If the Jacksonville Jaguars are going to knock off the No. 1 seed New England Patriots in Sunday’s AFC Championship at Gillette Stadium, then it’ll have to be “The Blake Bortles Game.”
I can’t see it any other way.
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Not because the No. 3 seed Jaguars don’t have a beast of a running back in Leonard Fournette. They do.
And not because the Jags don’t have one of the best defenses in the league that had 55 sacks and 33 takeaways in the regular season. They do.
But because I find it hard to believe that Bill Belichick will fail to exploit Jacksonville’s biggest weakness on Sunday. And that’s Bortles.
The fourth-year quarterback made his first career playoff appearance two weeks ago when the Jaguars hosted the No. 6 seed Buffalo Bills in the Wild Card Round. Jacksonville escaped with a 10-3 win. But it wasn’t pretty.
Bortles finished the game 12-of-23 for 87 pass yards and a touchdown. He rushed for more yards than he threw in the game, picking up 88 yards on the ground. Though, that says more about his horrible throwing accuracy than anything else.
Watching that, there’s no way you’d think the Jaguars could put up 45 points in Pittsburgh the very next week. But it was Fournette who picked up the slack with 109 rush yards and three rushing touchdowns in Jacksonville’s 45-42 win over the Steelers in the Divisional Round.
Bortles was better in Pittsburgh, going 14-for-26 with 214 pass yards and a touchdown. If he wants to win in New England, he’ll need to bring his best.
The only way I see the Jaguars advancing to Super Bowl LII is if Bortles has the game of his life. I’m talking 28-of-35 with over 300 yards passing, three or more touchdowns, and no interceptions.
You tell me Bortles does that, and I’ll tell you the Patriots will have no choice but to tip their cap, call it a season, and wish Jacksonville the best of luck in Minnesota on Feb. 4.
That’s the opportunity Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia are going to give Bortles on Sunday. The stage can be his, if he proves to be good enough to take advantage of the moment.
This isn’t any inside information. I didn’t conduct interviews with Patriots “staffers.” It’s just the smart thing to do.
Don’t let Fournette break the big one. Suffocate the run, and do it early. Trust that Tom Brady will be able to pick up some of Jacksonville’s creative blitz schemes and do what he does best, both before the snap and after the snap.
But more importantly than anything else, make Bortles beat you. Because he probably can’t.
The Patriots allowed 251 pass yards per game during the regular season, which was third-worst in the NFL. However, that’s just part of the bend-but-don’t-break philosophy, because when push came to shove, the Pats allowed just 18.5 points per game in the regular season, which ranked fifth in the league.
On the other end, Bortles has thrown just 23 touchdowns and is averaging 222 pass yards per game in 18 total games this year, including the playoffs.
So I expect New England to put the ball in Bortles’ hands, to see if he can do more than just bend the Pats’ defense, and to see if he’s the poised leader who made some big plays against the Steelers, or the inaccurate quarterback who just barely beat the Bills.
His track record shows he might be somewhere in the middle. And that just won’t be good enough to knock off the Patriots.
Listen to “The Danny Picard Show” at dannypicard.com. Follow him on Twitter @DannyPicard.