By Adesina O. Koiki
PITTSBURGH – There was no way the Jacksonville Jaguars could beat the mighty Pittsburgh Steelers on the road twice in one season.
It was impossible for quarterback Blake Bortles, who had such a poor passing game in the Wild Card home win over Buffalo, to all of a sudden look like the reincarnation of Joe Montana in one week’s time.
Yes, the Jacksonville defense intercepted Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger five times and had two touchdowns in the Week 5 win in Pittsburgh, but that same defense was not going to do enough to beat the Steelers again, especially with revenge on the Steelers’ minds.
Well, if you don’t know it by now, the Jacksonville Jaguars will keep proving you wrong if you keep doubting them in this magical 2017 season, and they proved it once again by advancing one step closer – and one step away – from the Super Bowl.
Jacksonville indeed pulled off the season sweep of the Pittsburgh Steelers, defeating them 45-42 at Heinz Field to advance to the AFC Championship Game. Bortles was efficient in throwing for 214 yards and a key fourth-quarter score to fullback Tommy Bohannon; the running game produced 164 yards on the ground and four touchdowns while the defense once again scored a touchdown, returning a fumble for six points.
After struggling to move the ball down the field in the win against the Bills, Bortles was impressive in the chilly conditions in Pittsburgh, completing key passes and showing composure in the pocket as the Jaguars’ offense scored touchdowns on three of their first four drives of the game.
The same Blake Bortles that has been panned constantly in the media and was almost run out of town – and almost out of a starting quarterback job before the start of this season – will now be squaring off with Tom Brady with a chance to play in the Big Game in just a few days.
“I don’t want to be the one to say I told you so, but I told you so,” said Jaguars tight end Marcedes Lewis after win in Pittsburgh. “Blake has taken the onus when we’ve taken defeats and he should get some sort of recognition when we win.”
The recognition Bortles did get before the start of the playoffs was far from glowing, and those who took shots at the fourth-year quarterback were some of his peers, including Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas, who called him a subpar quarterback, and Houston Texans defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who called him “trash.”
Interestingly enough, the Jaguars went a combined 3-0 this season against the Seahawks and Texans. As opponents and doubters keep talking, Bortles and the Jaguars keep winning.
“This is the type of stuff you dream of, to get a chance to play in games like this,” Bortles said. “It will never change for me. Everybody is in the NFL here. It’s the highest level of football there is in the world. It’s tough to say somebody’s not a good player, that somebody’s trash, or somebody’s this.
“I’m just happy to win,” Bortles continued. “I’m happy to be able to continue to play for another week. There are a lot of guys sitting at home on the couch watching this, wishing they could play.”
People like Earl Thomas. People like Jadeveon Clowney. And, as of this past Sunday, the entire Pittsburgh Steelers team.
After rushing for 231 yards in the win earlier in the season against the Steelers, Jacksonville churned out another 164 yards on the ground on Sunday, with Fournette rushing for 109 of those yards and three touchdowns. Backup running back T.J. Yeldon also ran for a touchdown.
Fournette left the game in the second quarter with an ankle injury, but did return to the game in the second half.
“I thought [Fournette] was running extremely well and hard and getting a lot of the extra push we needed and putting us in manageable situations,” said Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone after the game. “I thought they [offensive line] were up to the challenge against a very good front seven.”
The 42 points the Jaguars allowed somewhat belies the importance of their performance on the defensive end in lifting them to the AFC Championship Game. Jacksonville’s second touchdown, a Fournette 18-yard run to give the Jaguars a 14-0 lead, was set up by an interception by linebacker Myles Jack of Roethlisberger one play prior.
Late in the second quarter, defensive end Yannick Ngakoue forced Roethlisberger to fumble on a sack. The ball was recovered by linebacker Telvin Smith, who returned it 50 yards for a touchdown to give the Jaguars a 28-7 lead.
“We were the bullies today, like we were the last game [against Pittsburgh],” said Ngakoue.
Inspiration was drawn from a lot of sources for the Jaguars players to win in Pittsburgh – including from some fans that braved the tricky weather conditions to make it up to the Steel City to watch their football heroes in action.
“A dude told me he drove five hours through the snow to get up here,” said Jack. “Shoutout to him and shoutout to everybody from Jacksonville who drove up. We definitely felt y’all. They definitely gave out some Duval chants.”
The attention now turns to the AFC Championship Game on Sunday at 3:05 PM on CBS, and an opponent that many will not give the Jaguars a chance against once more – the New England Patriots. It will be a reunion of sorts, as Jaguars executive vice president Tom Coughlin will go up against Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, the man Coughlin bested both times in winning two Super Bowls while head coach of the New York Giants.
“One time someone said, ‘What’s the toughest place to play?’ I said, ‘Gillette Stadium in New England,’” Marrone said. “They go, ‘Come on.’ I said, ‘What do you mean? Look at their record.’ It’s the most difficult place I’ve ever played.”
It’s just another reason to doubt the Jaguars.
But keep the doubts coming. That’s just how these Jaguars like it.