Steelers game is a critical piece to Blake Bortles' future with Jaguars

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- When the Jacksonville Jaguars beat the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field in October, quarterback Blake Bortles threw only 14 passes.

He’d be OK if he threw the ball less in Sunday’s rematch in an AFC divisional playoff game.

That would mean running back Leonard Fournette would be having a big day and the Jaguars' defense would again be harassing Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. No need to throw the ball much if that’s the case.

“That would be awesome,” Bortles said. “Leonard goes off again and those guys up front play as well as they did last time, and we can run the ball up there and not have to throw at all. It was something that happened last time, but you never know. We’re going into it with our plan and what we want to do and get a feel for the game and find out what we’re thinking, what’s working, what’s going on.

“But like I said, it could be even another one of those games or it could be you go up there and throw it 50 times. Kind of however the game is rolling and whatever we think gives us the best chance to win and score points.”

That’s the thing about Bortles: He genuinely doesn’t care whether he throws a pass in a game. He just wants to win, and if turning around and putting the ball in the belly of his backs 50 times a game is what’s best, he’s all for it.

Unfortunately, that’s not how quarterbacks are evaluated. Victories certainly do count, but so does being an accurate passer, limiting turnovers, reading coverages, recognizing blitzes and adjusting, and making big plays in big moments. That’s even more magnified in the playoffs, which is why Sunday’s game at Heinz Field is critical to Bortles' career.

Not just because it means a berth in the AFC Championship Game. It also will be vital in establishing his future with the franchise. If he plays well, there’s a very good chance he’ll be back in 2018. If he plays like he did last week against Buffalo, well, it might be his last game in a Jaguars uniform.

Bortles just had the best regular season of his career. He completed 60 percent of his passes for the first time, cut his interception total to 13, finished with a better passer rating than Cam Newton and Joe Flacco, and threw more touchdown passes than Matt Ryan and Eli Manning.

Bortles played the best football of his career in the first three games of December: 903 yards, 71.4 percent completions, seven touchdowns, no interceptions and an NFL-high 128.6 passer rating. But he followed that up with two touchdowns and five interceptions in back-to-back losses to San Francisco and Tennessee to close out the regular season.

In the Jaguars’ 10-3 AFC wild-card victory over Buffalo on Sunday, he had more yards rushing (88) than passing (87) and missed on several easy throws, including a pair of screen passes on which he overthrew the backs. He also should have had a pass intercepted, but receiver Dede Westbrook broke it up.

Bortles deserves credit for making plays with his feet -- six scrambles netted 41 yards and four first downs -- when things weren’t working in the pass game, and he gets kudos for a good throw to tight end Ben Koyack for a 1-yard touchdown on fourth down. It was just enough to send the Jaguars to this week’s game in Pittsburgh.

“I think there are two different ways of looking at it,” Bortles said. “I think you look at the numbers and look at the game and say you played terrible. Or you look at it and say things weren’t going right here and you found a way to win, be efficient, move the ball and do different things. I think that’s how I feel about it.

“We didn’t have our A-game. I missed a couple of throws. Things weren’t going well, but scrambling around and doing some different things and guys making some plays, we found a way to score one more time than they did. And that’s what you have to do.”

Franchise quarterbacks also have to win games as passers, and that’s what must happen on Sunday. The Steelers averaged an NFL-high 31.3 points per game over the final seven weeks of the regular season, and receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster has emerged as a big-time complement to Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell.

This is the best offense the Jaguars' defense has faced all season, and expecting Roethlisberger to throw five interceptions, like he did in the October meeting, is ludicrous. The Jaguars' offense must contribute more than it did against the Bills, and that means the pressure is on Bortles to deliver.

If he can -- as he did against Indianapolis, Seattle and Houston -- the Jaguars will have a good chance to move on in the playoffs. If he can’t, that’ll be the final item on his résumé, and Tom Coughlin will spend the next several months deciding whether to bring him back in 2018 or find another starting quarterback.

Bortles is under contract for 2018 because the Jaguars picked up his fifth-year option ($19.1 million). It is guaranteed for injury only, which means the Jaguars can cut him without owing him anything as long as he passes a physical. The Jaguars do have options if that’s the route they choose.

Kirk Cousins will be a free agent but likely would command a contract similar to what Detroit gave Matt Stafford (five years, $135 million, $92 million guaranteed). That’s a hefty price for a team that has several high-dollar contracts already on the books (Malik Jackson, Calais Campbell, Marcell Dareus, A.J. Bouye) and will have to come up with big money in two years for Jalen Ramsey.

The most logical and reasonable option would be trading for Alex Smith, and reports out of Kansas City are that the Chiefs are ready to listen to offers. It might cost the Jaguars multiple picks (possibly including a second-rounder), but they’d get the NFL’s top-rated passer in 2017 who threw 26 touchdown passes and only five interceptions.

Smith will turn 34 in May, so he’s not a long-term answer, but he certainly would make the Jaguars one of the favorites in the AFC with their defense continuing to play at a high level for at least another season or two. He’d buy the team at least two years to draft and groom a replacement, too.

There’s also the possibility that Eli Manning will be available via trade, and although he has said he doesn’t want to play anywhere else but with the New York Giants, a reunion with his former head coach and a chance to win a third Super Bowl might be enough to change his mind.

All of that may be moot if Bortles lights it up against the Steelers and the Jaguars find themselves in the AFC Championship Game. Another good performance there could take away any doubts that he’ll be back in 2018.

He hasn’t thought about any of that, though. Just how to beat the Steelers, even if it means not throwing a single pass.

“I think regardless how many yards you throw for, how many you run for, I think the key stat and really the only stat I pay attention to is the turnovers. And then we’ve just got to score one more points than they do,” Bortles said. “It doesn’t matter who scores it, where it comes from, how we do it, what it looks like; we score one more than them, and I’m happy with how we did it.

“Sometimes it takes different things: Sometimes you have to throw 50 times a game, sometimes you run 50 times a game, sometimes defense scores, sometimes special teams scores, there’s all kinds of different ways to do it. And for sure in the playoffs, nobody cares how it gets done as long as you find a way.”