The Jacksonville Jaguars and New England Patriots occupied polar rungs of the NFL’s power structure for most of the last decade, the Patriots an unassailable superpower and the Jaguars an annual punchline. Swiftly, the Jaguars closed the chasm last season. They won 10 games, bullied their way into the AFC championship game and led the Patriots by 10 points in the fourth quarter before New England reaffirmed its grasp at the top of the AFC hierarchy.
The NFL sees long-standing bottom-dwellers ascend almost yearly. The league is built for parity, structured to provide even the worst franchises realistic hope. The majority recede just as quickly. The Oakland Raiders won 12 games two years ago, then slunk back to competitive irrelevance. The Texans had a 12-win season in 2012 and haven’t won 10 since. The Bills made the playoffs last year.
If two weeks are enough to prove anything, it is that the Jaguars are not one of those forgotten, pop-up playoff frauds. Jacksonville is here to stay, a fact realized both during and after their 31-20 thumping of the Patriots. The Jaguars dominated the entire game, in every phase. The Patriots’ grip is slipping, and the Jaguars are the ones prying their hands.
They gashed the Patriots’ offense with workhorse back Leonard Fournette inactive as Blake Bortles — who is, uh, good now? — accounted for more than 400 yards. Their defense, maybe the best in the NFL, harassed Tom Brady and shut down Rob Gronkowski. If any part of the AFC championship game was a fluke, it wasn’t the swaths of the game when the Jaguars were winning.
The Jaguars’ reaction to the victory, a dismantling of the dynastic franchise that knocked them out last season one quarter away from the Super Bowl, revealed as much as their performance. They responded with what others viewed as a statement with nonchalance. As a fundamental tenet of the NFL, the Jaguars are not supposed to beat the Patriots. The Jaguars believe the opposite to be true, and they will shrug while informing the world of that view.
In his news conference, Bortles said he knew the Jaguars would win “as long as we didn’t do anything stupid.” The Jaguars planned all week for Fournette to play through his balky hamstring, but when he couldn’t, Jacksonville didn’t bother to change its game plan, confident regardless of who started in the backfield.
“We felt comfortable going into the game,” Jaguars Coach Doug Marrone said at the postgame news conference. “I can’t explain it any other way.”
The dominance of Jacksonville’s defense is no longer a surprise, but its offensive emergence Sunday begged for notice. Bortles’s performance — 377 yards passing, another 35 rushing, four touchdown passes and one interception — drew gawking eyes and slack jaws from around the league. Inside the Jacksonville locker room, teammates insisted the performance will be considered routine by season’s end.
“He was ballin’, man,” cornerback A.J. Bouye told reporters. “It’s expected of him. People are gonna make excuses. They’re gonna talk about Tom [Brady], they’re gonna talk about [Bill] Belichick. They’re not gonna give Blake any credit on TV. But we know what’s up.”
“Wait on it,” wide receiver Keelan Cole told reporters. “That’s just a start. 5 keeps getting better.”
As for the Patriots, they have shown some weaknesses during their 1-1 start. They had a void at wide receiver that led to the team trading Monday for Josh Gordon, the Browns’ talented wide receiver who has been unable to consistently stay on the field amid issues related to substance abuse. Perhaps Gordon’s arrival, along with the return from a four-game suspension of Julian Edelman, will spark the passing game, but that isn’t the only issue.
New England has only one reliable pass rusher in Trey Flowers, who left Sunday’s loss with a concussion. The Patriots also showed against Jacksonville that they are most vulnerable against a defense that can pressure Brady with its front four, which was apparent in last season’s AFC championship game and Super Bowl. Jacksonville proved again that it could do that in Sunday’s win, as Dante Fowler Jr.’s strip sack helped snuff out the Pats’ comeback bid.
Bortles’s performance came against a Patriots defense limited by injuries. It still may have been a sign of what’s feasible for him, given the receiving corps the Jaguars have provided him.
Cole, Dede Westbrook and Donte Moncrief are far from household names, but their style fits Bortles’s abilities and Jacksonville’s offensive style. Marrone alluded to how the Jags design plays with yards-after-catch in mind, and both Cole and Westbrook excel once the ball is in their hands. Moncrief can make up for Bortles’s limitations in accuracy with his physicality, as he showed when he leaped over cornerback Stephon Gilmore and wrestled away a touchdown pass.
Cole, meanwhile, may have already won Catch of the Year for the acrobatic haul he made Sunday, reaching backward while jumping and snagging a pass with one hand. “He does stuff like that all the time in practice,” Bortles said.
Yet again, the Jaguars were unimpressed with their own performance. They view themselves as one of the best teams in the NFL, a threat to make it back to the conference title game, and maybe go even farther. That’s exactly what they are.
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