FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The Jacksonville Jaguars ended the season with a 24-20 loss to New England in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday at Gillette Stadium. Here's a recap of the season and what's next:
Season grade: Near perfection. Going from 3-13 to the AFC Championship Game is one of the NFL's biggest turnarounds. The Jaguars and the 2006 New Orleans Saints are the only teams in NFL history to play in a conference title game the year after winning three or fewer games. The addition of Tom Coughlin played a big role, but general manager Dave Caldwell put together the bulk of this team. The votes were in before the postseason started, but had they not been, Doug Marrone certainly made a persuasive argument to be the NFL's Coach of the Year.
Season in review: After splitting their first six games, the Jaguars finally got on a roll and won seven of their next eight. A 45-7 victory over the Houston Texans at home clinched the franchise's first playoff appearance since 2007, and the Tennessee Titans' loss the following week gave the Jaguars their first division title since 1999. The Jaguars won by playing great defense (they finished first in the NFL in pass defense and second in points allowed, sacks and turnovers), running the ball with rookie Leonard Fournette (who became the second rookie in franchise history to rush for 1,000 yards) and getting efficient play from quarterback Blake Bortles. That was the formula that Coughlin and Marrone wanted. There were bumps -- the defense struggled a bit in the final two weeks, and young receivers Keelan Cole and Dede Westbrook were inconsistent -- but overall it worked.
Biggest play of season: Cornerback A.J. Bouye's interception of the Los Angeles Chargers' Philip Rivers in overtime set up the game-winning field goal in a game the Jaguars really shouldn't have won. Bortles threw a pair of interceptions in the final two minutes, but thanks to a bad decision by Tre Boston (he ran out of bounds instead of trying to get more yards after the second interception), the Jaguars got the ball back and were able to hit a game-tying field goal at the end of regulation. After a punt pinned the Chargers deep at their own 10-yard line, Rivers tried to hit Travis Benjamin deep down the sideline on third down, but Bouye outfought Benjamin for the ball and returned it to the Chargers' 17. Three plays later, Josh Lambo kicked the game winner.
He said it: "I think the funny thing is obviously a lot of people were surprised by what happened this year, but nobody in that locker room was. Our bar was set one week or two weeks from now, and we didn't get there. We'll go back to the drawing board and figure it out. We fully expect to be back here again giving it another try next year." -- Bortles after the loss to the Patriots
Key offseason questions
What happens with Bortles? The Jaguars picked up his fifth-year option, which means he's under contract for 2018 at $19.1 million. He had the best season of his career in 2017 (60.2 percent completion, 21 TDs, 13 interceptions), despite losing top receiver Allen Robinson in the season opener, not having Allen Hurns for six games and missing Marqise Lee for two. Bortles played well in the playoffs and led the team to victories over the Buffalo Bills and Pittsburgh Steelers. That should be enough for the Jaguars to bring him back in 2018. Coughlin could still bring in competition, though, because Bortles' contract is guaranteed for injury only, which means the team could draft a quarterback or add a veteran through free agency or a trade and cut Bortles with no penalty. If Coughlin does bring Bortles back in 2018, the team should make offensive line, wide receiver and tight end a priority in free agency and the draft.
Is WR Allen Robinson back? Robinson had a great training camp and appeared headed for a big season before he went down with a torn left ACL on the third play of the season. That robbed him of any bargaining power in the final year of his contract, so he isn't going to be able to command the kind of big money he hoped. That possibly means a one-year, prove-it deal (likely smaller than the one-year, $14 million deal Alshon Jeffery signed with the Philadelphia Eagles last offseason). That's if Robinson wants to be back, and he might opt to wait to see what the Jaguars are going to do at quarterback before making a decision. The Jaguars could franchise him if they choose, but that number is projected to be around $16.3 million. If the Jaguars do not bring him back, expect them to make receiver a top priority in the offseason.
Biggest draft need: The Jaguars led the NFL in rushing during the regular season, but that was mainly on the strength of big early-to-mid-season performances. The run game tailed off in the latter part of the season (109.3 yards per game, 20th in NFL from Weeks 12-17), partly due to Leonard Fournette's ankle injury. The offensive line didn't play well, either, especially along the interior. Center Brandon Linder was fine, but the guard play was up-and-down, and the Jaguars need to address that position in the early part of the draft. Right tackle Jermey Parnell dealt with groin and knee injuries. The Jaguars could look to upgrade there as well to find another young bookend tackle to pair with left tackle Cam Robinson.
Free-agency targets: If the Jaguars decide to move on from Bortles, then quarterback becomes their No. 1 priority in free agency. Kirk Cousins might be out of the Jaguars' price range, but there are affordable options for a team that is built to win now, such as Sam Bradford, Case Keenum, Teddy Bridgewater and Josh McCown. Drew Brees could be available, but he's expected to return to New Orleans. Alex Smith should be the top target if he's available (that might have to be via trade). Offensive line and tight end are two areas the Jaguars need to address as well, but the free-agent market for both positions doesn't appear to be very strong.