USC, UCLA players contribute to Jaguars’ run to AFC championship game against Patriots
Nearly two decades have passed since the Jacksonville Jaguars last played in the AFC championship game, so there are members of the organization who know something about patience.
Tight end Marcedes Lewis, for example, made the playoffs in his second NFL season in 2007. He thought it would be a regular occurrence.
“I felt like it was something that I could get used to,” Lewis, the team’s longest-tenured player, said in a phone interview. “And then I learned really fast how good the parity is in the NFL. … And I learned that the hard way because it took that long for us to get back to the playoffs.
“Here I am a full grown man, 33 years old, and the last time we were in the playoffs I was 22.”
Lewis is one of four players with ties to UCLA and USC who could play instrumental roles for the Jaguars in Sunday’s conference championship game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium.
Linebacker Myles Jack played running back and linebacker at UCLA. Receiver Marqise Lee starred at Gardena Serra High before becoming an All-American at USC. And defensive lineman Malik Jackson played at Lake Balboa Birmingham High and then USC before transferring to Tennessee.
All had a hand in helping the Jaguars defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers in last week’s AFC divisional round playoff victory at Pittsburgh.
Now they travel to New England to play the defending Super Bowl champions.
It’s the Jaguars’ third appearance in the conference championship game, and their first since the 1999 season.
“You can see it when you go out to eat, when you’re out on the town, you can see how much people appreciate the wins and the hard work we put in.”
No Jaguars player has toiled longer than the 6-foot-6, 264-pound Lewis, who played at Long Beach Poly High and UCLA before he was selected with the 28th pick in the 2006 draft.
After the Jaguars made the playoffs in 2007, they finished .500 only once in the next nine seasons. They lost 11 or more games in six consecutive seasons before first-year coach Doug Marrone guided them to a 10-6 finish and a playoff berth this season.
“In my mind I’ve always had a growth mind-set, just about believing in the process and knowing that each day is going to be better than the last,” Lewis said. “I’m just happy that the hard work has paid off now.”
Lewis, who signed a three-year contract extension before last season, made the Pro Bowl in 2010 after he scored on 10 of his 58 receptions. This season he caught 24 passes, five for touchdowns.
Lewis had three receptions in the Jaguars’ wild-card victory over the Buffalo Bills and one catch against the Steelers.
“I’m an old-school tight end — I like to put my hand in the dirt,” he said. “But I can also make plays down the field when my number is called.”
Lee, 26, was a second-round pick in 2014 after three record-setting seasons for the Trojans. He has 171 career receptions, eight for touchdowns. Last week, Lee caught three passes for 28 yards against the Steelers.
The Jaguars’ run to the conference title game has not surprised him.
“I always thought there was potential as far as getting there, as far as having the capability within the players,” Lee said in a phone interview. “I just knew it was going to take some time to actually get there.”
Jack, 22, was regarded as a first-round talent before a 2015 season-ending knee injury raised questions about his durability. He fell to the second round in a 2016 Jacksonville draft class that included cornerback Jalen Ramsey and defensive lineman Yannick Ngakoue.
Last week against the Steelers and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Jack intercepted a pass, broke up another and made six tackles, including one for a loss.
Now comes a matchup against Tom Brady, who has won five Super Bowls.
“I’m excited, man,” Jack said. “That’s something I can tell my kids: I played Tom Brady in the AFC championship.
“He’ll definitely go down as one of the best, and to be able to play him in a situation like that is big.”
Jackson, who signed a six-year, $85.5-million contract with the Jaguars before the 2016 season, has experience against Brady.
During the 2015 season, Jackson was a member of a Denver Broncos defense directed by Wade Phillips that terrorized Brady in the AFC championship game. The Broncos hit Brady 20 times, sacking him four times.
After the Jaguars defeated the Steelers, the 28-year-old Jackson was asked how the Jaguars defense compared to the Broncos unit that also dominated Carolina quarterback Cam Newton en route to a Super Bowl title.
“It’s a good defense,” he said. “But that [Broncos] defense won a championship. So right now we really can’t compare because we don’t have anything to hold up next to them.
“They have a Super Bowl, they have a Lombardi [Trophy]. Right now we have a divisional win and we’re going after an AFC championship, so ask me after two weeks.”
Lewis has his mind on defeating the Patriots and advancing to the Super Bowl, but he also has counseled younger teammates to embrace the moment.
The long playoff drought has made this run even more precious.
“You never know when you’re going to get it back,” he said. “Embrace it and take full advantage of it, but at the same time have a good time doing it because you just never know.”
Follow Gary Klein on Twitter @latimesklein
Staff writer Sam Farmer contributed to this story.
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