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Blake Bortles

Blake Bortles

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Blake Bortles wasn’t having a whole lot of success with his arm, so the Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback decided to try to make a few plays with his legs.

That’s not exactly the formula the Jaguars want to use, but it worked Sunday in their 10-3 AFC wild-card victory over the Buffalo Bills at EverBank Field. Bortles rushed for more yards (88) than he had passing (87) to become the first quarterback to win a playoff game with fewer than 100 passing yards on 20-plus attempts since Steve McNair in the 1999 AFC wild-card game against the Bills.

All that matters for the Jaguars, though, is Bortles found a way to win a playoff game, which hasn’t been done around here in a long time. The last time that happened was in the 2007 season. The last time it happened at home was after the 1999 season. Whether Bortles is still the franchise’s long-term answer at quarterback is a debate that can be put off for another week because the Jaguars still have at least one more game to play.

“Going into a game, there’s no secret recipe on how to win,” said Bortles, who completed 12 of 23 passes. “There’s no number that says you’ve got to score this many points to beat them. You’ve got to score one more than they score, regardless of it’s 50 or if it’s three, you’ve got to find a way to outscore them.”

That seemed unreachable with the way Bortles played in the first half. It appeared that the significant strides he made in 2017 were going to be wasted and the offseason was going to again be filled with questions such as, “What do the Jaguars do at quarterback?” Yet Bortles was able to rebound and proved to his teammates and coaches that he can be relied upon to win games.

It doesn’t matter that Bortles did a large part of it with his feet.

“He found a way,” cornerback Aaron Colvin said. “That’s what we talk about. It’s the main reason I played today [despite being ill]. You’ve got to find a way. Whatever it takes. We’ve got to get to these goals that we’ve talked about.

“All this work we’ve put in the offseason is for moments like these, and for him to find a way and do it with his legs, man, I have the utmost respect for him.”

Bortles was having by far his worst game of the season until he started scrambling and getting free. Per ESPN Stats & Information, Bortles gained 71 of his 88 rushing yards via scrambles. In the past 10 postseasons, only Colin Kaepernick has scrambled for more yards in a game (85 in the 2013 wild-card round).

“I kind of reference it to a pitcher,” Bortles said. “You go out and something’s not on. You don’t have a fastball or you don’t have a curveball, and you’ve got to find another pitch to be able to win and be successful and get guys out. That’s kind of the same thing playing quarterback.

“I’m kind of fortunate to be able to run around and be able to do that stuff and have kind of an Option B to kind of help this offense move the ball and put up points. Trying to do really whatever I can to help this team win [and] help this team score points.”

Bortles’ rushing performance doesn’t overshadow that the Jaguars won’t be around in the playoffs much longer if the offense doesn’t start producing. Outside of Bortles, the run game was terrible: Leonard Fournette managed 57 yards on 21 carries. Dede Westbrook was the only receiver to catch a pass against the Bills.

That certainly won’t be good enough when the Jaguars play at Pittsburgh next Sunday with a berth in the AFC Championship Game on the line.

“We never really got into a rhythm and weren’t able to get anything on third down,” Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone said. “I’d be a fool to sit here and say I’m not concerned, but I’m going to take a step back and go ahead and look at it again. Obviously, if you want to continue to keep playing, you’re going to have to do a better job.”

That includes Bortles’ arm and legs.

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Matt Ryan

Matt Ryan

ATLANTA — Every week, Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn emphasizes the importance of winning on third down and in the red zone. Sunday’s loss showed exactly why Quinn harps on it all the time.

The Falcons felt good about themselves entering the matchup with the Minnesota Vikings as they had the league’s top third-down offense, converting 48.1 percent of those opportunities. Plus, the defense made some big stops in last week’s win over Tampa Bay.

But it all went for naught, as third-down struggles on both sides and settling for field goals on offense eventually led to the Falcons’ demise in a 14-9 loss.

Not only did the Falcons’ three-game winning streak come to an end, but now the playoff picture becomes a little fuzzier. The Falcons are 7-5 and among the group of teams trying to hold on to a wild-card spot right next to the Seattle Seahawks, whom they beat in Week 11. It won’t be easy for the Falcons to secure a postseason berth with the league’s toughest schedule to finish, which includes two games against the rival New Orleans Saints and a rematch with a defense just as tough and physical as the Vikings’ in the Carolina Panthers.

In order to make a playoff push, the Falcons can’t fall back on bad habits like they did against the Vikings. They were 1-for-10 on third down a week after going 11-of-14 against the Buccaneers. Some of the seven penalties the Falcons picked up contributed to their third-down woes.

“I thought we had too many third-and-7s,” quarterback Matt Ryan said. “I think one of the points of emphasis for us during the week was to try and be efficient on first and second down. We didn’t do a good job of that.

“They are a very good defense. We knew it was going to be tough sledding at times, but we’ve got to be more productive and put ourselves in better positions. When we get our chances on third downs, we’ve got to make some plays.”

The Falcons were 0-for-1 in the red zone and settled for three Matt Bryant field goals for the entire day — and Bryant even missed a key 45-yarder late. The players totally backed Quinn’s decision to go with that field goal with 5 minutes, 4 seconds remaining and the Falcons facing fourth-and-4 from the Vikings’ 27 rather than gamble and go for it. Besides, they needed as many points as possible with touchdowns hard to come by against a stingy Vikings defense.

The only other time the Falcons scored in single digits this season was a 23-7 loss to the New England Patriots in Week 7.

“We just have to get back in rhythm,” Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones said. “Today, we were just missing offensively. … From our standpoint, we’re way better than nine points. We just have to get it fixed.”

Defensively, the Falcons missed tackles and let the Vikings go over 100 yards rushing. The defense allowed NFC Offensive Player of the Month Case Keenum to complete 25 of 30 passes for 227 yards with two touchdowns and a 120.4 passer rating. They allowed the Vikings to convert 6 of 12 third downs, including a crucial third-and-4 in the late stages that resulted in Keenum’s 22-yard connection with Adam Thielen, a conversion that all but sealed the victory. Allowing the Vikings to convert those third downs was a reason Minnesota had the ball almost 10 minutes longer.

“That ain’t good at all,” Falcons defensive back Ricardo Allen said of the Vikings converting 50 percent on third down. “That kept a lot of their drives going. We just have to get off the field on third down.

“They didn’t really throw any challenging balls. [Keenum] took what we gave him. It wasn’t like they were out there dicing us up or anything. Whatever we gave them, they took. And if they had to punt the ball, they punted the ball.”

Back on offense, Ryan couldn’t find that connection with Jones, who had just two catches for 24 yards on six targets while matched up a lot against Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes. Devonta Freeman rushed for 74 yards on 12 carries in his return from a concussion, which is a positive sign for the Falcons for the remainder of the season. But it didn’t help the cause Sunday.

The Falcons’ next challenge is a quick turnaround, with not much time to prepare for Thursday night’s NFC South showdown with the rival and division-leading Saints. One aspect the Falcons do have in their favor is the game being at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium as the final part of a three-game homestand.

“It’s already preparation for Thursday night,” Allen said. “We’ve got to go get it.”

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Philadelphia Eagles

Philadelphia Eagles

PHILADELPHIA — Before the suspension of Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott became official, Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins channeled his inner Ric Flair when asked if he would rather face the Cowboys with or without Elliott in the lineup.

“I’d rather play Zeke,” he said, “because we want to be the best. And to be the best, you’ve gotta beat the best.”

Instead, the 8-1 Eagles will face a 5-4 Cowboys team that will be without their star back and potentially their star left tackle, Tyron Smith, who missed Sunday’s loss to the Atlanta Falcons with a groin injury. Smith’s replacement, Chaz Green, was responsible for allowing four sacks. Byron Bell took over midway through the fourth and yielded two sacks of his own. Smith is a question mark for Sunday night’s game against Philly.

“Absolutely, I would say,” responded Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox when asked if Dallas missed Smith more than Elliott. “The guy[s] gave up six sacks. Obviously they’ll try to get their best O-lineman back on the field for Sunday.”

One thing the Cowboys do have going for them is quarterback Dak Prescott, who was sacked a career-high eight times versus Atlanta while dealing with the two key offensive losses but has otherwise been playing at a high level. He has 16 touchdowns to four interceptions on the season, upping his impressive career TD-INT ratio to 39-8. Whether Dallas’ offensive front is at full strength or not, the Eagles know they have their hands full in trying to contain Prescott.

“I’ve been around the NFL for a pretty long time now. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a better thrower on the run than Dak Prescott,” Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. “He can throw scrambling to his left. He can throw scrambling to his right. There are not many quarterbacks that can do that. He can threaten the whole field on the run. He doesn’t have to reset the throw, and he’s very accurate on the run.

“For a young player, he makes very few mistakes, and that’s impressed me also.”

According to offensive coordinator Frank Reich, the Eagles brought Prescott in for a visit and evaluated him a good bit during the pre-draft process in 2016. Though they ultimately traded up for Carson Wentz, Prescott had some pretty big fans in the building.

“You can ask anybody; I had very, very high grades on Dak in every aspect,” Reich said. “I thought his college tape was really, really good. I really liked the way he threw the ball, his timing and anticipation. When he came in here and we sat down and interviewed him — a hardcore interview as far as digging down into protections and X’s and O’s and pass concepts and what his understanding of what the pass game was and protections — it was really high in all areas. And then you could just tell he had that X factor, as far as natural leadership ability.”

Prescott fell to the Cowboys in the fourth round, 131 picks after they selected his backfield partner, Elliott. Assuming Elliott’s six-game suspension holds, Prescott will be the opposition’s primary focus for the next five games, including the Eagles’ Sunday night in Dallas.

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Blake Bortles

Blake Bortles

Let’s go ahead and put the notion of the Jacksonville Jaguars bringing in a quarterback to replace Blake Bortles in the middle of the season. It’s not going to happen.

Jacksonville’s brain trust of Tom Coughlin, David Caldwell and Doug Marrone had a chance to bring someone in during free agency to challenge Bortles. It didn’t happen.

The NFL Draft came and went, where the team could have bypassed Leonard Fournette and taken Deshaun Watson or Patrick Mahomes. It didn’t happen.

The team announced just days after the NFL Draft it would pick up Bortles’ fifth-year option, which they can still void if they are not satisfied with the former first round pick’s play. They showed a commitment to him for at least this season.

Even when Bortles has looked like the Bortles of old, giving the Tennessee and New York Jets games as examples, the team did not bench him. And when he has looked good, in games against Houston, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis, the team has won their four games by blowout margins.

Trading for another signal caller would be more of a detriment than a help. The middle of the season is not when a team should shake up a potential playoff team. It is successful on few occasions. The San Francisco 49ers went to the Super Bowl with Colin Kaepernick because Alex Smith got injured during the season.

Bortles may not throw for 3,000 yards this season. He may not throw 25 touchdowns and he may throw for only 12 interceptions. Those are victories for this quarterback. His decision making is better because offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett hasn’t had to lean on him to carry this offense. The running game is to thank for that. The improved offensive line has kept him clean, with only 11 sacks in the first seven games. More importantly, the Jaguars have been able to start games at a faster pace and they are scoring early and in winning football games – often.

“I just think it’s a matter of when you go out there and get off to a good start it’s like two-minute [drill],” coach Doug Marrone said. “You make that first completion and you get on a roll. If you miss the first one then it’s very difficult when you study all the two-minute stuff. I think it’s a matter of that. Knowing that, listen if something doesn’t work out and it doesn’t go well and you go back to the sideline, correct it, get refocused and get back on the field and let’s go.”

Bortles’ fast start has also given him confidence to make plays in and out of the pocket. While the passes he throws looks like a wounded duck at times, he has found his targets on short and intermediate passing routes. This might be as much to do with the loss Allen Robinson as anything else. With rookie Dede Westbrook coming of injured reserve, the team may have another target to rev the engine up in the second half of the season.

Marrone has been able to preach progress over regression from past mistakes. The lesson has worked – so far. This is a more fluid offense, which relies on the run first, the pass season.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Jaguars have scored more points (51) than any other team, are averaging the most yards (115.6) and rushing yards (49.1), and have not committed a turnover in the first quarter. They’ve scored touchdowns on their opening drive in four games and kicked field goals in two others.

With it, the Jaguars are running over teams with the run game and stiff-arming them on the defensive side of the ball.

For now, Bortles is the best option for this team moving forward until the end of 2017.

After this season, the Jaguars will decide if they will bring BB5 back for his fifth season. The 19-million price tag is highly unlikely, but a new deal with a reduced rate could be on the table. It’s also possible – almost a guarantee – Jacksonville brings in a veteran signal caller (Alex Smith, Sam Bradford, Teddy Bridgewater, Kirk Cousins) to lead this team in 2018 or they draft a quarterback to forge the future.

Now that they team has brought in Marcell Dareus to help defending the run, quarterback is the team’s weakest position. It’s hard to say that with a 4-3 team and a possible playoff berth. Bortles isn’t as bad as many would think, he’s just not the elite passer they want. Jacksonville needs him to be the same player he has been this season to get to the playoffs. Any improvement would be gravy. Any regression would be disaster.