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NFL Playoffs 2018: here’s how Jaguars can beat the Pats and improve to extremely good Bowl

Remember: You can stream the AFC Championship Game between the Patriots and Jaguars live right here on CBSSports.com.

In a way, this game is about the quarterbacks. Two quarterbacks, from opposite ends of the productivity spectrum, diametrically opposed in just about every way facing off in the AFC Championship Game. The last time the Jaguars were one game away from a Super Bowl, they faced the Patriots in Foxboro and Blake Bortles was four years old. Now, 21 years later, he’ll be under center at Gillette Stadium trying to match wits with Tom Brady.

Luckily for Bortles, this isn’t just a referendum on the quarterbacks; the Jaguars feature the NFL’s best defense — a young, brash, physical group that isn’t easily intimidated. And outside of Brady, Rob Gronkowski and maybe Devin McCourty, the Patriots are a mishmash players that range in abilities from replacement-level to good. Bill Belichick’s ability to consistently get more out of his roster than any other coach in the league goes a long way in explaining why the Patriots are making their seventh consecutive championship game appearance.

Now the question becomes whether this Jaguars outfit, which combined for just 11 wins in Bortles’ first three seasons, can take down the Pats … in Foxboro … against Brady and Belichick, who are arguably sharper now than ever.

How to Watch
Who: Jaguars vs. Patriots
Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxboro, Massachusetts
When: Sunday, Jan. 21, 3:05 p.m. ET
TV: CBS
Stream: CBS All Access

Which Blake Bortles will show up in Foxoboro?
Heading into the 2017 season, there was little reason to expect Blake Bortles to be anything more than the not-even-close-to-replacement-level quarterback he had shown himself to be during his first three NFL seasons. In a word, the former third-overall pick had been terrible.

As a rookie in 2014, Bortles ranked dead last in total value among all quarterbacks, according to Football Outsiders’ metrics. He improved to 25th in total value in 2015, when he threw 35 touchdowns along with 18 interceptions and five lost fumbles. And if last season was among his most disappointing — Bortles had 23 touchdowns, 16 interceptions and six fumbles and there were constant calls to bench him for Chad Henne — this season has been a feel-good redemption story.

Back in December, rookie running back Leonard Fournette went so far as to call Bortles a “top-five quarterback,” while defensive end Calais Campbell took it a few steps further.

“These last couple of games he’s playing amazing,” Campbell said at the time. “He looks like Brady these last couple games. I know Tom Brady does it all the time, but these last couple games, Blake was out there leading the team, playing confident and having fun.”

The reality is closer to this: Bortles has gone from being a liability to something much more than that. In statistical terms: After ranking among the NFL’s worst quarterbacks during his first three seasons, Bortles was average in 2017. According to Football Outsiders, he was precisely replacement-level, ranking 15th in total value and 16th in value per play, just ahead of Kirk Cousins and Dak Prescott.

This is a huge development, one that has benefited not only the rest of the offense, but put less pressure on the defense to pitch something close to a shutout every time they take the field. (Though, to hear this defense tell it, they welcome that sort of pressure.) In previous years, we were talking about Bortles terrible mechanics and elongated throwing motion — behold this popular tweet from October 2016:

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