The Jacksonville Jaguars are on to the AFC Championship for the first time in 18 years after dismantling the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Divisional Round on Sunday, 45-42.
Pittsburgh never led the game but made things dicey for the Jaguars in the second half. Jacksonville led 21-0 early in the game, but the Steelers scored a touchdown just before halftime and on the opening possession of the second half to cut the lead to 28-21.
Ben Roethlisberger has struggled against the Jaguars historically, and that looked like it was going to be the case again when he started the game with an interception thrown to Myles Jack and a fumble that was returned by Telvin Smith for a touchdown. But he finished the game with five touchdowns — a much better showing than his zero touchdowns and five interceptions against the Jaguars in October.
Still, the Jaguars held off Pittsburgh’s second-half surge and put the game away with 61-yard and 75-yard touchdown drives in the fourth quarter.
Jacksonville will move on to play the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium next week.
It was all Jaguars early
Head coach Doug Marrone wasn’t playing around on the opening possession of the game. After the Jaguars’ first drive got close to the goal line, they rolled the dice with a fourth-down run from the 1-yard line.
Leonard Fournette literally rose to the occasion soaring over the Steelers defensive line for a touchdown.
Fournette got a second touchdown only a few minutes later after Jack hauled in an athletic interception of Roethlisberger, complete with a toe tap on the sideline.
T.J. Yeldon kept the points pouring on for the Jaguars with a 4-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter that made it 21-0.
And just when the Steelers looked like they were clawing back after a 23-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown and another drive in Jacksonville territory, disaster struck again. The Jaguars forced a fumble on a sack of Roethlisberger, and Smith scooped it up for a 50-yard return touchdown.
The 28-7 lead looked like more than enough for the dominant Jaguars defense to cruise to a victory.
The Steelers made it close with back-to-back touchdowns
Facing a fourth-and-11 in the final minute of the first half, the desperation for points for the Steelers was evident by a decision to go for it.
It paid off in a big way. Roethlisberger perfectly feathered a ball over the top of the Jaguars’ defense for a 36-yard touchdown to Martavis Bryant that made the score a manageable 28-14 at halftime.
The game was suddenly close when the Steelers scored on the opening drive of the second half with a 19-yard touchdown by Le’Veon Bell on another great pass from Roethlisberger into tight coverage.
Just like that, it was 28-21, and the pressure was on the Jaguars to step up in the moment.
Blake Bortles shined in clutch moments
The Jaguars’ quarterback is known more for his struggles than his successes, but when his team needed plays, Blake Bortles delivered. A week after finishing with just 87 yards passing against the Buffalo Bills, Bortles finished with 214 yards, one touchdown, and no interceptions against the Steelers.
He orchestrated two long drives in the fourth quarter that kept the Steelers from ever tying the game up. It was punctuated by a 14-yard pass to fullback Tommy Bohanon.
The Jaguars leaned on the contributions of Fournette, who finished with 109 yards and three touchdowns, but Bortles was efficient and effective enough to give the running back room.
Failed fourth-down attempts by the Steelers loomed large
If there’s any scapegoat for Pittsburgh’s loss, it will likely be offensive coordinator Todd Haley taking the brunt of the blame.
And that’s interesting considering it wasn’t a bad day for the Steelers’ offense — finding 42 points against one of the best defenses in the NFL.
The team also scored twice on long fourth-down passes, but it was the two failed fourth-down attempts that sunk the team’s hopes of ever pulling even with the Jaguars.
The first was a toss to Bell that was sniffed out and easily shut down for a loss by Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey.
It’s a questionable call against a Jaguars defense that is typically good at defending the edges and swallowed up toss plays for most of the game Sunday.
The second failed try was a pass into tight coverage that JuJu Smith-Schuster couldn’t haul in.
On both plays, the Steelers needed just one yard but opted against a run up the middle by Bell or Roethlisberger. It’s possible that Roethlisberger audibled away from a quarterback sneak on one or both plays, but whoever made the call not to bulldoze ahead with the 6’5 quarterback will have some explaining to do.
Ben Roethlisberger on 4th-and-1 rush attempts in his career, including playoffs:— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) January 14, 2018
18 first downs
Highest success rate (94.7 percent) of any player with over 10 attempts since 2004 (including playoffs)
Steelers on 4th-and-1 today:
0-for-2 (Bell run, Ben pass)
Personal fouls opened the door for the Steelers
The Jaguars haven’t been shy about playing with attitude this season, and they’ve pissed off plenty of opponents on their way to the AFC Championship. But the taunting and dancing has also come back to haunt them at times.
The two touchdowns for Pittsburgh in the middle of the game that dug into the Jaguars’ lead were both aided by 15-yard penalties.
The first was for Smith pointing at Bell during his fumble return, but the second was a call on Ramsey that didn’t look justified at all.
The Jaguars have had trouble reining in the emotions at times, but that particular penalty looked like a ticky-tack one, and it aided the Steelers.
Jacksonville will need to avoid similar penalties — deserved or not — when the team travels to New England next week.
Pittsburgh’s struggles against the Jaguars continue
With the loss, the Steelers enter an offseason that could be tumultuous with Bell aiming for a big contract, and Roethlisberger likely to weigh his future and consider retirement again.
On the off chance that Roethlisberger hangs up his cleats, he’ll retire with memories of the Jaguars being a major thorn in his side.
The Jaguars became the first and only team to ever win twice at Heinz Field in a season 10 years ago, and with the win Sunday, they duplicated an accomplishment that still no other team has matched.
The Jaguars own a 14-11 record over the Steelers, including a 2-0 record in the postseason, and are one of only two visiting teams with a winning record in Pittsburgh since Roethlisberger was drafted.
For some reason — even during a decade of bad football — the Jaguars have had the Steelers’ number, and it paid off again Sunday.