s already done his job. The Jaguars did not win the AFC championship, but they did win the respect of the league. They’re just getting started. This is the new normal.