When Ben Roethlisberger hit the locker room in October after a 30-9 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, he sounded like a player contemplating retirement.
“Maybe I don’t have it anymore,” Roethlisberger told reporters. “I’m not playing well enough.”
The 35-year-old quarterback just threw five interceptions in a game for the first time in his NFL career, so whether the comment was made facetiously, there was clear frustration about his performance against the Jacksonville defense. But it wasn’t the first time that the Jaguars caused him trouble.
In the 14 seasons since Roethlisberger was taken by the Steelers with the No. 11 pick in the 2004 NFL draft, the Jaguars are one of only two opposing teams with a winning record at Heinz Field.
Since drafting Ben Roethlisberger in 2004, the Steelers have a losing home record against two teams (including playoffs).— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 7, 2018
Those teams are the Patriots (2-5).....and the Jaguars (1-4). pic.twitter.com/va1cd1CnFQ
Overall, the Jaguars have a 13-11 record against the Steelers, including a 1-0 record in the postseason.
A potential AFC Championship matchup with the Patriots would be at Gillette Stadium, but to get there, the Steelers have to exorcise some Jaguars demons.
The Jaguars and Steelers had a budding rivalry in the AFC Central
Pittsburgh spent three decades in the now-defunct AFC Central, but the Jaguars were there just for the last seven after joining the NFL as an expansion team in 1995.
In those seven seasons, Jacksonville compiled a 62-50 record, went to the AFC Championship twice, and had an 8-6 record against the Steelers. It was one of the NFL’s budding rivalries before the Houston Texans were added to the league in 2002 and forced a realignment that sent the teams to different divisions.
Losing the Jaguars as a division foe probably didn’t faze the Steelers a bit. The franchise has existed since 1933 and has seen rivals come and go through the years.
But the feeling wasn’t mutual. Jacksonville revered the semiannual matchup and missed it in the years after a move to the AFC South.
“Now that the divisions changed and we don’t play Jacksonville every year, it seems like it’s lessened,” Steelers safety Mike Logan told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2006. “But to them, I don’t think it does.”
The Jaguars are the only team to win at Heinz Field twice in a season
Pittsburgh has been a perennial contender over the last decade, but the same can’t be said for Jacksonville. For 10 years, the last positive playoff memory for the Jaguars was a win against the Steelers on a snowy day at Heinz Field in Jan. 2008.
With less than two minutes remaining in the game and Jacksonville trailing, 29-28, David Garrard burst through the line on a designed run on a fourth-and-2 that gained 32 yards and set up a chip-shot field goal to win.
The Garrard run was the last significant highlight for the Jaguars before a decade of purgatory. It was so long ago that John Madden was doing color commentary for NBC:
The 31-29 victory came three weeks after the Jaguars won in Pittsburgh, 29-22, in Week 15 of the 2007 season. They are still the only visiting team to win in Pittsburgh twice in a single season.
Now they have the chance to do it again.
Jacksonville has a chance to run back the clock
The Jaguars finished with a 10-6 record in 2017, their first winning season since 2007. The return to the postseason — including a 10-3 win over the Buffalo Bills last week, the team’s first playoff victory since the one in Pittsburgh in 2008 — was thanks to its dominant defense.
No performance by the unit was more impressive than its beatdown over the Steelers in Week 5. Roethlisberger specifically hoped for a chance to play the Jaguars in the playoffs because it comes with the chance to right his October performance.
“Just for me personally, I’d love to just prove that five interceptions wasn’t me in that game,” Roethlisberger said on his weekly radio show on 93.7 The Fan.
To which A.J. Bouye responded with heat:
Jaguars CB A.J. Bouye on Big Ben wanting rematch: "Be careful what you wish for. This is what he wanted. This is what he's going to get."— Mark Long (@APMarkLong) January 8, 2018
Plenty has changed in the three months since that win for the Jaguars. The Blake Bortles roller coaster had some ups, but the Jaguars’ quarterback has struggled in his last three games, including throwing for just 87 yards against the Bills.
Meanwhile, the Steelers have picked up steam after stumbling out of the gates. Before the five-interception game against the Jaguars, Pittsburgh was held under 300 yards in Weeks 1 and 3 against the Browns and Bears. The Steelers passed that 300-yard mark in every game since.
“We’ve evolved since then. They have evolved a lot since then,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin told reporters this week of the loss to the Jaguars. “I am sure that they are as different as we are since the last time we’ve seen them.”
For the Steelers, Sunday is a chance to right an earlier wrong and get to the AFC Championship with some momentum. But getting through the Jaguars has never been a breeze for Pittsburgh.