PITTSBURGH — The Jacksonville Jaguars, yes those Jacksonville Jaguars, are heading to the AFC championship game.
Rookie running back Leonard Fournette ran for 109 yards and three touchdowns, Blake Bortles added 214 yards passing and a vital fourth-quarter score as the relentless Jaguars stunned the Pittsburgh Steelers 45-42 on Sunday.
The third-seeded Jaguars (12-6) will face top-seeded New England next week in Foxborough, Massachusetts after jumping on Pittsburgh early, then holding on late. Jacksonville raced to a 21-point lead, fended off a Steelers rally and responded every time Pittsburgh (13-4) challenged.
Ben Roethlisberger threw for 469 yards and set a franchise record with five touchdown passes, but was also intercepted once and had a fumble returned for a score. All-Pro Antonio Brown caught seven passes for 132 yards and two touchdowns in his return from a left calf injury. Le’Veon Bell had 155 yards of total offense and two scores.
But Pittsburgh’s vaunted “Killer Bs” couldn’t keep pace with Jacksonville, one of four NFL franchises to never make the Super Bowl.
The Jaguars dominated the Steelers back in October, winning by three touchdowns in a performance so overwhelming Roethlisberger only half-jokingly wondered aloud whether he still had “it’ after throwing a career-high five picks.
Roethlisberger and his teammates left little doubt they hoped for a rematch, one that came to fruition after Jacksonville outlasted Buffalo in an ugly wild-card victory; the Jaguars survived in spite of an 87-yard passing performance by Bortles.
Jacksonville cornerback A.J. Bouye cautioned Pittsburgh to be careful what it wished for, and the Jaguars hardly appeared intimidated by the 18-degree chill or trying to earn their first road playoff win in a decade.
Fournette’s ever-churning legs set the tone early. He soared for a 1-yard touchdown run on fourth down on Jacksonville’s first possession. e sprinted for an 18-yard score on the first play following a Roethlisberger pick, and bulled over from 3 yards in the fourth quarter after the Steelers cut the lead to a touchdown.
Bortles has found himself a touchstone during Jacksonville’s resurgence following a decade of losing, even allowing last week that he’ll never be able to silence all of his critics no matter what.
Might be time to test that theory.
While he wasn’t flawless, he also wasn’t afraid. Having the burly Fournette certainly helped, but Bortles also never hesitated — the Steelers led the NFL with a franchise-record 55 sacks but never once got to Bortles. If he wasn’t scrambling for extra yardage he was using play-action or deftly executed screen passes. His 45-yard completion in the fourth quarter set up Fournette’s final score, and his 14-yard flip to Tommy Bohannon with 4:19 left vaulted the Jaguars to the NFL’s final four for only third time in team history.
The Jaguars did it on a day the NFL’s top-ranked defense hardly looked like it. Though Jacksonville forced a pair of first-half turnovers, including Roethlisberger’s fumble that Telvin Smith returned 48 yards for a score and a 28-7 lead, Pittsburgh rolled up 545 yards.
Still, it’s 2 yards the Steelers didn’t get that helped send them into an offseason filled with questions.
Twice Pittsburgh had fourth-and-1 in Jacksonville territory. Twice it did something other than have the 6-foot-5 Roethlisberger sneak. The Steelers ran wide in the first quarter and Bell was stuffed for a 4-yard loss. The Jaguars responded immediately by going 75 yards in 11 plays, the final one a 4-yard sprint by T.J. Yeldon that put them up 21-0.
The Steelers were down a touchdown early in the fourth quarter and had fourth-and-inches at the Jacksonville 39. Roethlisberger checked at the line of scrimmage, faked a handoff to Bell and instead threw incomplete to diving rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster.