AFC title game an 'opportunity,' not redemption for Blake Bortles

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Blake Bortles is still standing.

Much to the chagrin of a legion of critics and jealous NFL players, the Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback is getting ready to play another game this week. Not Alex Smith, the NFL’s highest-rated passer in 2017, or Matthew Stafford, the league's highest-paid player.

Not Ben Roethlisberger or Joe Flacco, both of whom have won championships.

Bortles, the laid-back guy who showed up to his Wednesday news conference in sweatpants and slippers, is one of the four quarterbacks who are one victory away from a Super Bowl. Yet he refuses to see that as any sort of redemption.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “Personally, I do not care. I look at it as it is an incredible opportunity to continue to be able to play football at this time of year. I think it is pretty awesome, especially, to be able to share this with those guys in that locker room.

“We are one of four teams that get to come out and practice on Wednesday today. That is special. It is something that everybody dreams of, something that everybody works towards. For us to be able to be here and be in this position is pretty awesome.”

It really should be a “How do you like me now?” moment for Bortles, who has been taking mortar fire from NFL players throughout the season -- including guys such as Jurrell Casey (Bortles will choke), Jadeveon Clowney (he’s trash), Vontaze Burfict (he can’t beat the Bengals) and Earl Thomas (he’s a subpar QB). He has won two playoff games by throwing for 301 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for 123 yards -- and most importantly, not turning the ball over.

That’s a long way from August, when he was benched before the Jaguars’ third preseason game and had to win his job back. There was speculation that the team would cut the third overall pick in 2014 and go with Chad Henne and start the search for a franchise quarterback anew in the 2018 draft.

Bortles won the job back and has taken all but 23 snaps this season, missing time in a blowout victory over Baltimore in September and to receive IV fluids against Houston in December.

Bortles had the best year of his career, completing 60.2 percent of his passes (the first time he has surpassed 60 percent) and throwing 21 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions. He had 16 total turnovers after leading the NFL with 63 from 2014 to 2016. The Jaguars won the AFC South, the franchise’s first division title since 1999, and made the playoffs for the first time since 2007.

Yet he was hammered seemingly weekly by opposing NFL players. Not once did he respond -- other than to make a quip about Clowney’s trash comment -- and none of the criticism impacted the way he carried himself inside or outside the facility.

“I just feel like that’s part of Blake’s character,” receiver Marqise Lee said. “He’s not that type of person to actually clap back and things like that. I like it this way. He doesn’t say anything when he goes out there and plays. Most people would probably still try to say something, but at the end of the day we’re still moving forward.”

Bortles’ teammates have aggressively defended him, the latest being defensive tackle Malik Jackson, who jumped into an interview with defensive end Calais Campbell to call out Casey after the Jaguars’ 45-42 victory over Pittsburgh in an AFC divisional playoff game Sunday.

“We just don’t like that,” linebacker Myles Jack said. “All week people were talking about, ‘Oh, is Bortles going to do this, is Bortles going to do that?’ but obviously he came out last week and showed what he’s capable of. He put up points, he saved the defense in a lot of situations where we got scored on, and he answered. You’ve got to give him credit where credit is due.”

Bortles appreciates the support, because while he doesn’t care what opposing players say about him, he does care about how his teammates view him.

“When other people say stuff or it comes from anywhere, it does not bother me,” Bortles said. “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. Any time you get a guy like [Jackson] to stand up is awesome. I would do the same thing for our people.”

He won’t defend himself or describe what he has done as any form of redemption. But Lee will.

“At the end of the day, we’re in the AFC championship,” Lee said. “What more can you say, in all honesty? Even if you don’t like the way we play, so be it, we’re still here at the end of the day.”