JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Leonard Fournette rumbled into traffic, again and again, bulldozing his way into bodies in an effort to finally get into the end zone. Two yards, then one yard to the Buffalo 1.
With each run, the goal line grew nearer, just a few more steps needed to give the Jacksonville Jaguars much-needed breathing room in a seesaw battle of offensive ineptitude. But rather than go back to Fournette, their dynamic 1,000-yard rusher, the Jaguars put the drive in the unpredictable hands of their quarterback. And this time — on fourth and goal — Blake Bortles didn’t disappoint.
The 25-year-old delivered a perfect one-yard pass in the back of the end zone to tight end Ben Koyack to give the Jaguars a lead they would never relinquish. And in the end, third-seeded Jacksonville edged the sixth-seeded Bills, 10-3, in their AFC wild-card game Sunday at EverBank Field.
With the win, the Jaguars advance to a divisional-round game where they will face the second-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers.
“A win is a win,” said all-pro defensive end Calais Campbell, who registered four quarterback hits. “We earned the right to be here. When talent works hard, we’re definitely tough to beat. Blake was incredible.”
Hyperbole aside, the final score — and the Bills’ inability to muster more than three points — was all the proof the Jaguars needed. For better or worse, they were the better team on Sunday.
Jacksonville’s defense led the AFC in scoring (16.8 points allowed per game) and was the only unit in the NFL to rank in the top three in scoring defense, total yardage and takeaways. And yet the Jaguars were somewhat peeved they even surrendered three points to the Bills in the form of a 31-yard Stephen Hauschka field goal.
“I feel like we shouldn’t have given up anything,” said cornerback Aaron Colvin, who intercepted Bills starter Tyrod Taylor (17 for 37, 134 yards) early in the second quarter.
Fans of each franchise waited at least a decade to witness their team engage in playoff football. But instead of inspired football, diehard hopefuls were treated to a sad amalgamation of unimaginative play-calling and even worse quarterback play for almost three full quarters. But in the end, there had to a winner in the so-called “Doug Marrone Bowl” — named after the Jaguars head coach who in 2015 opted out of his contract as head coach of the Bills. And on this particular afternoon, Marrone’s Jaguars were just a tad better. But not by much.
Save for a few decent passes — like his touchdown throw to Koyack — Bortles rarely resembled an NFL-caliber quarterback, let alone a signal-caller who could rival Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh offense next week at Heinz Field. Bortles, who entered the game with a 21-40 career record and a completion percentage of 59.1, completed 12 of 23 passes for 87 yards and one touchdown against the Bills. But while Bortles’s arm was a liability at times, his feet helped keep the Jacksonville offense afloat. He rushed 10 times for 88 yards, including a 20-yard scramble.
“Blake had more rushing yards than me – that tells you a lot,” said Fournette, who ran 21 times for 57 yards.
Bortles’s counterpart, Tyrod Taylor, didn’t fare much better.
In what many believe was his final appearance in a Bills uniform, Taylor (32.1 QB rating) woefully underperformed and eventually was forced to leave the game with 1:17 left after a hard hit from Dante Fowler Jr. caused his head to hit the turf.
“We had a good job of calling stunt, so I think that’s what gave him pause,” Fowler said. “I was actually on the ground when I had done my stunt or whatever, and I managed to get back up and was able to ride him and literally tried to slam him. I hope he’s okay. I was just glad to be able to make a play for my team.”
Taylor’s replacement, Nathan Peterman — the rookie quarterback who, after he was surprisingly named the starter over Taylor against the Los Angeles Chargers, threw five interceptions in his one and only starting appearance this season — picked up where he left off in Week 11. Literally.
Peterman completed a 14-yard pass, then followed it with an interception caught by Jalen Ramsey with 26 seconds left to seal the Jaguars’ victory.
With their six-time Pro Bowl running back LeSean McCoy (19 carries, 75 yards) significantly hampered by a badly sprained ankle, the Bills’ offense rested solely in the hands of Taylor. He completed 17 of 37 passes for 134 yards with no touchdowns and one interception.
Taylor, who entered the game with a 22-20 career record and a completion percentage of 62.4, also was sacked twice.
The Bills exorcised their 17-year playoff demons last week, courtesy of their 22-16 win in Miami and the Cincinnati Bengals’ stunning final-minute victory over the Baltimore Ravens. Buffalo’s long-standing postseason drought energized the blue collar city and caused members of their fan base — dubbed “Bills Mafia” — to descend on northern Florida. But Taylor’s inaccuracy, McCoy’s sore ankle and the Jaguars’ suffocating defense proved too much for the Bills to overcome.
The Jaguars, meanwhile, will advance in the postseason for the first time since the 2007 season.
“I don’t care what people call it,” Ramsey said. “We got a playoff point. We are going to come in here for another week while other teams are sitting at home.”
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