On Sunday afternoon, the Jacksonville Jaguars secured their first win in the postseason since the Wild Card Round back in 2007.
That's just about the nicest thing that can be said about the victory—a 10-3 win that was decidedly short on offensive fireworks.
But in winning ugly, the Jaguars may have stumbled upon their best chance of moving on next week against the Pittsburgh Steelers and to the AFC Championship Game.
Let's get the bad news out of the way.
For most of Sunday's game, Blake Bortles and the Jacksonville offense were terrible.
|Blake Bortles vs. Bills|
|10 carries, 88 yards rushing|
For the game, Bortles completed just over half his passes for a whopping 87 yards. The fourth-year pro averaged just 3.8 yards per attempt and missed receivers on routine throws over and over.
It wasn't just Bortles who struggled. Tailback Leonard Fournette found the sledding tough. With the Bills selling out to stop the run, Fournette managed just 57 yards on 21 carries. The Jaguars' leading rusher was actually Bortles, who carried the ball 10 times for 88 yards.
That's right. Bortles ran for more yards than he gained passing.
The Jaguars were out-gained 263 to 230. Jacksonville possessed the ball for just over 27 minutes. And the Jags converted just two of 12 third-down attempts.
And yet, the Jaguars won the game.
Because as it has all season long, one of the NFL's best defenses carried the day.
Jacksonville allowed 119 total yards to Buffalo tailback LeSean McCoy, who gutted it out through a bad ankle in an impressive display of toughness. But it was a quiet 119 yards.
It was also just about all the Bills could muster offensively.
Every Bills receiver not named LeSean McCoy combined for 12 catches for 104 yards. And as bad as Bortles was Sunday, the Buffalo quarterbacks were even worse. The combined passing stat line for Tyrod Taylor and Nathan Peterman was miserable—18-of-40 for 133 yards.
The Jags also lived up to their defensive nicknames Sunday, whether it was "Sacksonville" or "Pick-fil-A."
The Jaguars pass rush was constantly disruptive, notching two sacks and half a dozen QB hits. Jacksonville's NFL-best pass defense also secured a pair of interceptions, including an athletic grab by Jalen Ramsey that put the game to bed.
While speaking to Tracy Wolfson of CBS Sports after the game, Bortles credited the defense for taking pressure off its offensive counterparts:
"They've been unbelievable all year long. It kind of allows [the offense] to go out there and not press or get too high or too low—the understanding that they will get us the ball back and get us some more opportunities. They've been able to do it all year long, and they did it again today. We figured out a way to win and that's all that matters."
If the Jaguars are going to get past the Steelers next week at Heinz Field, that defense is going to have to do it again in the divisional round.
Yes, the Jaguars throttled the Steelers, 30-9, back in Week 5. In Pittsburgh, no less. But using that game as the barometer for this rematch is a dangerous proposition. Ben Roethlisberger played one of the worst games of his career in that October drubbing, tossing five interceptions. Two of those picks were returned for scores.
The odds of that happening twice in the same season aren't especially good.
The odds are good, however, that if the Jaguars can defend Le'Veon Bell as well as they did McCoy, Roethlisberger and the Steelers will be forced into the same obvious passing situations the Bills were—possibly with Antonio Brown at less than 100 percent.
And that's when the Jaguars have you where they want you.
There's a reason why the Jags have been talked up this year as the team no one wants to face in the AFC bracket. Their defense has the ability to dictate the tempo of a game, just as it did against Buffalo. And when Jacksonville does that, it goes a long way toward masking the team's offensive deficiencies.
This isn't to say that Bortles and the offense won't have to play better in Pittsburgh than they did in the Wild Card Round. The Steelers won't be held to three points. They probably won't be held to the nine they scored in that first meeting this season.
Fournette is going to have to run more effectively against a Steelers run defense that allowed almost 20 fewer yards per game on the ground this season than the Bills. And Bortles can't continue to miss open receivers against a Pittsburgh pass defense that was fifth in the league in 2017.
Run the ball. Avoid costly mistakes and turnovers. And turn Calais Campbell, Ramsey and that defense loose.
It isn't the kind of football that piles up style points and makes for riveting television.
But it's the Jaguars' best bet to move one step closer to the first Super Bowl trip in franchise history.