Sunday’s Jags-Pats game—a rematch of January’s AFC championship game—was always going to be a look at the conference’s hierarchy. It was a proving ground for both teams—a litmus test for whether Jacksonville could succeed with a less-than-stellar quarterback and whether New England could succeed with a less-than-stellar offensive supporting cast. And boy, did the game deliver.
The Jaguars dominated the Patriots in a 31-20 victory, making a resounding statement in the process: Through two weeks of the NFL season, Jacksonville is the class of the AFC.
The Jaguars’ unproven QB in particular shined, completing 29 of 45 passes for 377 yards, four touchdowns, and one pick. To this point in his career, Blake Bortles has been more of a meme than a quarterback, but in Sunday’s win, he performed better than Tom Brady in the box score. Even that one interception wasn’t Bortles’s fault, as it was tipped off a receiver’s hands.
It’s not a stretch to say this was the best game of Bortles’s career, considering the stakes. Not only did he post a stat line to rival the GOAT—but he also tossed a couple of dimes that went for TDs and had a few clutch scrambles late to seal the victory. It often gets overlooked, but Bortles is one of the most effective rushing quarterbacks in NFL history. In this game, he picked up 35 yards on the ground on six carries and had some key third-down runs in the fourth quarter, including this pretty run late:
Of course, Bortles didn’t will the team to victory himself. All game long, Jacksonville’s skill-position players gifted their quarterback with some easy targets, like this touchdown pass in which tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins gets wide open:
Austin Seferian-Jenkins catches a touchdown pass from Blake Bortles. Bortles has 200 yards and 3 touchdown passes giving the Jacksonville #Jaguars a 21-3 edge over the New England #Patriots at halftime. #NEvsJAX #NFL #GoPats pic.twitter.com/ELlmOUtVvX— Swapty Sports (@SwaptySports) September 16, 2018
Or this 61-yard Dede Westbrook touchdown, which was a short pass over the middle that turned into a win-sealing play thanks to some skillful running after the catch and excellent downfield blocking:
The Jaguars offense did this without left tackle Cam Robinson, who left with a knee injury in the first half, and running back Leonard Fournette, who missed the game with a hamstring injury. (The Jaguars also went 3-0 without Fournette last season. Fournette is quietly becoming an example of how few running backs make enough of an impact to warrant top-10 selections.)
And, yeah, the Jaguars defense had a day, too—but that’s in line with expectations. The team held Rob Gronkowski to just 15 yards and kept Pats running backs to just 67 yards on the ground, and defensive end Dante Fowler forced a huge fumble in the fourth quarter, just after Bortles’s interception:
That’s about typical from the Jaguars’ high-priced defense—even against Brady, which is why the real story is on the other side of the ball. For once, the team won just as much because of its quarterback as it did despite him. Let’s just put it this way: This offense didn’t look like one that would ever take a kneel-down with 55 seconds on the clock. If Jacksonville’s offense can keep giving the team 31 points consistently, the Jaguars won’t just be in the next AFC championship game—they’ll be hosting it.