Jaguars stun Steelers to reach AFC title game

Pittsburgh seemed to have every advantage heading into game
Jacksonville Jaguars defensive tackle Malik Jackson celebrates after defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.
Jacksonville Jaguars defensive tackle Malik Jackson celebrates after defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.

The Jacksonville offense was the subject of many jokes this season, but with a three-touchdown effort by Leonard Fournette, along with two turnovers forced by the Jaguars’ stellar defense, it powered a 45-42 upset of the Pittsburgh Steelers in a divisional round game Sunday.

The Jaguars will make their unlikely trip to New England next week to face the Patriots in the AFC championship game.

The Steelers seemed to have every advantage this week, with Antonio Brown, the team’s best wide receiver, returning from injury and the game being held at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. But the Steelers’ offense got off to a slow start, while Jacksonville’s started fast, and the Jaguars were already up 21-0 early in the second quarter. Pittsburgh repeatedly clawed back into the game, only to have quarterback Blake Bortles and Jacksonville’s offense figure out yet another way to score.

Bortles, who has taken quite a bit of abuse from fans who considered the Jaguars’ offense to be unworthy of its defense, completed 14 of 26 passes for 214 yards and one touchdown. That proved to be enough on a day when Fournette rumbled for 109 yards on 25 carries, including touchdowns of 1, 17 and 3 yards.

In an on-field interview with CBS after the game, Bortles said the Jaguars came in knowing they would need to battle.

“The guys played with confidence all day long,” he said of his teammates. “Obviously with what they have on their side of the ball, it’s a good team with a good offense, so we knew we had to keep scoring.”

Given the opportunity to do a victory lap, Bortles took the high road when he was asked about the criticism he and the Jaguars’ offense had taken in recent weeks.

“I’m sure there will still be tons of people that are going to disapprove or talk negatively or hate or do whatever they want,” Bortles said. “But we get to keep playing.”

The combination of Bortles and Fournette was enough to outlast the Steelers, despite Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throwing for 469 yards and five touchdowns. The stats for Roethlisberger were gaudy, but he threw an interception in the first quarter, and his fumble in the second quarter was returned 50 yards for a touchdown, adding to Pittsburgh’s early deficit.

Perhaps Roethlisberger’s most impressive play of the day came on a 4th-and-5 play midway through the fourth quarter, in which he aggressively threw to Brown rather than running for a first down — and he was rewarded with a 43-yard touchdown that narrowed Jacksonville’s lead to 35-28.

After Brown scored, a Steelers comeback at home felt inevitable. But the resilient Jaguars responded with an eight-play, 75-yard drive that culminated in Bortles’ 14-yard touchdown pass to Tommy Bohanon.

It was a hectic end to the game from there. Le’Veon Bell scored on an unusual play in which Roethlisberger crossed the line of scrimmage before tossing backward to Bell for an 8-yard touchdown. An onside kick attempt failed, and the Jaguars increased their lead to 10 points with a 45-yard field goal by Josh Lambo. That left the Steelers with too little time, and Roethlisberger’s 4-yard touchdown pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster with one second remaining served only as consolation.

The Jaguars, who went 3-13 last season, will play in a conference championship for the third time in franchise history, and the first time since Mark Brunell led them there after the 1999 season. The team has never made it to a Super Bowl, and getting there by beating Pittsburgh and New England in consecutive weeks is still a monumental task.

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