JACKSONVILLE – The opportunity is as big as the stage.
Blake Bortles knows this. You can’t play NFL quarterback and not know it – so, yes … the Jaguars’ fourth-year veteran well knows what’s at stake this weekend.
Bortles will start his first playoff game Sunday.
And yes …
The first postseason appearance for a team – and a quarterback – is a really big deal.
“It’s obviously going to feel a little different,” Bortles said Wednesday as the AFC South Champion Jaguars (10-6) prepared to play the Buffalo Bills (9-7) in an AFC Wild Card Playoff Game at EverBank Field Sunday at 1:05 p.m.
“The emotions and the energy in the stadium will be heightened, but as far as what happens between the lines … I would imagine it’s similar. It’s maybe a little amped up. Everybody realizes it’s your last chance. You lose, you go home, it’s over.”
The truth? The NFL playoffs are all of that and then some, with the lose-go-home part magnifying every play, every decision. Especially for the quarterback.
But know this:
If a quarterback’s first NFL playoff game is huge – even mega-huge – Jaguars players believe Bortles can handle the mega-ness.
“He’s very ready,” defensive end Calais Campbell said. “These opportunities are what everybody works for. You don’t know how you’re going to perform until you get out there, but honestly it’s about your preparation and he’s been preparing harder than anybody.
“He’s focused. He’s working in practice. You can tell he’s locked in. He knows everybody’s depending on him, but he also knows we have his back and he doesn’t have to do it by himself.”
Tight end Marcedes Lewis agreed.
“He’s going to do everything he can to get back on that horse, and lead us in the right way, lead from the front,” Lewis said. “Everybody’s going to do their job around him, too, and do just a little bit more. It’s time to step it up. It’s not just him. It’s everybody.”
Those players will tell you, too, that there’s a reason Bortles is ready – because throughout much of this season he has played well. He is a major reason the Jaguars are 10-6 and in the playoffs for the first time in a decade. He’s also a big reason they enter the postseason sixth in the NFL in yardage and fifth in points.
Not that Bortles is talking about himself much this week. At least not much. He did on Wednesday respond to another instance of criticism from a recent opponent – this one from Titans defensive tackle Jurrell Casey. But he talked about that because he sort of couldn’t not talk about it, and he gave a similar answer to past answers on similar topics.
“I’ve ever been somebody who thought that’s the way you should handle things, but guys are different,” Bortles said. “I was fortunate enough to play for George O’Leary in college [at the University of Central Florida. Playing for Coach O’Leary you learn very quickly how to take criticism.
“I had four years of practice doing that. There’s nobody who can say anything worse than he did.”
Bortles added with a laugh, “I got benched every other day.”
A smile, a shrug. That has pretty much been Bortles’ response to criticism throughout his four NFL seasons as Jaguars quarterback, and there was no change in demeanor as the biggest game of career approached.
“I think personally I treat it normal – go through the week normal,” Bortles said. “The routine and everything will the stay the same.”
How big is Sunday? What’s at stake?
There’s obviously the team stuff, which is the most important stuff for Bortles and every Jaguars player. The Jaguars with a victory can advance to the AFC Divisional Playoff against the Pittsburgh Steelers next weekend, a place the Jaguars have reached just four times in franchise history – 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2007. That’s big.
For Bortles individually, it’s big, too.
The postseason defines quarterbacks. Play well in the regular season and lose in the playoffs, and you’re tagged with the notion you’re not a postseason quarterback. Play just OK in the regular season and win in the playoffs? You’re a winner. A gamer.
You don’t define your legacy with one game, and Bortles won’t define his against the Bills on Sunday, but it’s sure going to be noticed. And scrutinized. And analyzed.
He knows this. Any quarterback knows it.
Is Bortles ready for his close-up? Time will tell. Sunday will tell. The thought here is he’s ready – and that Bortles has done a remarkable job this season in difficult, scrutinized circumstances. Facing extreme pressure and criticism – and playing with a largely inexperienced group of skill position players -- he has played well far more often than not this season, and has been a major reason the Jaguars are in this game this weekend.
Now, he must handle another important Sunday.
And on this one, the opportunity absolutely will be as big as the stage.