Jaguars advance to AFC title game with 45-42 upset of Steelers
The shout-out ended in a shootout.
Three months after the Pittsburgh Steelers crowed about how they were dying to see Jacksonville again, embarrassed by a lopsided home loss to the Jaguars, they got their wish. And the results were painfully familiar.
Jacksonville stormed into Heinz Field again, built a huge early lead, then held on for a 45-42 victory to secure a spot in the AFC championship game.
In the week leading up to Sunday’s game, a tweet that got under the skin of the Jaguars came from Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell: “I love round 2’s...we’ll have two round 2’s in back to back weeks...”
That was a reference to a rematch with the Jaguars, and then, because there was no way the Steelers would lose, a rematch with the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh’s opponent in last year’s AFC title game.
“For us, it wasn’t about getting into talking matches, trying to fight them, trying to do anything,” Jacksonville defensive tackle Malik Jackson said. “We’re just trying to let the clock run out and go home and prepare for New England that they’re about to play next week in Imaginary Land.”
“The media, everybody was talking about how it’s not going to be like last week, Blake Bortles this, Blake Bortles that,” said Jaguars defensive back Barry Church, referring to the team’s widely disparaged quarterback. “All he did was dominate their defense.”
While not everyone would describe Bortles as dominating, he was rock-solid. He completed 14 of 26 passes for 214 yards and directed a crucial, clock-consuming touchdown drive in the fourth quarter that put Pittsburgh’s offense in deep freeze on the sideline.
The real workhorse for the Jaguars was rookie running back Leonard Fournette, who had a game-high 109 yards in 25 carries and scored three touchdowns. What’s more, he left for a chunk of the second quarter because of an ankle injury that forced him to crawl off the field. He would return after halftime and score his third touchdown.
“For a rookie to come in and play football for a year straight now, and to go through everything that he’s been going through, is really impressive,” Bortles said. “People talk about hitting a rookie wall. He’s powered right through it.”
Similarly, this was a breakthrough performance for the Jaguars, a franchise that was pretty much an afterthought after getting to the AFC title game twice in its first five seasons, in 1996 and 1999. In the 17 years that followed, the Jaguars made the postseason only twice, never getting past the divisional round.
Outside the Jacksonville locker room after the game, there was an impromptu Jaguars reunion with former stars Mark Brunell, Tony Boselli and Maurice Jones-Drew, all of whom are in the media to some degree, basking in the afterglow of victory.
“It’s been so long since we’ve had a season like this,” said Brunell, Jacksonville’s quarterback during those early successful years. “It’s been a long drought. For the organization, the franchise and the fans, it’s been a long time coming. It’s been bad. It’s been really bad. So this is exciting.”
Pittsburgh fans were excited, too. Then, the game started.
Jacksonville scored in rapid-fire succession. There were two touchdowns by Fournette, one at the end of a long opening drive, the other set up by a Myles Jack interception. Then, a touchdown run by T.J. Yeldon. By the start of the second quarter, the Jaguars had a 21-0 lead and Heinz Field was a library. For the Steelers, it was the kind of start that gave new meaning to Terrible Towels.
The Steelers finally got on the board with a 23-yard touchdown reception by Antonio Brown. But the Jaguars counterpunched with a strip-sack of Roethlisberger, with linebacker Telvin Smith running back the fumble 50 yards for a touchdown.
In wasn’t until the end of the first half that Pittsburgh really started to come alive. Roethlisberger threw a 36-yard touchdown to Martavis Bryant on fourth and 11 with 32 seconds left in the half. That cut the lead to 28-14.
On the opening drive of the third quarter, Roethlisberger trimmed the deficit to seven points with a 19-yard touchdown pass to Bell on third down.
But every time the Steelers would almost claw their way out of the hole, the Jaguars would respond with a big play to stay ahead.
“In the first half, we didn’t stop the run at all,” defensive end Cameron Heyward said. “Second half, we didn’t convert on third down. It’s just disappointing. Everyone’s disappointed.”
Questions will hang in the air, maybe for the entire offseason. There was the play selection on a couple of unsuccessful fourth-and-one situations (although Roethlisberger also had three touchdown passes on fourth down). There was the decision to try an onside kick with 2 minutes 18 seconds left, providing the Jaguars with a short field for their margin-of-victory field goal.
“I stand by the calls we made,” said coach Mike Tomlin, whose offensive coordinator, Todd Haley, has finished his contract. “We just did not execute them.”
Then, there’s the football future of Roethlisberger, who will turn 36 this offseason. He flirted with retirement a year ago, and the topic surfaced again Sunday. Some of his teammates told reporters they were convinced he was coming back for another season.
“I definitely have the desire to play,” Roethlisberger said. “I love this game. I love these guys.”
But after a stinging loss, a loss in which the Steelers gave up a club-postseason-record 45 points, can anyone be sure of anything? At the moment, it’s all Imaginary Land.
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer
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