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View from the O-Zone: 'He always stands tall'


JACKSONVILLE – Blake Bortles showed something real Wednesday.

That's what it felt like, anyway – when he answered yet another question about the topic that has been discussed ad nauseam throughout the 2017 regular season and into a Jaguars postseason that has extended longer than most believed possible.

Yes, the Jaguars' quarterback yet again on Wednesday was discussing criticism – how to handle it, what he thinks of it, etc., etc., etc. – but one question and answer stood apart:

What does it mean when teammates have your back?

"That type of stuff is big for me," Bortles said as the AFC South Champion Jaguars (12-6) prepared to play the AFC East Champion New England Patriots (14-3) in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts, Sunday at 3:05 p.m.

Now, anyone who has followed the Jaguars this season has seen this topic discussed. A lot. And they've undoubtedly heard Bortles discuss it.

The fourth-year veteran throughout his career has been strikingly candid discussing his struggles both real and perceived, and he has been equally patient and candid this season answering questions about a litany of pointed – and even petty – criticisms from opposing players.

Seahawks safety Earl Thomas, Texans defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and Titans defensive tackle Jurrell Casey all made headlines this season criticizing Bortles, a trend made strange by the pointedness of the criticism and even stranger by it coming from players on teams that either lost to the Jaguars (Seahawks once, Texans twice) or finished behind them in the standings (Titans).

Bortles continually has brushed off the criticism, saying he doesn't care about it and that it doesn't bother him.

To watch him function on a daily and weekly basis is to believe him. His demeanor doesn't change from a good week to bad, and his answers to the most critical of questions are rarely snippy, edgy, or snide.

His approach was seen again Wednesday when asked about analyst Trent Dilfer seeking him out to apologize for a past criticism. Bortles said he appreciated the gesture, that it was cool – though he said nothing about the incident changed his view of Dilfer.

"At this point, there is not a whole lot that surprises me of who says what," he said, drawing laughter from the media. "Guys say different things or don't say different things."

This topic, in might, not be worth discussing this week except for Bortles' reaction to the question about teammates having his back – something that has been on display throughout this season and has been particularly evident in recent days.

Make no mistake:

Jaguars coaches and teammates throughout the season have had a far different view of Bortles than opposing players, national media or even Jaguars fans. While Bortles has taken heat publicly, teammates have viewed him as a team leader who has directed a young offense throughout a season that has seen youth dominate the team's skill positions.

"One thing I say about Blake is he kept that huddle, and us in that huddle strong," wide receiver Marqise Lee said. "In times where we felt like we were struggling, and we wanted to say something, and we wanted to get on each other's butts about it, he came in and calmed it down."

The belief in Bortles has extended beyond the offense, and at times this season it has been the Jaguars' defense that has voiced the strongest support. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Malik Jackson famously put Bortles among the NFL's Top 5 quarterbacks in December, and Jackson was among those loudly happy for Bortles in the wake of a 45-42 Divisional Playoff victory over Pittsburgh this past Sunday that put the Jaguars in Sunday's championship game.

Why the support for a quarterback who has struggled statistically at times? One reason is there is a firm belief that Bortles has played at a higher level throughout the season that many believe.

Another is how Bortles has handled himself both within the team and in front of the cameras.

"He never throws a coach under the bus, or the offensive line," linebacker Myles Jack said. "He always stands tall. He says, 'I've got to do this, or I've got to do that. We respect that.

"At the end of the day, we've got everybody's back in this locker room."

You have gotten the idea listening to Bortles all season that few quotes would mean as much to him as that one by Jack, and Bortles made that clear again Wednesday.

"I don't care much about what is said outside of our locker room," Bortles said. "What I care about is in that locker room. Those are the opinions I care about. When other people say stuff or it comes from anywhere, it does not bother me.

"To see guys within that locker room stand up and say stuff is pretty cool. Those are the opinions that I value and the guys that I want to impress and do well for."

On that front, he has no concerns at all.

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