JACKSONVILLE -- Senior writer John Oehser examines what we learned from the Jaguars' 45-42 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in an AFC Divisional Playoff at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Sunday …
1. The Jaguars are in the AFC Championship Game.That's the biggest thing the Jaguars learned Sunday, and it's the first thing to remember on this Monday morning. The defense got burned a few times. There were penalties that were infuriating, costly and silly – but those are issues for another day. The idea in the postseason is to win. The Jaguars won Sunday. Period.
2. The Jaguars are a victory from the Super Bowl. For real.Yes,this is another way of saying the Jaguars are in the AFC Championship Game, but it bears repeating and saying in different ways. This team hadn't had a winning season 2007. It hadn't made the postseason since then, either. Quarterback Blake Bortles was fighting for his job in August. And the Jaguars are a victory from playing in the Super Bowl. For real.
3. Bortles isn't trash after all.Those who have followed this team closely knew this already. Bortles has taken heat throughout his four-year career. He took some this season from Texans defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who called him "trash" – and he also took some from Seahawks safety Earl Thomas and from Titans defensive tackle Jurrell Casey. None of those players are playing next Sunday. Bortles is. And he darned sure deserves praise for Sunday against Pittsburgh.
4. No, really: he's not.This isn't just because the Jaguars made the title game. He really has been playing well most of the season – and doing so in tricky circumstances. The Jaguars lost wide receiver Allen Robinson early, and Bortles has played with a lot of youth and a rotating cast because of injuries. Bortles threw for 214 yards on Sunday and completed 14 passes to nine different receivers. There's no go-to guy. There's no one to whom he can just throw it up and hope. He has been the one constant in an ever-changing cast and the Jaguars aren't in the AFC Championship Game without him.
5. Bortles is 2-0 as a postseason quarterback.He's also 1-0 in the postseason on the road and 1-0 against future Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Bortles wasn't the only reason the Jaguars won on Sunday, but he was a major reason – particularly in the second half.
6. Nathaniel Hackett can call plays.The offensive coordinator is an easy target when teams struggle offensively, and Hackett drew the ire of fans after a 10-3 victory over the Buffalo Bills in AFC Wild Card playoff a week ago. The Jaguars scored 45 points Sunday, including 38 on offense, and Hackett drew no such ire. Funny how that works.
7. Leonard Fournette matters for this offense …The rookie running back rushed for 109 yards on 25 carries Sunday, his first game over 4.0 yards a carry since a victory over Seattle. Fournette and the running game haven't been dominant every game this season. When they have been, this team looks like a Super Bowl team.
8. … and T.J. Yeldon does, too.The third-year running back played perhaps the best game of his NFL career Sunday, running for a four-yard first-half touchdown and catching three passes for a team-high 57 receiving yards.
9. Fournette is tough.That has been clear all season, but it was really Sunday. Fournette sustained an ankle injury late in the first half and it initially looked as though he wouldn't be back. As he has done all season, he gutted through the second half.
10. The Jaguars' offensive line can pass block …The aftermath of Sunday shouldn't pass without recognizing this: the Steelers led the NFL in sacks this season. They got none Sunday, and they didn't get a lot of pressure on Bortles, either.
11. … and it can run block, too.This group had taken some heat in recent weeks, some of it deserved. The line has struggled to run block at times this season, and the going had been rough the last few weeks. The going wasn't easy Sunday, but the Jaguars rushed for 164 yards and the offensive line got as much push in the run game as it has since a December victory over Seattle.
12. Red zone matters.The Jaguars moved inside the Steelers red zone five times Sunday. They scored five touchdowns on those possessions. You win a lot of games with those numbers.* *
13. This defense is big time.Wait? What? The defense allowed 42 points and you're calling it big time? Yes, and here's why: There are going to be games in a postseason where the opponent is scoring a lot of points. Good teams score in the NFL. In those games, defenses must make big plays at big times. Linebacker Telvin Smith scored on a fumble return. Linebacker Myles Jack set up a touchdown with an interception. The defense got two huge fourth-down stops. On such plays are playoff memories built.
14. Yannick Ngakoue should have been in the Pro Bowl.This was true a few weeks ago and it got more evident – again – Sunday with his sack/fumble that set up Smith's fumble return. But you know what? The AFC Championship Game is cooler than the Pro Bowl.
15. Talk is cheap.The Steelers talked about the Patriots a lot last week. Jaguars players heard it. The Steelers aren't playing the Patriots this week. The Jaguars are.
16. The Jaguars are in the AFC Championship Game.It bears repeating.