All season, the NFL campaign felt like it was on an all-too-familiar collision course: an AFC championship game between the Steelers and Patriots. The two teams played in that game last season, and New England’s 27-24 win against Pittsburgh in Week 15 this season felt like a preview of a numbingly dull repeat between the decade’s two most dominant—and overexposed—franchises.
But on Sunday, an unlikely hero saved us from the seemingly inevitable. Robby “Actually, I Go By Blake” Bortles led the Jaguars, long the non-Browns laughing stock of the league, to a 45-42 win against the Steelers, which earned Jacksonville a trip to Foxborough for the AFC championship game and saved NFL fans from another matchup between the conference’s perpetual overlords.
Bortles was not, to be clear, very good in this game: He went 14-of-26 for 214 yards and one touchdown to go with 35 yards rushing. He played excellently on the opening drive of the game, completing his first three passes, and then was his true unpredictable, mechanically-flawed self for much of the rest of the matchup. But he did enough, and let one of the best top-to-bottom rosters in football do the rest. The defense picked off a Ben Roethlisberger pass and scooped up a Roethlisberger fumble for a touchdown; running back Leonard Fournette amassed 109 yards and three touchdowns on 25 carries (after leaving the game briefly with an ankle injury in the second quarter); and the Jags were able to secure a wire-to-wire win in Pittsburgh that would look more impressive if not for a Steelers garbage-time touchdown.
But because Bortles is the starting quarterback—and because he’s Blake freakin’ Bortles—he’s shouldering our hope. He’s also a breath of fresh air for a conference that has been won by either Roethlisberger, Tom Brady, or Peyton Manning in 13 of the last 14 seasons. Suddenly, the least likely player can deliver a Super Bowl without one of those three.
The fourth-year passer is a source of constant jokes and is even a frequent punchline on NBC comedy The Good Place. He’s a thoroughly mediocre passer, ranking around the middle of the league (or worse) this season in yards per attempt, passer rating, total QBR, and basically any other statistical measurement you can think up. And the best part is that he doesn’t care about the jokes—in fact, he’s in on them. He’s a better meme than a passer, but that’s exactly what these playoffs need.
He’s the true Killer B in Pittsburgh:
Or maybe he’s Bane?
Blake Bortles at Heinz Field: pic.twitter.com/c5Sjr373YT— Kevin Clark (@bykevinclark) January 14, 2018
Or maybe he’s a dream?
Blake Bortles vs Tom Brady for the AFC championship pic.twitter.com/fbf5aixFne— Pat McAfee (@PatMcAfeeShow) January 14, 2018
Or maybe he’s just a middling signal-caller who also happens to be a goofball, and that makes him the perfect foil to the Steelers and, soon, the Patriots, because he represents everything those two teams are not.
Just like against the Steelers and the Bills before that, Bortles will need a lot of help from his talented defense and rushing attack to knock off the Patriots. It’s a long shot—no doubt New England will be favored heavily against a squad that lost to the 49ers, Cardinals, Jets, and Titans (twice!) this season. But in Bortles, every Patriots hater has the most unlikely of figures to rally around: an unserious, extremely-just-OK quarterback who is essentially the opposite of Brady in every way imaginable. Bortles may not have been the hero anyone expected, but he’s the one we have—and the one we need.