Blake Bortles' next challenge might be his toughest yet

The Jaguars haven't made consecutive playoff appearances since the 1990s and missing them in 2018 would be a major setback. Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Blake Bortles went from a mechanical mess to nearly losing his job to the NFL's hottest quarterback to being one of the main reasons the Jacksonville Jaguars reached the AFC Championship Game.

That was a pretty eventful year, but Bortles' upcoming challenge might be his toughest: building off his career season and leading the Jaguars back to the playoffs.

That hasn't been done much around here. Since quarterback Mark Brunell led them to the playoffs from 1996 to 1999, the Jaguars have made the postseason in 2005, 2007 and 2017. Three times in 18 years -- and not once in consecutive seasons.

Not making it in 2018 -- after a 10-6 record and AFC South title last season -- would be a huge setback for the franchise and Bortles.

"The bar has been raised; the expectations are different," Bortles said. "... To be able to go through the season we went through last year, the camp that we went through and kind of see everything that happened, I think guys are coming back this year with a totally different attitude and kind of a hunger to reach that final game and go win it."

The Jaguars have that mindset in large part because of Bortles, who had a disastrous 2016 season. His mechanics deteriorated to the point that his college offensive coordinator didn't recognize him, he threw 16 interceptions (including three pick-sixes) and the Jaguars won just three games. One of Bortles' turnovers came when he tried to throw the ball into the dirt because a screen pass was covered but the ball bounced off T.J. Yeldon's foot and Houston linebacker Whitney Mercilus caught the rebound.

By the end of the season, Bortles was admittedly somewhat of a mental mess. He said it was hard for him to look his teammates in the eyes because he let them down over and over. Then came a five-interception practice early in training camp last August. He was pulled from a practice days later, and coach Doug Marrone opened up the quarterback job after Bortles' dismal performance in the second preseason game.

Bortles won the job back a week later and steadily compiled the best season of his career. He didn't set franchise records for passing yards and touchdown passes as he did in 2015, but he completed 60 percent of his passes for the first time and cut down on his turnovers significantly. Bortles averaged 21 turnovers per season in his first three years but turned the ball over 16 times last season -- and four of his 13 interceptions were the fault of his receivers either cutting a route short, running the wrong route or failing to hold onto a pass.

He didn't throw for a ton of yards (594) or touchdowns (three) in the Jaguars' three postseason games, but he made several clutch throws against Buffalo (fourth-down TD pass) and Pittsburgh to send the Jaguars to the AFC title game. Most importantly, he didn't turn the ball over.

That convinced the Jaguars not to pursue Kirk Cousins or any other free-agent quarterback. Instead, they signed Bortles to a three-year, $54 million contract with $26.5 million guaranteed in February.

"He's improving and that's the whole key," executive vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin said. "I mean, some of his best games were in the playoffs. You can't ask for a better circumstance. In other words, you set it up, you want to know how a guy performs in big games. Two of his best quarterback ratings were in those games."

Avoiding turnovers was the No. 1 thing Coughlin wanted Bortles to do in 2017 and to help him accomplish that the Jaguars built the offense around the run game. They drafted Leonard Fournette fourth overall and he became just the third rookie in franchise history to surpass 1,000 yards rushing. The Jaguars signed free-agent left guard Andrew Norwell, receiver Donte Moncrief and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins in free agency as well as re-signing receiver Marqise Lee. Offensive line, tight end and receiver are possibilities with the 29th pick in next week's draft.

Those moves, as well as being in the second full season of coordinator Nathaniel Hackett's system, give Bortles confidence that he and the team can build on their surprising 2017.

"I think for the first time since I've been here there was proof that what we had done worked," he said. "There was a bit of hard, concrete evidence. Obviously, we didn't get to where we wanted to go or finish what we wanted to, but there was some proof that the process and the plan that we took and went through last year benefited us and turned out to work pretty well."