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    In these relatively wide-open NFL playoffs, where everybody has flaws that could get them eliminated the first time they step on the field, the Jaguars might actually have a Super Bowl run in them.

    That’s not a misprint. Yes, the Jaguars have a puncher’s chance to get to Minneapolis. As turnover-prone as this offense has been the last two weeks, which is a postseason killer, you can never brush aside a defense that leads the league in passing yards allowed (169.9), and is second in takeaways (33) and quarterback sacks (55).

    Throw in the fact the Jaguars drew the best possible wild-card opponent Sunday in the Buffalo Bills – avoiding the Los Angeles Chargers was a good thing – the AFC bracket unfolds pretty well for them. Even if it means going through two quarterbacks in Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady with seven Super Bowl rings between them, having a stout defense tends to keep you in games against quality opponents.

    Regardless of Doug Marrone’s belief that “every one of these [playoff] teams is dangerous,” sixth-seeded Buffalo (minus-57 point differential) and the No. 5 Tennessee Titans (minus-22) look like the only postseason participants who don’t have a deep playoff run in them.

    At least the wild-card participants in the stronger NFC, the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons, either have a quarterback, running game or fairly stout defense that can carry them on a big stage. All the AFC wild-cards have as a big-time weapon is Buffalo tailback LeSean McCoy, and it’s pure conjecture if the injured right ankle of the league’s fourth-leading rusher (1,138 yards) will be ready to go against the Jaguars.

    While the Bills deserve massive credit for squeezing into the playoffs for the first time in 18 years, the fact remains Buffalo is pretty suspect outside of its running game. The Bills are in the bottom quarter of the NFL in total offense, passing, total defense, run defense and QB sacks.

    On paper, the Jaguars couldn’t have hand-picked a better opponent to try and win its first home playoff game since 1999. That said, a team with only six starters having playoff experience must still perform when the national spotlight truly shines on them for the first time in a decade. While Jalen Ramsey would surely debate this point, the Jaguars still have a prove-it element attached to them when it comes to playing in January.

    As for the rest of the playoff picture, would you honestly feel even mildly comfortable wagering a large sum of money on anybody to win it all? OK, maybe the Patriots, but that defense has a so-so pass rush and often gives up yardage in big chunks. And you have to wonder if the absence of Brady’s security blanket, sidelined receiver Julian Edelman, will finally bite them in a potential Steelers’ rematch or sooner.

    Look around, there are questions lurking for everyone at this postseason party. Can the top-seeded NFC team, the Philadelphia Eagles, trust replacement quarterback Nick Foles to take them the distance? How safe is the path for Philly, the No. 2 Minnesota Vikings or third-seeded Los Angeles Rams when lethal QBs Drew Brees and Matt Ryan loom as potential division-round opponents?

    On the AFC side, which Kansas City Chiefs team will show up? What is the health status of the NFL’s best receiver, Antonio Brown, if the Steelers have to line up against the Jaguars?

    Sure, there’s lots of reasons to question the Jaguars’ playoff chances based on what we’ve seen from Blake Bortles the last two weeks. But as Marrone correctly points out: “If you can play good defense and you can run the football and play well on special teams, you are always going to have a chance [to win].”

    The Jaguars have relied on that formula and it’s effectively carried them for most of this season. Now they’ve got a favorable matchup at sold-out EverBank Field against Marrone’s old team to open the playoffs.

    It’s now up to the Jaguars to prove they belong in a tournament where, truthfully, Bill Belichick probably wishes he had their defense.

    Gene.frenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540


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    I’ve never been a proponent of college football expanding to an 8-team playoff. My belief has been the current system generally provides fair access to a championship for all legitimate contenders, without putting the players through a taxing postseason gauntlet.

    UCF and the excluded 13-0 Knights have forced me to call an audible. It’s time for the College Football Playoff gatekeepers to open their minds and create a path to the trophy for non-Power 5 teams, especially when they rise to perfection like UCF.

    The way the Knights were so easily dismissed all season by the elitist CFP selection committee is a travesty that can’t, and shouldn’t, ever be repeated. If 10th-ranked UCF’s 34-27 Peach Bowl win over No. 7 Auburn didn’t at least open people’s eyes to consider inviting Cinderella to college football’s biggest postseason party, then maybe what’s needed is a housecleaning of the sport’s power structure.

    “There’s always going to be a part of you that you’re mad we didn’t get selected for the playoffs,” said UCF freshman running back and University Christian product Otis Anderson, who scored on a 12-yard TD reception in the third quarter to propel the Knights to victory. “Another part says there’s no more for us to do. We won every game.

    “So [the CFP committee] can either continue to have a biased look or start to give the Group of 5 teams a chance and make a change.”

    Unfortunately, with ESPN’s $7.2 billion contract taking the current format through 2026, it’s going to take an extraordinary set of circumstances – a combination of low TV ratings, money-grab potential and public outcry – to convince the Power 5 suits in charge to provide access for members outside their convienently-crafted cartel.

    Obviously, no Group of 5 team is ever going to be selected in a four-team CFP format. After going 12-0, and beating two respectable AAC opponents in South Florida and Memphis, the highest CFP ranking the Knights reached was No. 12. There were six multiple-loss teams ahead of them at the time, including three-loss Auburn at No. 7.

    Does that mean UCF should have been ranked in the top-4? Probably not, but after beating an Auburn team that had already defeated two SEC opponents playing in Monday night’s national championship game in Alabama and Georgia, it absolutely raises the question of whether the Power 5 outsiders like UCF are being treated fairly.

    The response ESPN’s Heather Dinsch got from Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, defending that UCF was given a fair shake even after beating Auburn, illustrates why college football has to take a hard look at its flawed system.

    “It’s fair because playing in the American Athletic is not the same as playing in the Big Ten or the SEC or the Big 12, it’s just not,” Bowlsby said. “They have some big games, but they don’t have an Iowa State who can beat a second-ranked Oklahoma. The depth of those [Group of 5] leagues and the quality at the top, getting ready for one game against Auburn, that’s a lot different than playing Auburn every week… . .

    “TCU, if TCU and UCF played 10 times, I defy anyone to convince me that UCF would win the majority of the games. Of course, I’ve only been looking at it for 35 years.”

    Bowlsby is correct about the difference in depth of the Power 5 leagues. Nobody would argue that point. But the tone and arrogance directed toward UCF’s 2017 season underscores the problem of a non-inclusive system.

    Without an eight-team playoff, the UCFs of the world will never be given a chance at the big prize. And even with eight slots, it’s probably a long shot at best that one of them gets in.

    So here’s what college football should do to give the little guy a chance to dream big, the same way Butler, VCU and Xavier can realistically challenge the basketball bluebloods during March Madness.

    Expand to eight teams, giving each Power 5 league champion an automatic bid and reserve the other three at-large spots for the highest-ranked teams. However, as a caveat, the highest ranked Group of 5 team gets one of those at-large spots providing it has no losses to a Group of 5 opponent and is ranked in the CFP top 15.

    Since the top Power 5 teams will rarely schedule a UCF, Boise State, Houston or any well-established program in the Group of 5, this provision means any non-Power 5 school invited to an 8-team CFP would have to put together a perfect season and likely dominate all of its opponents.

    Obviously, fans of the No. 8-ranked Power 5 school who gets left out of the CFP to accommodate a lower-ranked Group of 5 team will scream bloody murder about being excluded. Well, so what? Every year, Power 5 basketball schools are excluded from the NCAA tournament because champions of about 20 lesser-caliber, one-bid leagues earn an automatic bid.

    Yet you don’t hear anyone complaining about that process because, in hoops, Cinderella stories blossom every year. Somebody not deemed worthy to compete with the big boys makes a run to the Sweet 16 and everybody embraces it.

    Sure, it’s easier to accommodate the little guy in a 68-team NCAA tournament instead of an eight-team football playoff. But what UCF showed the country — even with the awkward process of lame-duck coach Scott Frost (now coaching at Nebraska) still guiding the Knights against Auburn – is there are exceptions to conventional football thinking about which league has a legitimate national contender.

    And to narrow-minded gatekeepers like Bowlsby who insist otherwise, the obvious response is this: How do you know until you play the game? Or how do you know until a Power 5 team agrees to even schedule a home-and-home with the UCFs?

    Please spare me the idiotic, naïve argument that Auburn didn’t play hard or want to win as badly as the Knights. The Tigers and quarterback Jarrett Stidham rallied in the third quarter to take a 20-13 lead, and celebrated accordingly.

    There’s been a mixed reaction to UCF’s decision to declaring itself the “national champion,” an idea that has been ridiculed by some on social media. But it’s no more ridiculous than the Knights being ostracized by college football elitists for daring to question a system that practices blatant discrimination.

    “If we had lost to Auburn, they would have said, ‘Oh, [UCF] had a nice season, but they couldn’t play with the SEC,’ “ Anderson said. “Now that we’ve basically slayed the dragon, it showed we can play with anyone. And if enough fans try to push the issue to get in people’s ear, sooner or later, maybe the 8-team playoff will happen.”

    More importantly, maybe the next perfect UCF team that turns college football on its ear will get a seat at the CFP table.

    Gene.frenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540


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    While there’s no such thing as a gimme putt in the NFL playoffs, Sunday’s AFC wild-card game against the Buffalo Bills is about as convenient a matchup as possible for the Jaguars.

    Besides ankle-impaired running back LeSean McCoy, the Bills’ offense poses a minimal threat to the Jaguars’ dominant defense. Buffalo has the 29th-ranked run defense, so running back Leonard Fournette should get loose at some point for double-digit yard runs that have been scarce the past two months.

    The best avenue for the Bills to pull off an upset, and maybe their only path, is to get turnovers. Here’s why head coach Doug Marrone insists turnover margin is the most important playoff stat: the Jaguars are plus-17 (25-8) in their 10 wins and minus-7 (8-15) in six losses. They have 10 combined turnovers in their last three defeats.

    That means Blake Bortles’ top priority in his first playoff game is to avoid forcing throws or getting careless. Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett can help his quarterback by allowing him to pass more on first down instead of waiting for third-and long situations.

    With potentially the loudest home crowd in two decades to support them, the Jaguars have a sizable advantage and should avoid letting this game come down to the last five minutes. It’s hard to imagine a defense featuring Calais Campbell, Telvin Smith, Jalen Ramsey and Tashaun Gipson not putting a vise grip on the Bills.

    The Jaguars are the better team in almost every respect and that should reflect in the final score. Jaguars 26, Bills 10… .

    An ESPN story chronicling a growing rift among the New England Patriots’ holy trinity of owner Robert Kraft, coach Bill Belichick and Tom Brady will stalk them throughout the playoffs. If the story is accurate and becomes the Pats’ demise, the Jaguars could be a huge beneficiary… .

    Cool scene from the UCF-Auburn game: Knights’ center Jordan Johnson, after teammate Otis Anderson caught a TD pass, celebrated by jumping up and slapping Auburn’s Javaris Davis on the helmet. The strange moment created an Internet stir until folks learned Johnson and Davis were high school teammates at Ed White… .

    When North Florida and Jacksonville University resume their annual basketball rivalry Saturday at UNF Arena, the pressure will be ratcheted up on JU coach Tony Jasick. The Ospreys have beaten JU nine consecutive times, including seven on Jasick’s watch. Nothing hurts job security for Jasick or UNF coach Matthew Driscoll, who lost his first five games to JU, more than losing consistently to a crosstown rival… .

    Pigskin forecast: Kansas City Chiefs over Tennessee Titans by 3 (Alex Smith improvisations); L.A. Rams over Atlanta Falcons by 7 (MVP chants); New Orleans Saints over Carolina Panthers by 1 (old gunslinger); Alabama over Georgia by 5 (teacher-student boundaries). Last week: 1 right, 4 Jon Gruden lovefests.

    Gene.frenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540


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    The old man on the Jaguars’ defense, who wondered during last offseason whether he’d even stay employed in Jacksonville, might be the most heartwarming story of this breakthrough playoff year.

    Paul Posluszny was genuinely afraid he might be a goner once the 2016 season ended, possibly another casualty of either the salary cap or the cold reality that the NFL is a young man’s game.

    But the 33-year-old middle linebacker, more so than a lot of aging players given a reduced role, has built up cachet in the locker room that the Jaguars are clearly reluctant to part with. Posluszny’s reputation as the consummate pro — manifesting itself in the way he handled no longer being an every-down linebacker and remaining a constant mentor for Myles Jack and Telvin Smith — carries a lot of weight with teammates and coaches.

    “I understand it’s a business and the front office is going to do what they’re going to do,” said defensive tackle Calais Campbell. “But a guy like Poz is definitely going to make this locker room better. I hope we continue to play football with him a few more years.”

    Quarterback Blake Bortles went over the top in his assessment about Posluszny’s impact, saying: “If you could create or sculpt a football player out of a piece of marble, it would be Paul Posluszny. The way that dude is built, and I think his personality and his character is incredible.

    “Since I’ve been here, he’s been a guy that when he’s playing, you know he’s going to go out there and get double-digit tackles, give absolutely [everything] he can… . I don’t think there’s a whole lot of times that you’ve seen guys that have played in the league for as long as he has, playing on special teams and all that stuff. He truly is a team-first guy. It’s impressive to watch and it rubs off on everyone around him.”

    Smith and Jack were especially concerned about losing Posluszny because they had formed a tight bond. The 11-year veteran is their go-to teammate whenever they have questions on game plan details and other issues.

    Defensive coordinator Todd Wash recognizes Posluszny’s value beyond game day. That’s why once the Jaguars hired Tom Coughlin as front-office czar and Doug Marrone as head coach last January, he lobbied hard to keep Posluszny through the last year of his contract, which paid $6,166,668 in 2017.

    “That is a very tight-knit group, those three [linebackers],” Wash said. “You constantly see them together studying tape. Poz is the granddaddy of all of them. It’s important you have good camaraderie and just the type of leadership and work ethic that Poz brings to the table every day. It’s unmatched. We’ve been around some very good players in our time, but what he does every day is amazing. He’s like a machine.”

    The respect Posluszny commands in the organization explains why teammates are ecstatic for him getting to play in his first playoff game Sunday against his old team, the Buffalo Bills, in an AFC wild-card matchup at EverBank Field. After 10 consecutive losing seasons in the NFL, including 100 games in a Jaguars’ uniform, Posluszny finally gets to reap the benefits of being on a team with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations.

    He’s received a ton of congratulatory messages from Bills’ fans, including a couple friends who were weekly offseason partners with him at a shooting range in Buffalo. Despite Posluszny’s even-keeled disposition, it’s hard for him to contain his excitement over this playoff opportunity.

    “It’s going to be exciting for all of us, the fans, the players,” Posluszny said. “It’s great to be part of a team that’s won an AFC South championship. I feel very fortunate to be here when this happened.”

    Though he’s primarily a two-down linebacker, Posluszny remains an important cog on the NFL’s most disruptive defense. With the Bills being a run-heavy offense, the two-time Bednarik Award winner (best defensive player in the nation) from Penn State could see more playing time than the 46 percent of snaps (479 of 1,040) he received in base defense packages this season, a significant drop from 1,057 snaps played in 2016.

    Jack, the Jaguars’ youngest defensive player at 22, appreciates Posluszny’s work ethic as much as anyone because he sees it up close every day.

    “Just knowing Poz the last two years, he treats every day like it’s the last,” Jack said. “For it to be the playoffs and finally make it, I know he’s going to put in that much more effort into it, that much more detail and time. It’s kind of cool because it forces me to match his intensity.”

    While Posluszny is focused solely on his game-day assignments and helping the Jaguars advance in the playoffs, he’s well aware there’s no guarantee of his return next season. With his contract expiring and uncertain if the Jaguars will re-sign him, Posluszny, a married father of two young daughters, cringes at the thought of continuing his NFL career elsewhere.

    “I don’t want to play football for anybody else,” Posluszny said. “I want to be a Jaguar forever. That would be a hard decision if Jacksonville says, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ I love the game so much and I want to keep playing.

    “Do I go to, say, San Francisco for a year? That’d be a difficult decision. I like it here. It changes things [to play for another team]. Do I really want to pick my family up and move? Or commute [while his family stays behind]? I don’t want it to come to that.”

    It could well come down to Posluszny’s willingness to take a massive pay cut, down to the veteran minimum of $1.015 million, to remain in black and teal. Or the Jaguars could draft a linebacker and move on, but you can bet Poz will have his share of lobbyists wanting him to stick around.

    “Obviously, that’s up to Tom [Coughlin] and Dave [Caldwell, the GM] and that kind of stuff,” Wash said. “It’s very important that he’s part of our team. You can’t ask for a better fit.”

    The Jaguars are a young, ascending team built for future success. At the right price, why wouldn’t they want Posluszny along for the ride?

    Gene.frenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540


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    Blake Bortles has taken as much criticism as most NFL quarterbacks this season who didn’t lead their team to a division title, let alone one winning a playoff game in his first postseason start.

    While it seems inappropriate on this historic occasion to pile on — coming after a glorious Jaguars’ day that saw a raucous crowd of 69,442 celebrating Sunday’s 10-3 AFC wild-card win over the Buffalo Bills – the cold, harsh truth is this playoff run won’t last beyond next week without Bortles and this offense finding a much higher gear.

    Somebody asked the fourth-year quarterback in his postgame news conference about the perfect 13-0 season his alma mater, UCF, had just pulled off and part of Bortles’ response was this: “That offense was electric and fun to watch.”

    In other words, the antithesis of the Jaguars’ unimaginative and dull offense it displayed against Buffalo. Doug Marrone’s team only survived because of a ferocious, stout defense and something called, wait for it, “Green Right Wing, Sell It 32, Split Offense, Z-pop.”

    That’s the name of the bold fourth-and-goal play resulting in the game’s only touchdown, a 1-yard pass to tight end Ben Koyack in the third quarter of a 3-3 game. With Buffalo selling out to stop the run, Koyack got off the line of scrimmage and behind outside linebacker Ramon Huber to cradle the ball at the back of the end zone.

    “It’s a 1-on-1 play,” said Koyack. “When I turned, I was just hoping the ball wasn’t already in my face, so I actually had time to get my hands on it.”

    That culminated a 15-play, 84-yard drive, which represented one of the few times all day the Jaguars’ offense was worth watching. Too many passes, especially short ones, were way off target and the only receiver who caught a ball was Dede Westbrook.

    “Never outside of that one [touchdown] drive we had, we kind of weren’t ever in a groove, in a zone or feeling it,” said Bortles.

    The first clue it was going to be a grind-it-out day for the Jaguars came after nickel back Aaron Colvin snared his first career interception at the Buffalo 35 early in the second quarter. In the playoffs, turnovers are almost always a killer, but the Bortles-led offense went backwards three yards and was forced to punt.

    “I thought that was a critical thing that would come back and haunt us during the game,” Marrone said.

    It almost did. That’s because about the only time Bortles (12 of 23, 87 yards passing) seemed remotely comfortable was when he used his legs to churn out a career-high 88 yards rushing, both factors on the Jaguars’ lone scoring drives.

    “I’m glad he was able to get some, I tell you that much,” said guard A.J. Cann. “He was able to scramble when he needed. He took a chance and made some positive plays. He didn’t get rattled, didn’t get frustrated.”

    When he wasn’t scrambling to make yards, Bortles spent the rest of the game in a massive struggle to move the chains and, almost miraculously, avoid a costly turnover. Bortles needed some dumb luck to sidestep several disasters. He fumbled one shotgun snap at his own 8, picked it up and ran 26 yards on 2nd-and-15.

    “Hey, man, get it however you can get it,” tight end Marcedes Lewis said of the Jaguars’ offensive shortcomings. “It’s not always pretty.”

    Two other times, Bortles got away with frighteningly bad decisions. As cornerback Leonard Johnson was about to get a fourth-quarter sack, he foolishly attempted a lateral and running back Leonard Fournette barely fell on the fumble at the Jaguars’ 17. In the second quarter, a pass came out of Buffalo cornerback Tre’Davious White’s hands only because receiver Dede Westbrook was smart enough to play defense, jarring the ball loose at the last second.

    It’s a credit to Bortles’ toughness that he managed to do just enough to win the game. He likened it to a pitcher who somehow wins a baseball game without his fast ball or curveball working. “You have to find another pitch to be able to land and be successful and get guys out,” said Bortles.

    To be fair, the Jaguars’ moribund offense the last three weeks certainly isn’t entirely his fault. The offensive line isn’t giving Fournette (21 carries, 57 yards) many running creases, which only adds to the quarterback’s burden. And some painfully conservative play-calling by Nathaniel Hackett, especially in the first half, didn’t do No. 5 any favors against the Bills.

    “It shows who Blake is,” said receiver Allen Hurns. “No matter what happens, he finds a way. No matter what happens during the course of a game, he has that belief that he can go down and lead us on any given drive. He wasn’t able to get it done in the passing game, but that’s on all of us. He made a lot of plays with his legs to continue drives.”

    But the Jaguars aren’t counting on their 2014 first-round draft pick to facilitate a deep playoff run by turning into a scrambling machine. They’re not opting to possibly give Bortles a $19 million option in 2018 to have more rushing yards than passing yards.

    This Jekyll-and-Hyde offense came perilously close to wasting another lights-out performance by Todd Wash’s defense, which again validated that four Pro Bowl recipients was probably not enough.

    “I’m really excited about [winning] the game, but we never really got into a rhythm and we weren’t able to get anything on third downs, so I’d be a fool to sit here and say I’m not concerned,” Marrone said. “If you want to continue to keep playing [in the postseason], you are going to have to do a better job.”

    When the weekend’s three other wild-card winners averaged 26.3 points per game — and the next AFC hurdles for the Jaguars happen to be juggernaut offenses in the Pittsburgh Steelers, then likely the New England Patriots – you have to wonder if this historic playoff win might be this team’s postseason limit.

    Or the Jaguars can simply go up to Pittsburgh, intercept Ben Roethlisberger five times again, and win on the Steelers’ hallowed ground a second time in the same season (just like it did in 2007).

    The Jaguars can’t count on that. Bortles must turn up his game a few notches, or this magical season will be over.

    Gene.frenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540


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    A decade ago, Marcedes Lewis says he was “just too young to take it all in” when the Jaguars made history by going to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Heinz Field in 2007 and winning twice, including a 31-29 AFC wild-card victory.

    But one thing that always stuck with the Jaguars’ 12-year tight end was Steeler fans waving their yellow-and-black “Terrible Towel.” It brought back memories Sunday for Lewis when a hyper EverBank Field sellout crowd of 69,442 furiously waved white towels — provided through the financial assistance of four team sponsors – that were distributed when fans entered the stadium. The players had no idea about the sea of towel-wavers until they walked out on the field prior to the Jaguars’ 10-3 AFC wild-card win over the Buffalo Bills, the first home playoff game since 1999.

    “It was like 2007 [in Pittsburgh], but our own version of it,” said Lewis.

    When defensive end Dante Fowler emerged from the tunnel and eyeballed the raucous environment, then heard the volume level for the players, he immediately thought of his college days at Florida.

    “It took me right back to the Swamp, took me back to my natural habitat for big games,” said Fowler. “It raises the competitive nature out of you, to give a serious ball-out and put it on for the city of Jacksonville.I knew it might be like that when they took those tarps off [3,501 seats to accommodate more fans]. To see that, and seeing everybody have a great time, was just beautiful. That’s how we want the culture to be around here from now on.”

    So as the Jaguars head back to Heinz Field for Sunday’s divisional round game against Pittsburgh, there’s a growing sentiment the franchise’s overdue breakthrough season will elevate the intensity of a true homefield advantage at EverBank in the coming years.

    “The bar has now been raised by the fans, which I thought was cool, really awesome,” quarterback Blake Bortles said of Sunday’s game-day atmosphere.

    Players and coach Doug Marrone, who came up with the gesture to give the game ball from the Bills’ victory to the fans for display at City Hall, all felt the heightened sense of enthusiasm.

    “It was a great atmosphere,” said cornerback A.J. Bouye. “Even when I was in Houston [with the Texans], I had never seen it like that. It was just amazing.”

    “The crowd was huge and electrifying,” added Calais Campbell. “They brought energy, and we fed off that. When it was third down and we’re on defense, this place was crazy.”

    In the locker room Monday, the consensus was the playoff environment provided an energy boost that allowed the Jaguars to persevere in a tight game, especially with their defense on the field for a prolonged time in the first half.

    Marrone also wondered how much stamina the Jaguars would have to close out the game, saying: “I think that the energy that they get from themselves, the energy they get from the crowd helped them with that. I don’t know that for a fact, but that’s just how I feel.”

    Everybody thought an AFC wild-card game would elevate the EverBank atmosphere after an 18-year playoff absence, but players were pleasantly surprised to the degree it lifted them up.

    “We knew the excitement in the air was going to be great,” said defensive tackle Abry Jones. “I didn’t know it was going to be like that with the towels. You could really feel the stadium move. There was no silence, no booing [against the Jaguars]. We’re just never going to flat out quit. But when you lose energy in the stadium, you lose a little energy in yourself. It was great, especially how tight the game was, for the energy to be continued and to keep going on. That meant a lot to us.

    “I think fans are just happy we’re starting to reach expectations. We had the bad years, and now we’re really turning it around. If this is the year that starts where we consistently go to the playoffs and bring the fan base with us, then let’s get it started.”

    No doubt, with a dynamic, young defense that figures to be elite for a good while, the Jaguars’ breakthrough season could be a launching pad to reignite the 1990s glory years and make a stronger fan connection. Team president Mark Lamping remains optimistic putting tarps on seats will soon be a thing of the past.

    “Our stated goal for several years has been to get rid of all the tarps,” Lamping said via text message. “We have already eliminated most of the tarps and are left with just two sets on the westside upper deck. Getting rid of these remaining tarps is simply a function of our sales. With the quality of our 2018 home schedule and the excitement around the team performance, [this] could be the year we are finally tarp-free.”

    Tarp-free? Maybe, but not necessarily towel-free. If the Jaguars knock off Pittsburgh and their AFC South rival Tennessee Titans upset the New England Patriots, that means Jacksonville hosts the AFC championship next week and the team wants those towels back in full force.

    You can probably ‘Bank on this much: The Jaguars’ homefield advantage is going to be amped up for the foreseeable future.

    Gene.frenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540


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    Anyone debating who might be the greatest coach in college football history should cease and desist. It’s now a mic drop for Nick Saban.

    With all due respect to the houndstooth-hat legend, Paul “Bear” Bryant, and the six national titles he won roaming the Alabama sideline, Saban has surpassed them all for the No. 1 mantle.

    A strong argument could be made for a minimum half-dozen coaches to be placed on a college football Mount Rushmore, but only one belongs at the top and it’s Saban until further notice. What he pulled off Monday night for his sixth national championship (five with the Crimson Tide), a thrilling 26-23 overtime win over Georgia, might go down as the greatest halftime coaching adjustment in football lore.

    No matter how badly Jalen Hurts struggled in the first half as the Bulldogs seized a 13-0 lead, it still takes extraordinary guts to bench a quarterback with a 25-2 career record as a starter, especially for a freshman who had never seen anything but mop-up duty. Maybe it’s easier for someone with Saban’s accomplished resume to do it, but inserting untested Tua Tagavailoa to rescue ‘Bama on the biggest stage still goes down as one of the boldest coaching moves in any sport.

    One bad half — and there’s no doubt Hurts failing to be remotely effective passing the ball against Georgia was an eyesore — doesn’t always compel a coach to go to the bullpen. Most would probably have given the veteran Hurts another series or two before even thinking about turning to a totally inexperienced backup, if at all. But Saban didn’t like the look of ‘Bama generating a meager 94 total yards on 24 plays with Hurts, so he made the biggest gamble of his career.

    Point being, Saban didn’t have to make that move. Let’s flip the script around and put Saban’s ex-assistant on the other sideline, Georgia boss Kirby Smart, in the same situation. If freshman Jake Fromm had struggled as badly as Hurts in the first half and the Bulldogs trailed 13-0, would Smart have yanked Fromm and inserted a much more proven backup in former starter Jacob Eason?

    Maybe he does, or maybe the coach gets gun-shy about making the switch at halftime because he thinks Fromm will snap out of a funk. We’ll never know. The point is Saban mustered up the courage — with possibly some prodding from his offensive assistants — to pull the trigger and Tagovailoa exceeded beyond wildest expectations.

    I don’t care how good this Hawaii native, who attended the same Honolulu-St. Louis High School as Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota, looked throwing the ball during blowout wins over Mercer, Ole Miss and Tennessee. It still takes some chutzpah for a coach to bench the 2016 SEC Player of the Year in the highest-stakes game for someone who had thrown just 53 career passes.

    But it was apparent from the time Tagovailoa entered the game, no moment was too big for him. He kept the Tide’s first touchdown drive alive with an incredible escape to avoid a sack, somehow reversing field to convert a third-and-7.

    With his team still trailing 20-13 late in the fourth quarter, and facing fourth-and-3 at the Georgia 7, he somehow threaded a pass through all kinds of end-zone traffic to Calvin Ridley to tie the game. In overtime, after ‘Bama missed a game-winning field at the end of regulation, was down 23-20 and Tagavailoa took a horrific 16-yard sack, he then made a throw for the ages.

    Against two-deep coverage, Tagovailoa looked right before firing a perfect pass in stride to DeVonta Smith down the left sideline for a 41-yard TD to trigger a mad celebration. Granted, it was terrible coverage by Georgia safety Dominick Sanders. But in that moment, Tagovailoa made a fantastic throw and validated Saban’s decision to put a game of so much magnitude in the hands of a true freshman.

    You could tell from the way Saban reacted and sounded in the postgame, this was the most satisfying of all his national championships. After absorbing the last-second gut punch delivered by Clemson QB DeShaun Watson in last year’s title game, Saban stole his sixth ring and it all started with the halftime call to bench Hurts.

    This stunning finish, particularly how it unfolded, ends any discussion about Saban’s place in the college football coaching pantheon. With five titles in a nine-year span at Alabama, plus another crown won at LSU, he’s now the G.O.A.T. and the Bear is No. 2. Then put whoever you want next in line among Frank Leahy, Joe Paterno, Bobby Bowden, Bud Wilkinson, Tom Osborne, etc.

    The numbers don’t look much different between the two ‘Bama giants. Bryant coached 38 years at four schools, compiling a .780 win percentage (323-85-17). Saban has coached 22 years at four schools, compiling a .781 win percentage (223-62-1).

    But remember, Saban had to win his six national championships in a much tougher era than Bryant, who captured three in the 1960s when there were no scholarship limitations and his ’73 title was split among the major wire services with Notre Dame. For most of Bryant’s time in Tuscaloosa, ‘Bama and its heavily funded program could stash good players away from the competition. Saban also competes in a deeper SEC where more schools have the resources to field consistent title contenders.

    Besides, it’s not like the 66-year-old Saban is done yet. With his vitality and recruiting acumen, he might well raise two or three more trophies. He has set the bar so high that nobody in his profession may ever threaten his place as college football’s all-time best coach.

    In benching Hurts for Tagovailoa on the biggest stage and winning another championship, Saban raised the benchmark for coaching greatness to a whole new level.

    Gene.frenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540


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    It’s almost as if what the Jaguars’ defense did to Ben Roethlisberger three months ago at Heinz Field never happened, like the five-interception day and stunning 30-9 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers was fake news.

    The oddsmakers are certainly brushing it aside, making the Jaguars a touchdown-plus underdog for Sunday’s AFC divisional playoff rematch. Steelers safety Mike Mitchell — the guy who accepted running back Leonard Fournette’s invitation for a collision in the last meeting and got trucked to the ground — publicly said last week that Pittsburgh was “going to play the [New England] Patriots again” in the AFC Championship game.

    Maybe he was just following the lead of head coach Mike Tomlin, who in late November said this to NBC’s Tony Dungy about Pittsburgh’s mid-December matchup with the Patriots: “I’m going to embrace the elephant in the room. There’s going to be fireworks. But it’s probably going to be part one… . It’s going to determine the location of the second one [in the playoffs]. You know?”

    Yes, coach, we get where you went there. You’re like much of America or the national media anticipating a Patriots-Steelers rematch, and I believe that only adds an edge for a Jaguars’ team many still take for granted.

    “I want [Pittsburgh] to look at the Patriots, focus on that [possible future] matchup, watch no film on the Jaguars,” said Jaguars linebacker Myles Jack. “I think [the Steelers] have more to prove than we do. They’re coming for revenge, we’re just coming in and trying to win a game. If they’re thinking about the Patriots, that’s good.”

    Truthfully, the Steelers have been careful this week not to play the Patriots card. They’ve avoided providing the Jaguars with any more bulletin-board fodder, though Roethlisberger did tell a Pittsburgh radio station last week how much he looked forward to possibly playing the Jaguars to show that 5-pick game “wasn’t me.”

    “I’m sure a guy like Ben wants an opportunity to redeem himself,” said Jaguars safety Tashaun Gipson.

    “He felt like that (loss to the Jaguars) was very uncharacteristic of himself. I’m happy he’s looking forward to that opportunity because that means more opportunities for us [as a defense].”

    Given the stakes of the winner advancing to the AFC title game, the motivation level should be equal for both sides. But for all of the Steelers’ storied history (six Super Bowl crowns) and Roethlisberger’s edge in playoff experience (13-7 record) over quarterback Blake Bortles, I also think this matchup, from a mental standpoint, does play in the Jaguars’ favor.

    Historically, the Jaguars have never been overmatched playing in Pittsburgh since their first two years of existence. They’re 6-6 overall on the Steelers’ home turf, and 3-1 at Heinz Field against Roethlisberger. New England is the only other AFC team with a winning record (4-2) against Big Ben in his own house.

    Some might argue what happened in past matchups is a minimal factor, but that’s not entirely true. You think it doesn’t help the Jaguars’ mindset that they went to Pittsburgh in October and their defense dominated the game? It doesn’t mean Sunday’s meeting will play out the same way. However, success on the road against a team of the Steelers’ pedigree most definitely counts for something, just as the Jaguars’ 0-7 record against Patriots quarterback Tom Brady also can’t be discounted. History always matters to some degree.

    “It’s knowing we can go there and beat them,” said Jaguars safety Barry Church. “We can play with anybody in this league. This week won’t be any different. We just got to let our pads do the talking, not our mouth.”

    When asked if he thought the lopsided nature of Jacksonville’s win over Pittsburgh meant the Jaguars were in the Steelers’ heads, defensive tackle Malik Jackson replied: “Oh, we definitely are. I see that. They’ve been thinking about us for two weeks. We’re in there.”

    Nobody disputes the circumstances for both teams are different than on October 8. The Steelers’ offense goes a lot more through Roethlisberger now than running back Le’Veon Bell. And rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster is a bigger asset for an explosive receiver corps with Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant, helping the Steelers average 27.9 points per game since losing to the Jaguars.

    But don’t forget other changes clearly favor the Jaguars, starting with Pittsburgh missing its best defensive player in linebacker Ryan Shazier, who suffered a horrific spinal cord injury in December. The Jaguars will have the services of center Brandon Linder (inactive for last game), plus nose tackle Marcell Dareus (acquired in a trade with Buffalo) and a more dependable placekicker in Josh Lambo (signed at midseason).

    So, go ahead, pencil in a Steelers-Patriots rematch in next week’s AFC Championship at your own risk. The 2017 Jaguars thrive on being dismissed.

    Gene.frenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540


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    Two things are often forgotten about the Jaguars’ 30-9 victory in October over the Pittsburgh Steelers: they trailed 9-7 midway through the third quarter, plus how well the defense held up before Telvin Smith and Barry Church flipped the momentum with interception returns for touchdowns on back-to-back possessions.

    When these teams stage a rematch Sunday at Heinz Field in the AFC divisional playoff, it’s unlikely the Jaguars’ ball-hawking defense will repeat intercepting Ben Roethlisberger five times, but Doug Marrone’s team will prevail again due to its proficiency in the red zone.

    The defense set a tone the first time by holding Pittsburgh to field goals after it had first downs at the Jacksonville 13, 17 and 5-yard lines. The Steelers gained a combined six yards in nine plays and never got in the end zone, which has been a problem area all season.

    On both sides of the ball, there’s a substantial red-zone gap. The Steelers’ offense is 22nd in the NFL in red-zone TD percentage (50.8), compared to 64 percent (2nd) for the Jaguars. Defensively, Pittsburgh is a shaky 61.5 percent (28th) and Jacksonville is 39.3 percent (2nd).

    However, those numbers won’t mean much for the Jaguars if they lose the turnover battle. Given the explosiveness of Pittsburgh’s offense, it’s imperative the Jaguars are on the plus-side in turnover margin. If quarterback Blake Bortles has at least two turnovers, that may be too big a burden for Todd Wash’s defense to overcome.

    Look for the Jaguars, within reason, to remove the shackles from Bortles that reduced the offense to a vanilla attack in last week’s wild-card win against the Buffalo Bills. In a tighter rematch, the road team pulls off another upset. Jaguars 23, Steelers 20… .

    Best part of Jacksonville possibly going to New England for the AFC title game: seeing how the defense schemes against Patriots’ TE Rob Gronkowski, the most valuable non-quarterback left in the playoffs… .

    Good to see former Jaguars’ receivers coach Jerry Sullivan, 74, back on the sidelines at LSU. Sullivan leaned heavily toward retiring when he left the Jaguars, but coaching is too much in his blood… .

    How many lunch tabs will Alabama kicker Andy Pappanastos, who missed a game-winning field goal at the end of regulation against Georgia, have to pick up for QB Tua Tagovailoa for rescuing him from a lifetime of reliving a nightmare? …

    Stealing a win in basketball should now be known as a “Cheeze.” Florida guard Chris Chiozza deserves that much for his game-winning, buzzer-beating acts of grand theft against Wisconsin last year and Missouri last week… .

    Pigskin forecast: New England Patriots over Tennessee Titans by 7 (armor cracks); Atlanta Falcons over Philadelphia Eagles by 1 (untimely QB injury); Minnesota Vikings over New Orleans Saints by 1 (monster homefield advantage). Last week: 3 right, 2 Georgia safety coverage angles.

    Gene.frenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540


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    More often than not, one of Jalen Ramsey’s least favorite activities is to stand in front of a media throng at his locker and answer even the most routine questions.

    One-on-one, he can be very engaging, but the Jaguars’ All-Pro cornerback tends to treat a group inquisition like he’s about to undergo root canal.

    That explains why when asked how much the reputation of the Jaguars’ standout defense would be elevated if they beat the Steelers at Heinz Field a second time Sunday in the AFC divisional playoff, Ramsey didn’t offer much insight, saying: “Uh, we would go to the AFC championship game, that would be dope.”

    What’s dope, at least judging by a 17-game sample size, is the 2017 Jaguars’ defense potentially tracking toward being mentioned in the same breath with some of the NFL’s legendary units – the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, the 2015 Denver Broncos, the “Legion of Boom” 2013 Seattle Seahawks, and yes, maybe the gold-standard 1985 Chicago Bears.

    There’s just one major caveat holding up putting this young, bold, trash-talking unit on a pedestal with those memorable defenses. And Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, whose defense has been pretty formidable this season as well, nailed it by saying the truly elite defenses are usually associated with raising a Lombardi trophy.

    “I don’t think anybody can say that [about the Jaguars’ defense],” said Tomlin. “Those great ones wear the hardware. I think that’s what we’re all in this tournament chasing. I’ve been fortunate to be a part of maybe some of those [defenses] and, you know, that’s what made you one of those teams, wearing the hardware. I think we all in this tournament are aware of that and I’m sure Jacksonville is as well.”

    Tomlin wasn’t trying to diminish the Jaguars’ regular-season accomplishments as a quarterback-smothering, ball-hawking defense. Between their 55 sacks (second to Pittsburgh’s 56), 21 interceptions (second to Baltimore’s 22), 268 points allowed (second to Minnesota’s 252) and NFL-leading 137 points off takeaways, Todd Wash’s unit has earned a league-wide reputation as a beastly defense ready to take Jacksonville’s franchise into prominence.

    “I think we’ve built quite a rep just in where we’re at now,” said linebacker Telvin Smith. “Teams know what’s going on when we step on the field.”

    Still, those connected to this young defense, which only has one starter over 30 (Calais Campbell) and everyone else but nickel back Aaron Colvin under contract through at least 2018, acknowledge they have to go the distance in the postseason to be in the conversation with the all-time best units.

    “You make your legacy in the playoffs,” said safety Barry Church. “If we’re able to make a run in the playoffs, especially going against some of the game’s best quarterbacks and show dominance on our side of the ball, they got to put us up there with the great defenses.”

    The numbers suggest the Jaguars are trending in that direction. In at least two pertinent statistics associated with great defense, average total yards (286.1) and points (16.8), the Jaguars are slightly behind all of those Super Bowl-winning teams mentioned except the 2015 Broncos.

    But that Denver defense, which included current Jaguars’ defensive tackle Malik Jackson, enhanced its reputation greatly by allowing just 44 total points in three playoff games against quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger (Pittsburgh), Tom Brady (New England Patriots) and Cam Newton (Carolina Panthers).

    “You guys ask me about the comparison to the Broncos [defense],” Jackson said. “Well, I can’t tell you because we haven’t finished the season. If you don’t hoist up that hardware, it doesn’t matter if you’re a top-5 defense if you’re not doing good enough in January. You can’t say you’re the best defense without carrying your team to the Super Bowl.”

    For now, the Jaguars are building a reputation for stinginess. They already had seven games of holding an opponent to single-digit points, then followed up last week with a 10-3 AFC wild-card win over the Buffalo Bills.

    It’s hard for opposing quarterbacks to look at tape and not think this is the NFL’s most scary unit. Four down linemen – Campbell, Jackson, Yannick Ngakoue and Dante Fowler – have at least eight sacks, only the second team in history to accomplish that feat. The starting secondary has combined for 18 interceptions, led by Pro Bowl cornerback A.J. Bouye with six. If that’s not enough, Myles Jack and Smith are among the fastest sideline-to-sideline linebackers in the league.

    As good as this Jaguars’ defense is now, the potential for future dominance is promising. The ’85 Bears had the longest window of defensive greatness because free agency wasn’t around to break up the roster. Due to their favorable salary cap circumstances, the Jaguars might have at least two more years for the defense to carry them, but that’s contingent on staying as healthy as they did in 2017.

    What isn’t up for debate is the opportunity awaiting them the remainder of this postseason. If the Jaguars take down Roethlisberger a second time, even without intercepting him a career-high five times like they did in October, then possibly go to Foxborough next week and knock off Brady’s Patriots, those are the kind of achievements that stand the test of time.

    “In the grand scheme of things, we’re building that legacy, but definitely focusing on the Steelers,” Jack said. “What we’ve done is remarkable and outstanding, but we’re not done yet. We’re going to continue getting better, try to fight for another week to show why we’re the best defense in the NFL.”

    And if the Jaguars hoist a Lombardi, either in three weeks or next three years, then this defense might well have a legitimate claim to stand alongside the greats.

    Gene.frenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540


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    PITTSBURGH | It’s not like the Jaguars didn’t try to forewarn the NFL and the rest of the country about the danger of taking this former league bottom-feeder for granted.

    Yet all year long, despite winning the AFC South title and slipping past the Buffalo Bills last week for their first playoff victory in a decade, doubts persisted about the Jaguars and most especially beleaguered quarterback Blake Bortles.

    Well, America, do you believe now? Or maybe you can just accept this pointed message from defensive tackle Malik Jackson: “We’ve transcended into a new team. This isn’t your uncle’s Jacksonville Jaguars and they’re not your granddad’s Pittsburgh Steelers.”

    Really, the scoreboard at Heinz Field from Sunday’s AFC divisional playoff shootout said it all: Jaguars 45, Steelers 42.

    The eye-opening fashion in which a Bortles-led Jaguars’ offense throttled the Steelers in their own house should be enough to turn all those mouthy Bortles critics, many of them opposing players, and Jaguars’ skeptics into crickets.

    If not, what’s it going to take to silence them? Taking down Tom Brady and the mighty Patriots in Sunday’s AFC Championship game at Gillette Stadium? Hey, don’t put it past these upstart Jags to do that, too.

    A few of us (not mentioning names, we know who we are) thought Doug Marrone’s team could pull off a second victory over the Steelers in Pittsburgh, but nobody in their right mind imagined it coming in this fashion.


    SLIDESHOWS

    Scenes from Jaguars’ upset win in Pittsburgh

    Jaguars, fans celebrate win over Pittsburgh

    Scenes from Jaguars-Steelers watch party at Wicked Barley

    Top 5 moments from Sunday's Jaguars win over Pittsburgh


    On a day where Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throws five touchdown passes and laterals to Le’Veon Bell to get another score, a Joe-Montana-cool Bortles still manages to outduel a future Hall of Famer and secure the biggest redemption victory of his life.

    “At the end of the day, you’re either going to love us or hate us,” said guard A.J. Cann. “Same with Blake, either love him or hate him, but we damn sure love him on this team. We appreciate him for the man he is, and the player and confidence he has for battling each and every play.”

    So those days of Houston Texans pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney calling him “trash,” then Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas classifying him as a “sub-par” quarterback, and Tennessee Titans safety Kevin Byard saying his team needed to “make Brady look like Blake Bortles” to have a shot at beating the Patriots, all of that should cease and desist.

    Because whatever anyone thinks about No. 5, it’s hard for any piling on of Bortles to be taken seriously now with a 2-0 playoff record and leading the Jaguars to their greatest victory since the 30-27 upset of the Super Bowl-favored Denver Broncos in 1997 at Mile High Stadium.

    Yet when he stood victorious at the postgame podium, Bortles took his usual route of the high road. He declined the opportunity to verbally fire back at those who maligned him.

    “I really don’t care,” Bortles said. “I couldn’t care less what anyone in the world says about me. I enjoy going to work every day with those guys in that locker room and the coaching staff. I enjoy everything we do, and this is the type of thing that you dream of – to get opportunities to play in games like this. To be able to come here and do that against a team like Pittsburgh, it will never change for me.

    “I have no animosity against anyone who said anything [negative]… . There are a lot of guys home on the couch watching this. I’m sure they are wishing that they could play. I know in years past, I have been.”

    Then again, Bortles didn’t have to respond to his trash-talkers because his teammates gladly did it for him.

    “I’m super happy for him,” said receiver Marqise Lee. “A lot of people talking that stupid — and we got an opportunity to shove it in their face. He stepped up when we needed it.”

    Backup quarterback Chad Henne, one of the most reserved Jaguars in that locker room, couldn’t resist his own blowback, adding: “I couldn’t be more proud to be his teammate. Anybody who’s got anything to say [to Bortles], I mean, you might as well keep your mouth shut because you’re not playing anymore.”

    Bortles and the Jaguars flipped the script by ditching conservatism, letting Pittsburgh know they had every intention of getting in attack mode from the start. The Steelers’ defense was carved up for three touchdowns on the first four possessions. Later, a yellow-towel-waving crowd went eerily silent after Yannick Ngakoue’s strip-sack led to a 50-yard Telvin Smith TD fumble return for a 28-7 lead.

    While Roethlisberger spent the rest of the game denting the Jaguars’ No. 1-ranked pass defense for 462 yards, Bortles made sure to dim all hopes of a comeback by continuing to counter-punch everything Big Ben, receiver Antonio Brown and tight end Vance McDonald had in their arsenal.

    In one of the NFL’s most hostile environments, Bortles and the offense came to the defense’s rescue for a change. The Jaguars found the end zone on all five of their red-zone chances.

    Their last two TDs were set up by a 45-yard bomb to Keelan Cole and a checkdown swing pass to T.J. Yeldon, where Bortles went through four progressions before fooling the defense by turning to his left and finding the running back for a 40-yard pickup. Every time Roethlisberger threatened to put the Steelers back in contention, the quarterback many compared him to when he was drafted had an answer.

    “What better place and better stage to do it?” said tight end Marcedes Lewis. “There was something about that huddle and Blake’s presence. We were out there, it was just like, ‘Cool, let’s go do it again. They can’t stop us.’ ”

    Jackson, knowing the Jaguars picked up Bortles’ $19 million for 2018, vociferously stated the case for his employer to up the ante.

    “A lot of these quarterbacks are paid with no playoff games [on their resume],” said Jackson. “Blake’s a top-four quarterback in the league right now, so he better be paid like a top-four quarterback because he’s playing like one.”

    It’ll be up to head coach Doug Marrone to quickly bring the Jaguars down from this high, especially with the NFL’s all-time dynasty in the on-deck circle. But for now, the Jaguars also want to take in this glorious moment.

    With fans continuing the celebration Sunday night by greeting the team at EverBank upon their return, it left owner Shad Khan visibly moved and appreciative of the team’s long-awaited ascension, especially after Steelers’ owner Art Rooney congratulated him with a heartfelt handshake outside the team locker room.

    “I think it’s been everything we thought and more,” Khan said. “The city deserves it and the team deserves it, they worked hard. Obviously, we’ve had the leadership to take them where they are. So, everybody in Jacksonville, thanks for believing.”

    Yes, it turns out Steelers’ safety Mike Mitchell was right last week about forecasting a Pittsburgh-New England rematch. It’ll just take place sometime during the 2018 regular season at Heinz Field, not in the AFC Championship game.

    But you can bet Patriots coach Bill Belichick, the NFL king of all-business-all-the-time, and his laser-focused quarterback won’t be taking the Jaguars lightly once they break down the tape.

    As for the rest of America, it’s going to have to come to grips with the idea that a league doormat has risen to become the NFL bully nobody should want to mess with.

    Gene.frenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540


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    In case you haven’t noticed, Doug Marrone prefers flying under the radar. Some members of the Jaguars, especially on defense, are comfortable inciting trash-talk or vociferously responding when it’s directed at them, but their old-school head coach quietly stays in his no-distractions zone.

    Marrone has a lot in common with his boss, front office czar Tom Coughlin, especially when it comes to being disciplined, tough, and focused on winning without caring who gets the credit.

    Just don’t get the idea this New York pair – Coughlin from the upstate town of Waterloo and Marrone a Bronx native – are co-coaching the Jaguars. It’s a total myth that Coughlin, the Jaguars’ original head coach who later guided the New York Giants to a pair of Super Bowl titles, is micro-managing Marrone through the team’s most successful season since 1999.

    Just because Marrone was handpicked by Coughlin to be the Jaguars’ coach, he’s still his own boss on game day and in all matters leading the team into Sunday.

    “He’s been watching Coach Coughlin a long time and you can see how much he respects him,” defensive tackle Malik Jackson said of Marrone. “I think he’s trying to impress Coach Coughlin and he’s doing a helluva job.”

    Twenty games into his tenure, both as interim (two games in 2016) and permanent sideline boss, it’s evident the understated Marrone has been a bedrock in the Jaguars’ ascension from a 3-13 team into an AFC Championship Game participant.

    Though Coughlin has a much higher profile nationally and in the Jacksonville community, it’s Marrone – albeit with strong input from his 71-year-old boss — serving as the driving force with the players.

    “[Marrone] let us know from the first day it was about winning,” receiver Allen Hurns said. “That was the main emphasis. He’s a straight shooter. He wants what’s best for the team.”

    Now that the Jaguars have stunned the football world by advancing into Sunday’s AFC title game against the five-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, the spotlight will likely focus more on the job the low-key Marrone has done to elevate this franchise, even if he doesn’t care whether it shines on him or not.

    Besides, being an NFL head coach is such an all-consuming job, Marrone admits it’s difficult to have fun during the grind. Though he’s happy for the Jaguars fans riding this wave of excitement, he can’t bring himself to bask in the glow of being one win away from a Super Bowl.

    “That is my problem,” said Marrone. “I think when I look back I will say that it is fun. People that know me well will say, ‘Make sure you enjoy it.’ I sit there and go, ‘Pshh, yeah.’ How do you enjoy it? I don’t know. My mind right now is focused on digging into New England and seeing what is going on.”

    What has gone on the past 12 months is Marrone has quietly become maybe the NFL’s most underrated coach. Seriously, who would have thought during those August dog days — when some people thought quarterback Blake Bortles was on the verge of being released and the offensive line struggled mightily — the Jaguars would be the lone roadblock between Tom Brady and Bill Belichick reaching an eighth Super Bowl together.

    Marrone did a lot of pushing, especially through a brutal training camp. But he also changed up the locker room by not having lockers arranged by position group. He wanted players in all three phases to get to know each other, build a more team-wide bond.

    “That tough training camp just brought us all together,” said fifth-year tackle Abry Jones. “To me, guys were just tired of losing. They came in with the mindset that we were tired and we got a coach that intensified that mindset. [Marrone] led the way, we started running and never stopped.”

    Since training camp, the players appreciate how Marrone’s style and management skills allowed them to evolve into the NFL’s most improved team.

    “It’s very important for a leader to be consistent,” said punter Brad Nortman, who played on the Carolina Panthers’ 2015 Super Bowl runner-up team. “His message, his approach, his schedule, what he expects out of us, he’s very consistant and that goes a long way. He played the game himself, coached a long time. He sets the tone of a very physical, very disciplined, very smart football team. I think we’ve embodied that.”

    Marrone admits he’s grown as a coach from that bumpy two-year stint with the Buffalo Bills, where he struggled in his relationship with the media and owners Terry and Kim Pegula, so he exercised an opt-out clause in his contract to resign. He had to go back to being an offensive line coach last year with the Jaguars, then was elevated to interim head coach after the firing of Gus Bradley.

    Despite early skepticism on how the Jaguars’ operation would perform with the power structure of Coughlin, GM Dave Caldwell and Marrone, the results are undeniable. And the players feel strongly Marrone has been the key cog in that machine.

    “Coach Marrone is just methodical,” Jackson said. “He’s very New York street-ish, if that means anything. Just tough, gritty, grinds, doesn’t say much, but will [figuratively] punch you in the face and I think that radiates with how we play. He doesn’t really want the spotlight, but allows us to go out there and be who we want to be.”

    With Marrone’s steady influence, the Jaguars have exceeded expectations as much as any other NFL team. If the postseason were taken into consideration, he might be Coach of Year, an honor many believe will go to the Los Angeles Rams’ Sean McVay.

    None of that matters to Marrone. The no-fun coach is just happy to still be playing for a Vince Lombardi trophy.

    “You know what I enjoy?” Marrone said. “I enjoy competing on Sunday, just to see if we were right [in our preparation].”

    So far, he’s pushing a lot of right buttons.

    Gene.frenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540


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    The good news for the Jaguars going into Sunday’s AFC Championship Game is this: the present version of the New England Patriots might be one of the most eminently beatable teams of the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era.

    I’m not guaranteeing the 9-point underdog Jaguars will prevail, but it’s not the longest of longshots that they pull it off. This is very doable, providing the Jaguars play fundamentally sound, turnover-free football.

    Even with the NFL’s greatest coach-quarterback combination in NFL history running a typically efficient operation, these Super Bowl-favored Patriots are still vulnerable in some areas. They can be had, no matter what their 14-3 record indicates.

    I’m not suggesting the Patriots are overrated. It’s more that their roster looks less imposing than at most times during the present seven-year run of AFC title game appearances. A lot of that is attrition, which New England has masterfully overcome because a Belichick team is often better than the sum of its parts.

    The 2017 Pats are two wins away from a sixth Lombardi Trophy despite losing major pieces to injury in go-to receiver Julian Edelman and linebacker Dont’a Hightower, plus rookie third-round draft pick Derek Rivers. Significant contributors in tackle Marcus Cannon, cornerback Cyrus Jones, linebacker Shea McClellin, receiver Malcolm Mitchell and core special-teams player Nate Ebner missed all or most of the season.

    It’s a testament to the Patriots’ mental resolve that they’re back in a familiar place with all the roster upheaval and a 29th-ranked defense, though it stiffens up considerably in the red zone. But when you look at this Belichick team, there’s no aura of invincibility attached to them. Remember, they did lose three games, narrowly beat the DeShaun Watson-led Houston Texans 36-33 at home, and needed an overturned touchdown call last month to survive against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

    Really, outside of quarterback Tom Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski – which might be the NFL’s deadliest red-zone combination – this Patriots team isn’t off the charts in terms of eye-popping talent across the board. They’re just superbly coached and disciplined, which is the scary part more than anything.

    The Jaguars can’t bank on New England self-destructing. In 35 playoff games (26-9) under Belichick, they’ve had more than one turnover just 12 times and still went 8-4 in those games. When Belichick’s team wins the turnover battle in the postseason, it’s 16-0.

    All that said, there’s no reason for the Jaguars to go up to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough and feel intimidated. Didn’t they just beat the same Steelers that New England struggled with for 45 points at the same Heinz Field venue?

    Sure, this is a totally different matchup, but nothing will be more fascinating than seeing if the Jaguars’ ball-hawking, No. 2-ranked defense can outduel Brady and the NFL’s most potent offense on the biggest possible stage for these combatants.

    Other factors like the Jaguars reviving their lukewarm running game and quarterback Blake Bortles continuing his turnover-free playoff run will impact the outcome. It’s just that the tried-and-true path to eliminating the Patriots is making Brady, who is 7-0 against the Jaguars, feel like he’s under siege.

    No NFL defense is better equipped to do that than Sacksonville. The Vikings might hold opponents to less yards per game, but when the Jaguars’ defense is in top form, it can overwhelm opponents and ease the burden on Bortles. When you combine regular season and playoff numbers, the Jaguars’ defense has the most sacks (59) and takeaways (37), along with an NFL-low 67.8 passer rating for opposing quarterbacks.

    Remember 10 years ago when the Jaguars were dissected by Brady (26 of 28, 262 yards, 3 TDs) in a 31-20 AFC divisional playoff victory in Foxborough? Well, that came against an average defense that had little flexibility and put zero pressure on Brady.

    This defense orchestrated by coordinator Todd Wash is at least two levels above that. It’s the main reason the Jaguars have more than a puncher’s chance on Sunday. When you have four pass-rushers with at least eight sacks, led by a 6-foot-8 monster with a relentless motor in Calais Campbell (14.5 sacks), the potential is there to put a lot of stress on a quarterback.

    Let’s not forget Brady was sacked 35 times this year. That Patriots’ offensive line — particularly left tackle Nate Solder, left guard Joe Thuney and center David Andrews – will be severely tested by the fury and power of Yannick Ngakoue, Malik Jackson and Dante Fowler.

    “It’s a solid defense all the way across the board,” Belichick said Wednesday on a conference call with the Jacksonville media. “It’s not a one-man band. They can rush, they can cover, they play zone, they play some man when they want to or need to. They’re good at everything.”

    Now you might dismiss those remarks as Belichick just blowing smoke for gamesmanship purposes, but this Jaguars’ defense has undeniably been a force most of this season. Yes, it surrendered 42 points last week at Pittsburgh, but it also had an eighth takeaway for a touchdown and an interception that led to another TD, plus two critical fourth-down stops.

    Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hit on three incredible deep-ball TD passes in tight coverage to Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant, but the Jaguars will face a different Patriots air attack that relies on Brady’s precision throwing on shorter routes.

    “That could have been a 21-point loss [for Pittsburgh] real fast without some really big-time plays by some big-time players that I don’t know if New England has at the wide receiver position,” said CBS analyst Tony Romo.

    It’s going to take a special all-around performance for the Jaguars to knock off the Patriots, especially from a beastly defense that should be stoked to redeem itself after allowing so many big plays at Pittsburgh.

    “This game is going to come down to mental toughness and grit,” said Campbell. “And when the game is on the line, who can be most disciplined and most focused? I imagine the ballgame coming down to the last drive. Who’s going to grit out? Who’s going to be more tough in the final moments? That’s championship football.”

    For 18 seasons in the Belichick-Brady era, championship football has largely defined the Patriots. Now here come the upstart Jaguars, after a decade of futility, trying to take down the NFL’s greatest dynasty in its own house.

    With that defense, don’t be shocked if the Jaguars pull off the unthinkable. These Patriots are really good, but they’re not invincible.

    Gene.frenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540


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    Contrary to popular belief, Tom Coughlin — two Super Bowl rings aside as head coach with the New York Giants (2004-15) — has never possessed some kind of magic formula to beat the New England Patriots. Nobody has kryptonite to render the NFL’s version of Superman powerless.

    What Coughlin does have, and the Jaguars’ front-office czar has undoubtedly relayed to coach Doug Marrone since hiring him last January, is a blueprint to put his team in position to win games, which includes knocking off the Patriots’ empire of Bill Belichick.

    From the Jaguars’ viewpoint, Sunday’s AFC Championship game against New England at Gillette Stadium is the opportunity of a lifetime, a chance to earn their first Super Bowl berth at the expense of the league’s dynasty.

    But an intriguing storyline that can’t be ignored is Belichick and Coughlin – 30 years after they first forged a relationship as the defensive coordinator and receivers coach, respectively, on Bill Parcells’ 1988 New York Giants staff – competing against each other again on a big NFL stage.

    Only this time, instead of as opposing head coaches, Coughlin, who won both his Super Bowls against Belichick’s Patriots, is back in a football chess match with his former coaching colleague and rival in a different capacity.

    As the Jaguars’ executive vice-president of football operations, Coughlin oversees the entire organization. He sets the tone in the building, from his mindset as a fierce competitor, to also mentoring coaches because of his wealth of knowledge about game preparation.

    While Marrone and his staff formulated the Patriots game plan, there’s little doubt behind the scenes that Coughlin is as emotionally invested in this week’s preparation of getting the Jaguars to the Super Bowl as he was roaming their sideline as head coach for eight years (1995-2002).

    Maybe it’s fitting the lone Jaguars’ roadblock to Minneapolis happens to be the Patriots and Coach Hoodie. While Belichick is a five-time Super Bowl championship coach, he has only a 2-3 record against Coughlin’s Giants, plus an 0-2 mark against Coughlin during his coaching stint with the Jaguars when they faced Belichick and the Cleveland Browns during Jacksonville’s expansion 1995 season.

    All five Coughlin matchups against Belichick’s Patriots were classics. The winning coach trailed in the fourth quarter each time and the game-winning score in four of those encounters happened with :01, :15, :35 and :57 left on the clock.

    That includes Eli Manning’s 13-yard touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress in Super Bowl XLII and, four years later, Ahmad Bradshaw’s 6-yard TD run in SB XLVI. No opposing coach has gone toe-to-toe for 60 minutes with the Patriots quite like Coughlin.

    So with a Super Bowl berth at stake Sunday, did Marrone rely on his fellow Syracuse alumnus and mentor any more this week than usual? He responded with a bit of levity, perhaps not wanting to reveal any more information than necessary.

    “I have leaned on Coach [Coughlin] pretty good since day one,” said Marrone. “I don’t think I can lean on him anymore because I’m a big guy. If I lean on him, I hurt him a little. No, but honestly, it’s not something that now all of a sudden that [the Jaguars] have had success that Coach will get more involved.

    “It’s been the same way from day one when we started working together. When you say have you leaned on him, I’ve leaned on him quite a bit. We’ve worked with each other quite a bit.”

    Even though New England is a 9-point favorite and quarterback Tom Brady is 7-0 against Jacksonville, it has to make Patriots fans a bit squeamish that Coughlin’s fingerprints are all over the Jaguars’ operation.

    As Parcells disciples, Belichick and Coughlin are cut from the same coaching cloth. Whatever intimidation factor Belichick’s Patriots have on the rest of the NFL, that edge disappears with Coughlin because their time together as coaching peers goes back 30 years.

    When asked by ESPN in 2015 if Coughlin had Belichick’s number, ex-boss Parcells replied: “I don’t know how to answer that. I would tell you that they talked a lot of football when they were assistants together, so maybe the experience of having been with one another gives each of them a little insight they otherwise wouldn’t have had. But I don’t think that is having somebody’s number. I don’t believe that. They have that familiarity with one another personally, but a couple of those [Super Bowl] games the Giants were very fortunate to win and New England was very unfortunate to lose.”

    Nobody on the Jaguars’ staff likely has a better feel for that whole Belichick-Coughlin dynamic than offensive line coach Pat Flaherty, who held the same position during Coughlin’s entire 12-year tenure with the Giants. He sees Marrone as an extension of Coughlin, which traces back to the Parcells coaching circle.

    “The common denominator you have with Bill [Parcells], Doug [Marrone], Tom [Coughlin] and Bill [Belichick] is, man, are they ever competitive,” said Flaherty. “When you’re competitive as a coach, your players are going to be competitive.

    “Doug and Tom kind of have the same football mind. Players asked me when we first got here last year what it’s going to be like, I said, ‘As a player, you’re going to love it if you want your teammates to work hard every day to reach a common goal.’ Now if you don’t, then you’re not going to like it.”

    With the demanding Marrone now serving under Coughlin, this AFC Championship is as close as Belichick will get to renewing a rivalry with the one coach to get the better of him on the biggest stage. The Patriots’ 18-year coach didn’t elaborate much Wednesday when asked about his memories of Coughlin with the Giants, saying: “Tom and I go back a long way. Tom did a good job.”

    Coughlin has added to a potential Hall of Fame resume by helping orchestrate this Jaguars’ turnaround, the first team to go from 3-13 to an AFC title game in one year. For many football observers, this Jaguars-Patriots matchup could bear a strong resemblance to those epic Coughlin-Belichick battles at the Super Bowl. The key factor in both games was Coughlin’s Giants putting consistent pressure on Brady with a four-man rush, the same ingredient Marrone’s Jaguars now have in Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue, Malik Jackson and Dante Fowler, who have combined for 44.5 of the team’s 59 total sacks.

    Fowler was a teenager when Coughlin won his Super Bowls, but he remembers vividly how the Giants’ relentless pass rush wore down the Patriots.

    “[Michael] Strahan, [Justin] Tuck, No. 72 [Osi Umenyiora], the race-car package they had, it was impressive to watch,” said Fowler. “That’s the only way you’re going to be able to beat Tom Brady. We got to rally, we got to put pressure on him, get in his face.”

    CBS analyst and former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher says, with the exception of quarterback Blake Bortles, it’s hard to tell much of a difference between the 2017 Jaguars and Coughlin’s Super Bowl champion Giants. Marrone has that same establish-the-run mentality and throwing a lot off play-action, plus a relentless defense capable of making life miserable for Brady.

    “Ironically, it’s a little bit of the same coach [the Patriots are] taking on in Jacksonville now,” said Cowher. “I would not say Blake Bortles is Eli Manning at this point, but he’s certainly done a lot of good things. I loved what they did last week [against Pittsburgh Steelers].

    “It’s a style of play. You watch Jacksonville, they put a lot of pressure on you. They’re a very good defensive team that creates turnovers. On the other side of the ball, you can’t turn it over on [offense] and you try to keep this game close. [Coughlin] had the same kind of approach, different cast of characters. But it’s the same kind of approach he’s taken to Jacksonville, he had with the Giants.”

    The Jaguars may need everything to go right Sunday to overcome the Patriots, Belichick and Brady. History says having Coughlin on their side is a good place to start.

    Gene.frenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540


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    Regardless of any Tom Brady hand impairment, the Jaguars’ path to the Super Bowl will require one of the hardest things in any NFL postseason: outdoing the New England Patriots at their own specialty of playing disciplined football.

    If Jaguars defensive tackle Calais Campbell’s projection is accurate about Sunday’s AFC Championship against the Patriots coming down to the final drive, the path to victory still involves coach Doug Marrone’s team continuing a postseason trend of minimizing self-destruction.

    A big reason why the Jaguars have gotten this far is playing turnover-free the past two weeks against the Bills and Steelers. Plus, a combined eight penalties were the fewest in back-to-back games all season. However, three infractions led to Buffalo’s lone field goal and dead-ball fouls on Telvin Smith (taunting) and Jalen Ramsey (unsportsmanlike conduct) gave Pittsburgh favorable field position that led to TDs.

    Mistakes of any kind against the Patriots are likely to be more costly. In 26 playoff wins during the Bill Belichick-Brady era, New England has forced 57 turnovers and committed 27. In the Pats’ nine postseason losses since 2005, opponents have turned the ball over six times while collecting 18 turnovers.

    “Everybody knows how physical we are, and we’ll be the more physical team, but I don’t think it’s going to come to that,” said defensive end Dante Fowler. “I honestly think it’s going to be whether we get the dumb penalties because they capitalize on those type of things. The Patriots know what they have to do to get to a Super Bowl. We’re just going to have to be one of those teams that outsmart them to get there.”

    I see Patriots fans squirming a bit in the fourth quarter. The Jaguars’ defense has the speed and athleticism to make Brady uncomfortable, but will they stay composed when he springs a no-huddle offense on them? Can Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles play as loose and efficient as he did in winning a shootout with the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger?

    Those are fair questions for a Jaguars’ team stepping into the most intense national spotlight in franchise history. They’ll handle the big stage better than most people think. I’m still not sure it’s enough to topple the dynasty in Foxborough. Patriots 20, Jaguars 17… .

    Memo to Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy: The schtick of putting down Patriots’ opponents for click baits or to infuriate another fan base is tiresome and lazy journalism. But if you desire to be a Woody Paige wannabe, that’s your call… .

    NFC championship forecast: Vikings over Eagles by 1 (Super Bowl homefield advantage). Last week: 2 right, 2 Marcus Williams tackling angles.

    Gene.frenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540


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    Imagine the Jaguars, on the heels of a 3-13 season, making history Sunday by upsetting the New England Patriots to advance to their first Super Bowl.

    Seriously, can you picture what Jacksonville would be like then? What the reaction might be along all parts of the First Coast?

    I mean, besides mayor Lenny Curry losing his voice while leading the next pro-Jaguars rally in “Doo-Valll!” chants. Or multiple Jacksonville chefs preparing a wonderful feast of crow, then shipping a sample to everybody in the media world who insisted it was insanity to think Blake Bortles could rain on Tom Brady’s parade.

    Jaguars’ defensive tackle Abry Jones smiled thinking about the potential scene in his football city if the team returned home Sunday night with the AFC Championship trophy and a Super Bowl berth, saying: “I don’t know, half of it might be on fire, some cars turned over, a whole bunch of beer and liquor in the middle of the streets. I mean, Jacksonville knows how to party.”

    Jones then turned serious, adding: “Our fans have been sticking with us for the longest time. I know sometimes they complained about the stadium not being full. But those people that were there, you really want to play for them because they stuck through the hard times, spent their hard-earned money.

    “Trust me, we think about them. When the wins come in, that’s one of the first things we’re thinking about.”

    Bortles, the Jaguars’ quarterback who continues to be the target of much national criticism and satire about his career, enjoys watching the city becoming galvanized by the team’s postseason success. That includes the welcome-home greeting from thousands of fans at EverBank Field last week after beating the Pittsburgh Steelers.

    “I’d imagine the bigger the game, the bigger the celebration,” said Bortles. “I’m sure it’ll only continue to get better. I think we got a chance to see a little bit of a glimpse of how important football is to this town. I think we all understand it’s been a decade or so of bad ball.”

    That’s all behind the Jaguars now. It’s not an exaggeration to say Jacksonville is full of anticipation, ready to erupt at the prospect of going to a Super Bowl after a decade of football futility. If the Jaguars upset the 8-point favored Patriots, if the team in a city once known as Cow Ford takes down the G.O.A.T. quarterback and the NFL’s greatest dynasty, there’s no telling what that kind of momentum could do for all of Jacksonville.

    “The excitement has mesmerized people and brought this city together like I’ve never seen since it was announced the NFL was coming to Jacksonville [in November, 1993],” said city councilman Tommy Hazouri, who served as mayor from 1987-91. “I don’t remember the same excitement for the other AFC championships [games after the 1996 and ’99 seasons]. It was great then, but never been greater than it is today.

    “It’s brought effervescence to this city that we haven’t in forever. While everybody may not like football, everybody loves the Jaguars. Plus, I’m tired of what they’re saying about Bortles and the Waffle House jokes about Jacksonville. This is almost like the quiet before the storm. If we beat the Patriots, the euphoria will be like the Fourth of July every day of the week.”

    The giddiness of Hazouri, a Jaguars’ season-ticket holder since the team’s inception, over this playoff run is understandable. He spent most of his time as mayor unsuccessfully trying to persuade NFL owners to move their team to Jacksonville. He courted the Atlanta Falcons, St. Louis/Phoenix Cardinals and, yes, the Patriots. Two years before Hazouri took office, former New Orleans Saints owner John Mecum signed an agreement at a USFL owners meeting at Amelia Island to sell his team to a Jacksonville ownership group, but late NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle stepped in to nix the deal.

    For the longest time, it appeared this city would never get an NFL franchise. Then after landing an expansion team, the Jaguars had an exceptional honeymoon period in the late 1990s under its first head coach, Tom Coughlin, followed by only small pockets of success. The Jaguars went through a decade of hard times with no visible breakthrough, until 2017 happened.

    “If we win this one, gosh, what it’ll do for our fans and this city,” said former Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell. “This place will be crazy.”

    Brunell was a centerpiece in the Jaguars’ success under Coughlin and quarterbacked in two AFC Championship games, including a 20-6 loss to the Patriots in 1996. But late in his career, he also played with the New Orleans Saints as a backup to record-setting QB Drew Brees during the 2008-09 seasons.

    In his final year with the Saints, a team that had previously won just two playoff games in 42 seasons, they were victorious in the Super Bowl over the Indianapolis Colts. It came a time when New Orleans was still trying to recuperate from the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina four years earlier.

    Since then, a franchise once derisively known as the “Ain’ts,” has never been the same. Getting to the Super Bowl and winning it with Brees transformed the Saints. They went from a perennial NFL laughingstock to a solid franchise, an ascension that’s still evident eight years later.

    If that happened in a hurricane-ravaged city, imagine what could happen in Jacksonville if this magical season is extended by defeating the Patriots or, better yet, celebrating with a Super Bowl parade.

    “The good thing, too, is this team is going to be pretty good for the next 3-4 years,” Brunell said. “I think there’s going to be a body of work that will put us on the map even more. I think this group will probably do something this year and the year after that. The dark days are gone.”

    But to make this playoff run a true springboard for the revitalization of the Jaguars, why not go the distance? This is a chance to elevate the team and city profile by taking down one of the NFL’s model franchises. Jacksonville being the team that possibly ends the Patriots’ dynasty under Bill Belichick and Brady would take this glorious run to a whole another level.

    A lot of Jaguars’ fans thought the city was a pretty wild place to be 21 ago after its second-year NFL franchise pulled of a 30-27 upset of the Denver Broncos to reach the AFC Championship game.

    But all that excitement, which included thousands of people greeting the team upon its post-midnight return to the old ALLTEL Stadium, might pale in comparison to what could happen Sunday night and the coming days if the Jaguars take down the dynasty.

    “Playing New England, I expect it to be the perfect storm for us,” Hazouri said. “I think this city is on the precipice of greatness.”

    Calais Campbell, who led the Jaguars with 14.5 sacks and has become one of the team’s most popular players since signing as a free agent from Arizona last March, can hardly contain his enthusiasm. He has thought long and hard about the opportunity to put this franchise on the national map by beating the Patriots.

    “The fans definitely deserve to be champions,” said Campbell. “You can see it on the city’s face everywhere you go. It’d be sweet to bring them back a championship. I feel very confident if we just play our game, we’ll be AFC champions.”

    Now just picture what kind of celebration that would trigger in Jacksonville, and even for all those Patriot haters who are tired of seeing New England and Brady winning over and over again.

    But the Jaguars can’t just dream about this possible milestone victory. They got to go into the Patriots’ house and take it.

    Gene.frenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540


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    FOXBOROUGH, Mass. | It doesn’t matter whether the perpetrator of the most rip-your-heart-out defeat in Jaguars’ history was Tom Brady, the NFL’s all-time best quarterback and king of comebacks on a big stage.

    Nobody in the devastated Jaguars’ locker room cared that the G.O.A.T. found a way to put a dagger in them, just as he did in overcoming a 28-3 deficit to the Atlanta Falcons at last year’s Super Bowl. Or that he rallied the New England Patriots four other times from double-digit deficits in the postseason.

    Ultimately, all that mattered is this was the Jaguars’ moment. This was the golden opportunity of a football lifetime.

    Everything had been set up perfectly in the fourth quarter to finish the job Sunday at Gillette Stadium. They were on the cusp of shocking the world, perhaps bringing an end to the New England Patriots’ dynasty in the AFC Championship game.

    Somebody making one more lousy, stinkin’ play is all that stood between the Jaguars and the franchise’s first trip to the Super Bowl. Even better, it would come at the expense of Brady and in the Patriots’ house, the venue where the Jaguars came up short 21 years ago in the same AFC Championship game.

    Then, pfftttt. The dream died. From “Duu-val!” to “Duu-fall!” in what felt like a blink of an eye.

    Brady, the magician that he is, made the Jaguars’ Super Bowl hopes disappear. He engineered two touchdown drives in the final 12 minutes, rallying the Patriots to a 24-20 victory that almost felt like death afterwards in the losing locker room.

    “Just dejected,” said tight end Marcedes Lewis. “To get this far, it being in your hands, and to not take it home, it’s tough… . This feeling is going to stay for a long time.”

    “We didn’t get the job done,” added cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who had publicly guaranteed a Super Bowl victory to a welcome-back-home crowd at EverBank Field last week after beating the Pittsburgh Steelers. “It’s a terrible feeling.”

    Story continues below


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    Jaguars' dream run to Super Bowl screeches to a halt in Foxborough


    Players and coaches alike struggled to come up with the words to describe the pain of letting a 20-10 lead slip away. Just like that, a special season ended in one of the most crushing ways imaginable.

    “Probably the more I think about it, the more it’ll hurt, the more it’ll weigh on my mind about what we could have done better,” said head coach Doug Marrone. “Everyone in that locker room is thinking, ‘What could we have done a better job of to relieve the pain?’ It’s tough.

    “Outside of, God forbid, somebody passing away that you feel close to, this is probably as close of pain that you will have. This is the pain you deal with when you lose football games. This is something that you have to deal with and it hurts, and it stays with you for a long time.”

    The Jaguars will have the rest of an agonizing offseason to try and forget how a game they had in control — at least as much as you can have when trying to put away Brady – got away from them at closing time.

    “At some point, I’ll be mature about it and realize we had a great season,” said linebacker Myles Jack. “But, yeah, I’ll be sad for a while.”

    It appeared Jack might have sealed a Jaguars’ victory when got the game’s only turnover by stripping the ball away from Dion Lewis after a 20-yard catch with 13:37 left in the game. Right before the Patriots receiver’s knee touched the ground, the ball came loose and Jack recovered. The Jaguars had New England on the ropes.

    A 10-point lead and all the momentum was on their side. The Patriots were already without super-hero tight end Rob Gronkowski, who was too dinged up from a helmet-to-helmet hit by safety Barry Church near the end of the first half.

    All the Jaguars had to do was move the chains and bleed some clock, not give Brady time to add to his stupendous legacy.

    “At that point, I was like, ‘OK, if we play our perfect game, we should be able to roll up out of here and we’ll be in Minnesota [for Super Bowl] in a little bit,’ ” said Jack. “But yeah, man, Tom Brady did his thing.”

    It happened because the Jaguars couldn’t play keep-away in the fourth quarter. Running back Leonard Fournette went nowhere, getting only two yards on four carries. And quarterback Blake Bortles, who played superbly for three quarters, managed to complete just 5 of 13 passes for 68 yards in the last 15 minutes.

    “You can never have a safe lead with 12 at the helm,” Jaguars’ safety Tashaun Gipson said of Brady. “We knew we had to keep our foot on the gas… We stopped making plays, some was missed assignments. But you can’t take anything away from them, they made plays.”

    All three phases contributed to the collapse. The offense stopped functioning with its previous rhythm. The only bad special teams play of the game, a 20-yard punt return by Amendola, set him up to catch the game-winning TD pass with 2:48 remaining. And Bortles couldn’t answer.

    When asked about the Jaguars’ failure to close out the game, defensive tackle Abry Jones replied: “It was Brady being Brady and other people being other people.”

    The Jaguars’ defense, after playing superbly most of the day, fell apart at the worst possible time. Brady, who didn’t appear terribly impacted by a hand injury suffered in practice on Wednesday, drove the Patriots 85 yards for one touchdown. Along the way, he converted a third-and-18 to Amendola in front of Gipson for 21 yards that might have been the game-changer.

    “I am a better player than to give up a third-and-18,” said Gipson. “If we could re-run that play 10 times, nine out of ten times I make that play.”

    There are more than a few plays or decisions the Jaguars would like to take back. One, a brutal delay-of-game penalty in the second quarter nullified a drive-extending, 12-yard pass to tight end Marcedes Lewis to the Patriots’ 32. Instead, Adam Butler sacked Bortles on the replayed third down, ruining a chance to add to a 14-3 lead and keep the ball out of Brady’s hands.

    On a potential game-winning drive, Bortles, on first down at the Patriots 38, overthrew Fournette after he got a step on his defender down the left sideline. When Kyle Van Noy sacked Bortles on the next play, he couldn’t do the Brady thing and overcome third-and-19.

    In the end, it all came down to the fact the Jaguars’ couldn’t finish a 60-minute game. The Patriots, arguably the most notoriously relentless team in NFL history, simply wouldn’t give up their crown, Gronk or no Gronk.

    After the final Brady kneel-down, having watched his quarterback pull another great escape, Patriots’ coach Bill Belichick celebrated joyously. Then he acted later as if Brady’s heroics was nothing beyond the ordinary.

    “I mean, look, Tom did a great job and he’s a tough guy,” said Belichick. “We all know that, alright? But, we’re not talking about open-heart surgery here.”

    Really, Bill? Tell that to the Jaguars and all those black-and-teal fans who were on the brink of euphoria, reveling in the franchise’s greatest victory ever.

    Because all Tom Brady did, as he’s done to so many opponents before them, is just cut their heart out.

    Gene.frenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-450


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    There’s only so much offseason time the Jaguars’ front office and coaching staff can spend on regret.

    Sure, the players may allow Sunday’s 24-20 AFC Championship loss to the New England Patriots to linger like a bad hangover for a little while. Whether it’s allowing Tom Brady to convert a third-and-18 on a 21-yard pass over the middle, the careless delay-of-game penalty that stalled momentum when the Jaguars led 14-3, or abandoning speedy running back Corey Grant after he moved the chains three times on first-half pass receptions, there’s plenty to second-guess.

    But as an organization, the Jaguars best move on to 2018 quickly. Now remember, the Jaguars don’t have the benefit of a last-place schedule next season. Improving on a 10-6 record, or even matching it, is no given with matchups against the Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles.

    Over the next three months, in honor of quarterback Blake Bortles’ number, here are five things they should do to make sure the 2018 season is as fulfilling as this one:

    1. Keep Bortles around. The future at quarterback has been a non-stop topic all season, mainly because Bortles waited until December to provide any compelling evidence that he might be worth that $19 million fifth-year option in 2018. His body of work in the postseason, especially the last two weeks against Pittsburgh and New England, has given him a lot of cachet in the locker room and likely with the powers-that-be in front-office czar Tom Coughlin and GM Dave Caldwell, who drafted him in 2014. Moving on from Bortles is a tougher option now because he’s earned the trust of teammates during this playoff run. He went turnover-free in the postseason, marking the first time since 2002 (Coughlin’s last season as head coach) the Jaguars as a team went three consecutive games without any turnovers. That’s an important part of coach Doug Marrone’s formula for winning games. Other than free agent Kirk Cousins, who will be a minimum $25 million per year, Case Keenum or possibly the Kansas City Chiefs’ Alex Smith via trade, there are a scarce number of realistically available veteran options who represent a significant upgrade. And remember that if you replace No. 5, it means losing a QB who would be in his third year working with offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett. It’d be a bold move at this point to disconnect from Bortles. But if the right QB (not necessarily first round) with high value is available in the draft, I’d strongly consider grooming one to push Bortles and likely take over for Chad Henne.

    2. Strengthen the offensive line. Do not get fooled by the Jaguars finishing as the league’s top rushing attack (141.4 yards per game) — and tying for third among the fewest sacks allowed (24) this season — into thinking the O-line is all set. While those numbers are positive, remember the regular-season rushing totals are padded by Corey Grant running for 109 yards on two fake punts and Bortles being the second-leading rusher (322 yards, 5.6 per carry). It was telling in the second half against New England that the Jaguars, while playing with the lead, could only get 36 yards off 13 Fournette carries. Coach Doug Marrone kept hoping Fournette could “pop one” and it never happened. The Jaguars must create greater competition at the guard spots for A.J. Cann and Patrick Omameh, as well as right tackle Jermey Parnell, by drafting reinforcements. A huge goal for next season is getting Fournette to be more of a home-run hitter and that starts with fortifying the line.

    3. Find an impact pass-catching tight end. It’s no coincidence the most productive NFL players at this position in terms of yards and touchdown catches – Kansas City’s Travis Kelce, New England’s Rob Gronkowski and the Philadelphia Eagles’ Zach Ertz – all made the playoffs, with two of them Super Bowl-bound. While Marcedes Lewis is still a dependable blocker at age 34 and a big target, imagine how much more effective Bortles could be if he had a tight end defenses were forced to game-plan for. Since it’s slim pickings in free agency, the Jaguars should break from tradition and invest at least a second-day draft pick on a tight end. Among the intriguing prospects are South Carolina’s Hayden Hurst (Bolles School product), Oklahoma’s Mark Andrews and Wisconsin’s Troy Fumagalli.

    4. Tap the brakes in free agency. Coughlin and Caldwell shouldn’t be opening up the vault for anything other than a franchise QB, and that’s under the highly unlikely notion of chasing after Cousins. This is a year to be bargain basement shopping, possibly for a veteran interested in chasing a ring more than money. The Jaguars have done plenty of spending the past couple years, so show some restraint, especially with core players like Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack, Yannick Ngakoue, Dante Fowler and Allen Robinson being contract extension targets over the next two years.

    5. Find the right receiver rotation. With Marqise Lee a free agent and a postseason non-factor, the Jaguars should let him walk and see if Allen Hurns is willing to take a pay cut from his $7 million salary or just release him. Staying healthy has been an issue for both of them. Young receivers Keelan Cole and Dede Westbrook have the upside to become fixtures behind A-Rob, who is still recovering from a torn ACL in the season opener against Houston. The impending free agent is a must sign for the Jaguars, even if they have to franchise-tag him. Given the possible attrition at receiver and injuries there last season, drafting one might not be a bad idea.

    Gene.frenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540


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    Hero worship in sports is not always a good thing. It can skew perspective about who is worthy of admiration, especially when the object of affection turns out to be a heavily flawed human being.

    Take the late Mickey Mantle, for instance. It wasn’t until shortly before he passed away in 1995 — after the New York Yankees baseball star needed a liver transplant to combat years of alcohol abuse — that he publicly declared himself unworthy of kids’ adulation and had “wasted” a good part of his life.

    Harsh admission aside, Mantle had an undeniable impact on millions of baby boomers who grew up loving baseball. Among his most fervent admirers was Larry Jones, the father of Chipper, the former Atlanta Braves star third baseman and a Bolles School product.

    When Chipper is likely voted in Wednesday as a first-ballot selection to the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Mick’s influence as the greatest switch-hitter of all time will have been a huge part of it.

    Because if Jones had remained a natural right-handed hitter his entire 19-year career with the Atlanta Braves, putting up the same gaudy numbers, his case for the Hall of Fame wouldn’t be considered a lock. However, being a .300 hitter from both sides of the plate, and the only player in history to hit at least 400 career home runs in the process (Jones hit 468), nobody doubts he’s Cooperstown-bound.

    And those seeds of greatness were sown in the late 1970s on the family’s fern farm in Pierson by Larry, a decade before his only child transferred 95 miles away and became a boarder at Bolles for two years.

    Larry’s passion was to mold Chipper into a ballplayer. Not just any player, but a switch-hitter like Mantle, who was Larry’s idol growing up.

    It turns out, the kid was a natural. Chipper not only took to the instructions of his father, an ex-shortstop in the Chicago Cubs organization, but also inherited the same love of the game.

    “He just had an ability when he was young to love the game and mimic hitters,” said Don Suriano, Chipper’s coach at Bolles. “That’s something that’s always been in his DNA. He wanted to be a switch-hitter and good at the game. That’s not something in everybody. Chipper loved to be taught, loved to practice, loved to play. It just oozed out of him his whole career.”

    With tennis balls in hand, Larry began throwing pitches to a then 4-year-old Chipper, wielding a PVC pipe for a bat. The two played simulated games as often as possible. They used lineups from major league teams and Chipper, a natural right-handed hitter, often chose the Los Angeles Dodgers because they had more right-handers.

    But when it was time for Rick Monday or the switch-hitting Reggie Smith to hit, Chipper (facing his right-handed throwing dad) was forced to bat from the left side. He made it so much part of his muscle memory as a kid, he even started writing and brushing his teeth as a southpaw.

    “Being a switch-hitter was always talked about,” Jones said in a phone interview Tuesday. “My dad wasn’t as hard on me when I switched to the left side because it wasn’t my natural side. I dabbled hitting left-handed in some games in Little League, but I didn’t start doing it on a regular basis until Legion ball when I was 15 or 16. I only [hit left-handed] in high school when I was feeling good.”

    It took a while for Chipper to commit to the idea of switch-hitting all the time. But knowing how much harder it was to hit a good breaking ball pitcher, he soon realized switch-hitting had its benefits.

    “I never had trouble with the fast ball all my life,” said Chipper. “Now a pitcher with a good breaking ball, that was different. So being a switch-hitter, it dawned on me that it was a lot easier hitting it if that pitch was always breaking into me.

    “I don’t think there’s any doubt whatsoever, [being a switch-hitter] is probably the No. 1 reason I’m in this situation right now. I can’t imagine all those years playing in the big leagues having to face Randy Johnson as a left-handed hitter or Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling right-handed. When teams turned you around to hit right-handed [by bringing in a lefty relief pitcher] late in the game, I was ready for it.”

    What a big-league career it was, too.

    Jones was the Braves’ primary No. 3 hitter for nearly two decades, went to the postseason 14 consecutive years, accumulated eight All-Star selections, won both a World Series and a batting title. Jones’ numbers — .303 batting average, 1,623 RBI (most of any third baseman), 2,726 hits, 1,512 walks, .529 slugging percentage — elevate him into a spot right behind Mantle as baseball’s all-time best switch-hitter. He hit .304 right-handed and .303 left-handed.

    “That’s probably the numbers I’m most proud of,” Jones said. “There might have been a hair more power left-handed, but it’s cool to be at .300 for a career from both sides.

    “A lot of great players made a decision as young kids to go one way [hitting exclusively left or right]. I did it both ways. It was a decision I felt would help me in the long run.”

    When the voters’ ballots are counted Wednesday, another decision Jones made about 20 years ago — to not give in to the temptation of using steroids at a time when many of his peers were indulging — should also work to his benefit.

    Jones, who lives in the Atlanta suburb of Milton, acknowledges he was tempted to use steroids in the 1990s as he watched his peers put up monster numbers. His first wife, Karin, talked him out of it by asking one simple question: Would he want to face his father and mother, Lynne, if they ever found out?

    “Yeah, there was some pressure there [to use steroids],” Jones told me last year while promoting “Ballplayer,” his newly-released book. “Ultimately, I wouldn’t have been able to look my Mom and Dad in the eye. It would have cheapened all those days I spent working on my game on those fields in Pierson. It would have killed them. That was a huge motivator in staying clean.”

    That choice, along with becoming a switch-hitter by his father’s prodding and admiration for Mantle, should pay huge dividends with a favorable call Wednesday afternoon from the Baseball Hall of Fame.

    “I went golfing today and played really well,” said Jones. “Hopefully, that’s a good omen for the week.”

    While it’s long been documented that Jones, like Mantle, made some questionable off-the-field decisions in his own life, which doomed his first two marriages, nobody disputes what Chipper accomplished between the white lines.

    It’s almost certain there’ll soon be another power-hitting, switch-hitter in Cooperstown. When Jones gives his Hall of Fame speech, from up in baseball heaven, The Mick will probably be tipping his cap.

    Gene.frenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540


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