BY SCOTT MORGANROTH
The last time I saw a post-season game at EverBank Field was on February 6, 2005 when the New England Patriots edged the Philadelphia Eagles 24-21 on a chilly clear 59 degree night in front of 78,125 to win Super Bowl XXXIX.
While I've covered my fair share of games in this venue since then, this post-season contest pitting the Buffalo Bills (9-7) vs Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6) is one with no shortage of story lines.
As I mentioned in the last story, Jaguars Coach Doug Marrone served as the Bills head coach from 2013-14. During the week, my media colleagues have touted this game as "The Doug Marrone Bowl."
During the season, the Jaguars bolstered their run defense by acquiring defensive tackle Marcell Dareus from the Buffalo Bills. To demonstrate their thanks to Buffalo, Jacksonville inserted Dareus into the starting lineup.
Jaguars rookie running back Leonard Fournette bought his offensive line Rolex Watches as he eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark by amassing 1,040 yards in 13 games with nine rushing touchdowns.
CBS sent their top broadcasting team of Jim Nantz, Tony Romo, Tracy Wolfson and Jay Feeley to cover the game. Wolfson and Feeley are both Michigan Wolverine alumnus and were assigned to report from the sidelines.
But the big story lines with these franchises was their long playoff droughts.
Buffalo owned the longest drought in the NFL by sitting on the sidelines since 1999, 17 years.
Meanwhile, the Jaguars won their first division title in franchise history and had a 10-year playoff hiatus.
Between the two squads, you're looking at 27 years of no playoff football.
The one thing that I've enjoyed over the past 13 months is how the Jaguars have made a nice turnaround, coming off a 3-13 mark.
During the past two stories, I've talked about what's transpired with this team.
The word sellout hasn't been used much while the team has struggled since they appeared in the post-season in 2007.
But that word sellout has reappeared at the end of the 2017 season to the tune of three straight and this is just the beginning.
With a competitive team, I've always believed that this town would Erupt which is behind the name, Mount. St. Jacksonville.
In My Sports Writing career, I've seen a lot of different Sports Towns.
The ones which have intrigued me the most are those that are "The Only Game In Town."
Some of the teams and towns that have stood out over the years include: The Portland Trail Blazers, Orlando Magic, Sacramento Kings, Utah Jazz, San Antonio Spurs, Columbus Blue Jackets, Vancouver Canucks and of course the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Other towns and teams that had one major sports team before they ultimately gained expansion franchises include: The Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Miami Dolphins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Toronto Maple Leafs. These are the places I've seen.
There are others which I'm not mentioning at the moment because they're on my bucket list down the road.
What amazes me about the Jacksonville situation is they get seven regular season home games in addition to the pair of pre-season games.
Jaguars Owner Shad Khan has a home game in London, England, which is also on my bucket list and Jacksonville makes a lot of money playing across the pond. Jacksonville recently extended its deal to continue playing a game in the UK.
With this team being in the playoffs, Khan will reap the benefits of his team being a Cash Cow as revenues figure to increase as a result of continued fan support along with merchandise sales both locally and in London.
I spoke with a writer from the Toronto Star and he said Khan markets the Jaguars in Canada.
Prior to the Buffalo Game, Khan gave away 1,000 free tickets to Puerto Ricans, who were displaced from Hurricane Maria.
You want to talk about a hot ticket, the Jaguars vs Bills was just that.
Tickets for this game were going for $300 for standing room, while the other AFC Wild Card Game in Kansas City pitting the Chiefs against the Tennessee Titans was $38 per ticket.
Regardless of how much the Jaguars fans paid for this game, the "White Towels" were waving at full force.
The Titans defeated the Chiefs 22-21 so the financial hit for those fans wasn't high, but the loss stung nonetheless.
Before the game, I spoke for a couple minutes with NFL Network Analyst Mike Mayock and asked him what type of game that he expected to see.
Mayock was doing the color analysis for Westwood One National Radio Broadcast with play-by-play partner Ian Eagle.
He told me that he expected a hard fought and low scoring affair.
While neither of us predicted a team, I did tell him that a 17-14 or 21-17 score is what I thought would occur and he seemed to like those scores.
That's how evenly matched these teams were.
They have QB's in Buffalo's Tyrod Taylor and Jacksonville's Blake Bortles, who were making their playoff debuts.
Plus, running backs LeSean McCoy of Buffalo and Fournette are game breakers.
How do you impress your fan base and regional following?
You win and the Jaguars sent 69,442 people home real happy with a 10-3 win on a clear 53 degree day.
Going into the game, Jacksonville was an 8.5 point favorite and the Over/Under was 40.
The prognosticators and the gamblers were definitely off base with these numbers.
Here are some interesting numbers that stood out in this contest.
Buffalo out gained Jacksonville in net yards, 263-230.
Time of possession favored the Bills as well leading by a 32:37-27:23 margin.
McCoy performed better than Fournette. McCoy had 75 yards rushing and 44 yards receiving. Fournette rushed for 57 yards and added another 21 in the air.
On the depth chart, Blake Bortles is listed as a QB, but put on a Halloween Costume as a running back. I can't remember the last time that a signal caller rushed for more yards than he threw for. But that's exactly what happened.
Bortles rushed for 88 yards and passed for 87, although he did throw a touchdown pass and didn't throw an interception.
For this story, I've decided to use what I consider key adjectives and use definitions to describe what I saw.
1. Ugly--If you were looking for a shootout, this wasn't the game.
2. Stingy Defenses--Both teams combined for 493 net yards.
3. Energy--The crowd noise could even be heard in the press box through the windows.
4. Rodney Dangerfield--Blake Bortles gets no respect from the National Media but got a win.
5. Emotional--Sellout crowd with Flag On The Field during National Anthem in this Military Town.
7. Full--The Press Box. I met a columnist from the Toronto Sun.
8. Cooler Temperatures--Than Super Bowl XXXIX (39).
9. Painful--To watch Bills QB Tyrod Taylor getting tackled and head thrown into ground leading to a concussion.
10. Vindication--Marrone and Dareus defeat former team.
11. Dramatic--Hometown kid Nathan Peterman enters game after Taylor leaves via a concussion.
12. Gordie Howe Hat Trick, Peterman throws an interception, runs for a first down, intentional grounding penalty.
13. Chris Webber--Buffalo had no timeouts resulting in two 10 second clock runoffs, with Peterman intentional grounding and Taylor's injury.
14. Clutch--Bortles picking up a first down off a botched play, fumbled snap scrambling for a first down with under five minutes left in regulation time.
15. Smash-mouth--If there was ever a physical football game, this was it.
There were some very happy Jaguars and here is what some of them had to say.
Dareus had four tackles, three solo and one for a loss. When I approached him, he remembered me from our last conversation and he had a smile that went from Jacksonville to the North Pole.
"It was nice defeating my old team and I wanted to give whatever information to the coaches," Dareus said. "Whatever they wanted to use, it was up to them.
"It's nice to continue playing and the energy in this stadium was tremendous. To feed off the fans the way we did was great. It's something to play in front of a small market where you're the only team in town and watch the community get behind this team. I was just hovering over the whole atmosphere and trying to live in the moment.
"I've really enjoyed my time here and I'm glad the season isn't over. We have more work to do and I'm looking forward to the next game."
Marrone knows how far this team has come in the past year. But for a guy that's pretty even keeled and downplayed the revenge Buffalo match-up during the week, it wasn't hard to tell that he's pleased that there won't be any exit interviews this week.
"Like I told our team, it was a hard fought game on both sides, both teams. Credit, obviously, to Buffalo. They did a heck of a job today. They played their butts off. I thought we played hard too and at the end of the day we were just able to make a couple of plays.
"Playoff football is about you just going out there to win. No one was trying to win a beauty contest. The teams that are playing, it's going to be all out, everything is all out on the football field. Like I said, I'd be remiss not to give credit to Buffalo. They left it all out there, and I thought our guys were leaving it all out there. Each week it's a different story, you know what I'm saying, in what you want to do.
"Each week is going to be geared toward doing the best job you can, but it still goes back to the same thing we've been talking about all year. It's going to be your performance on that day, and what you're able to do, so obviously we're going to have to do some better things going forward."
Defensive end Yannick Ngakoue was asked if this felt like a game that one play could make a difference.
"Yeah, definitely. I just felt like from the start the defense came out and we did what we were supposed to do. All 11 guys flying to the ball, had a little bit of mistakes, but that's part of football. You're not going to be perfect. Overall, I feel like the effort and I feel like the energy was there."
Cornerback Aaron Colvin described his first playoff experience.
"The atmosphere was incredible. The fans, they were rocking from start to finish, and I've just got to say thank you to all the fans that were out there that supported us today and have been around with us all year. It's a cool feeling, but at the same time, we've got bigger goals."
Offensive lineman Cam Robinson talked about what it's like when Bortles breaks out for big runs.
"He's an athlete, that's what it tells me. He's going out there and do whatever it takes for us to win. That's all you can ask from a quarterback is to go out there and lay it on the line every time and he does a great job of doing that every week."
Linebacker Telvin Smith described his thoughts on finally getting a playoff win.
"I'm telling you it feels great. I know that's simple, but it is what it is. It's simple in the formula that we did. If you put that hard work in from the front office to the players and to the coaches, you put in that hard work and you're going to get results, so that's all you see. Right here, are the results of hard work."
Cornerback A.J. Bouye talked about how Bortles handled himself.
"Everything is not perfect. He finds a way to keep fighting through. He blocks out all the noise. It shows you how tough he is especially that one third-down where the ball came down. He picked it up and ran off. Things weren't perfect but he keeps fighting. He has grit. Coach Tom Coughlin talks about that a lot."
Defensive end Calais Campbell was asked why this season is different than previous seasons for the Jaguars.
"I don't have that answer for you, I wish I did. All I know is that this season, everybody's focused and having fun and enjoying the game, and we put the work in. This is the hardest I've ever worked in my whole career. Coach Marrone really demanded a lot out of us and the guys responded. This team is incredible and we have so many playmakers, different guys who love this game and play the right way."
Wide receiver Allen Hurns had nothing but praise for his underrated signal caller Blake Bortles.
"It shows who Blake is. No matter what happens he finds a way. No matter what happens during the course of a game, he has that belief that he can go down and lead us on any given drive. He wasn't able to get it done in the passing game, but that's on all of us. He made a lot of plays with his legs to continue drives."
Last but not least, there is Blake Bortles. This guy won't win any Olympic Gold Medals in running events, but he probably doesn't even care.
A Vince Lombardi Trophy would suit him fine.
On this chilly afternoon in Northern Florida, he was asked if he ever thought he would rush for more yards than he would pass.
"No, that's usually not ideal for a quarterback but it is what it is. I said earlier I kind of felt like last week I didn't run a whole lot. I don't think I ran at all so it felt like we lost and got beat with emptying all of our bullets, so I wanted to make sure that whatever happened today, if we were going to get beat or something bad was going to happen, it was going to be with us going down swinging, using every option we could. I think the wind was a factor a little bit going one way but I thought we did a good job up front and they did a good job of getting back and getting under routes, so it kind of allowed me to run a little bit."
Bortles was asked if the overall experience lived up to his expectation.
"It was incredible. Talking to guys on the sidelines there's not a lot of people outside of Marcedes (Lewis) that have ever seen the stadium like that. I think for us to run out of the tunnel and see all of those people out there and for the first time since I've been here to see the tarps taken off of the upper deck in the corners was real special. It was cool to be able to do this in front of our home crowd in Jacksonville, our stadium. Everyone knows it hasn't been done in a long time so it was really special to be able to do that."
While Jacksonville didn't win a beauty contest against Buffalo, the Jaguars did against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field in Pennsylvania, Sunday, 45-42.
This was Jacksonville's second win over Pittsburgh in the Steelers building this season.
I've maintained all-season that I feel the Jaguars are playing on "House Money." I still believe that way so it was easy for them to prepare for a rematch with the Steelers as an underdog.
Especially since the Steelers (13-3) entered the game overconfident and appeared to be looking forward to facing the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game Sunday.
Unfortunately for Pittsburgh fans, that match-up never materialized.
When your Super Bowl winning signal caller Ben Roethlisberger throws for 469 yards and five touchdowns, one would think this should be a victory.
But he threw for one interception and Jacksonville's defense sacked Ben seven times and the Steelers had two turnovers.
If you want lots of yards, this game had it as Pittsburgh out gained Jacksonville 545-378 totaling 923 for both squads.
Bortles numbers were a bit better than against Buffalo as he amassed 214 yards passing and one touchdown, plus 35 yards rushing. Bortles did an exceptional job managing the football game by not self destructing and beating himself.
But Steelers nemesis Fournette was at it again as he scored three touchdowns and gained 109 yards.
Jacksonville will now face the New England Patriots Sunday in Massachusetts in the AFC Championship Game.
This is the Jaguars third appearance in this game, but the first since 1999.
When you consider the magnitude of the Jacksonville run this season, here are some things to consider.
First, former Coach Mike Mularkey was fired by the Tennessee Titans this week even though his team won a playoff game.
Second, the Cincinnati Bengals are 0-7 in the playoffs since Marvin Lewis has been the head coach.
Third, the Detroit Lions haven't won a playoff game since the 1991 season, their only campaign where they advanced to their lone NFC Championship Game.
Fourth, Jim McMahon (Chicago Bears), Doug Williams (Washington Redskins), Jeff Hostetler (New York Giants), Mark Rypien (Washington Redskins), Trent Dilfer (Baltimore Ravens) and Brad Johnson (Tampa Bay Bucs), Jim Plunkett (Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders) proved a QB doesn't have to be a Hall of Famer to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Despite winning two Super Bowls, Plunkett's statistics are definitely not worth bragging about.
He amassed 25,882 yards, with 164 touchdown passes and 198 interceptions with a passer rating of 67.5.
Since his arrival to Jacksonville in 2014, Bortles has thrown for 14,928 yards, 90 touchdowns, 64 interceptions and has a passer rating of 80.8.
Romo, who called the game for CBS had a 78-49 record for the Dallas Cowboys and amassed 34,183 yards.
But for all of these yards, when it came to the playoffs, Romo's record of 2-4 and no Super Bowl appearance would ultimately define his career.
Bortles is already 2-0 in the playoffs and has his squad one victory away from the Super Bowl.
When the Jaguars returned home from Pittsburgh there was a Small Rally at EverBank Field celebrating their win.
At the moment, we're getting just a Snap Shot of what Jacksonville will look like with some post-season success.
I can only imagine what this town will be like should the team get to the Super Bowl, let alone win it.
There is one Jaguar player who will have some hardware heading to his trophy case.
Calais Campbell has been named Defensive Player Of The Year By The Football Writers Of America.
Campbell, who was acquired by the team as an unrestricted free agent on March 10, 2017, started all 16 games for the third consecutive season and totaled 67 tackles, 14.5 sacks, 14 tackles for a loss, three forced fumbles, three passes defensed and one fumble recovery, which he returned 10 yards for a touchdown.
Campbell set the Jaguars single season franchise record with a career-high and AFC-leading 14.5 sacks.
As outsiders try to think they know the answers as to whether Bortles can lead this team to the Lombardi Trophy searching to find his replacement, the team is becoming more confident he's their QB of the present and future.
The attitude in Jacksonville is Us Vs The World. The Jaguars will have it no other way.
The amount of players featured in this story really paints a good picture of what's going on in This Military Town.
If there is an advantage of being in a smaller market with less media and blue collar fans, this is it.
What I've seen over the past year and a half is truly incredible.
I'll say this, whenever the Sun Sets on the season whether it be this weekend, or perhaps after the Super Bowl, Mount St. Jacksonville is about to Erupt and the Lava is starting to come out in an area which is the "Only Game In Town."
Scott Morganroth can be reached at www.scottsports33.com and is a member of Detroit Sports Media.
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