FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- As painful as Sunday afternoon ended up being for the Jacksonville Jaguars, a couple of things became abundantly clear.
The Jaguars belonged in the AFC Championship Game, and they're not going away. They proved they're going to be every bit the Super Bowl contender in the AFC over the next several years that the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers have been for the past 20.
The 24-20 loss to the Patriots at Gillette Stadium was just as much of a validation of quarterback Tom Brady's greatness as it was a failure by the Jaguars. Brady guided the Patriots back from a 28-3 deficit in the last Super Bowl and put together two fourth-quarter touchdown drives against a Jaguars defense that finished second in the NFL in the regular season in scoring, turnovers and sacks.
The Jaguars didn't wilt on the big stage but couldn't overcome six penalties for 98 yards -- including two pass-interference penalties -- and were unable to get stops late in the fourth quarter.
However, that doesn't diminish what the team accomplished in 2017: One year after going 3-13, the Jaguars went 10-6, won their first division title since 1999 and made their first playoff appearance since 2007. They did it behind a core of youngsters, especially on defense, and nearly all of their key players will return in 2018.
It's hard for coach Doug Marrone to see that now because it's going to be awhile before he can get over what happened Sunday. It's hard for him to take a step back and see how far the franchise has come since owner Shad Khan fired Gus Bradley on Dec. 17, 2016.
"Probably the more I think about it, the more it'll hurt and the more it'll weigh on my mind about what we we could have done better," Marrone sad. "Everyone in that room right now, everyone in that locker room, is thinking what could we have done a better job of to win the game? Outside of, God forbid, someone passing away that you feel close to, this is probably as close a pain that you'll have. This is the pain that you deal with when you lose football games.
"It's something that we've got to deal with, and it hurts, and it stays with us for a long time."
Nobody has come further than quarterback Blake Bortles, whose performance against the Patriots, as well as throughout the entire postseason, should silence his many critics. The much-maligned Bortles completed 64 percent of his passes for 293 yards and a touchdown and, most important, did not commit a turnover.
He needs more help at receiver, which he should get if the team brings back Allen Robinson -- who missed the season because of a torn left ACL -- and another year of growth in coordinator Nathaniel Hackett's system.
Bortles didn't turn it over in the entire postseason and was a critical reason why the Jaguars were playing Sunday. He had more yards rushing (88) than passing (87) in the 10-3 wild-card victory over the Buffalo Bills, but he threw a fourth-down touchdown pass.
Bortles also led a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown drives in Pittsburgh after the Steelers had cut the Jaguars' lead to one touchdown. He hit key throws on both drives, including a deep pass to Keelan Cole to set up one touchdown, and audibled out of a play into a pass to fullback Tommy Bohanon that went for a score.
He certainly didn't choke, or play like trash, or look like a subpar quarterback in the postseason, which is just some of what he was called this year.
The Jaguars surprised a lot of people in 2017. That won't happen next season. It'll be expected.
"That's the goal, in all honesty," receiver Marqise Lee said. "We know how good we are. We know the talent we have on this team and what we're capable of in the future. There's nothing to hang our heads [about]. At this point all we can do is build, make our team even better. We're holding our heads up high. We know where we stand.
"We don't plan on being the same Jacksonville team we were years ago."