Jaguars hold off Steelers, advance to face Patriots

Widely dismissed by hordes of football followers, the high-flying Jaguars are on their way to face the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game after thumping the Steelers in Pittsburgh.

Here's what we learned from Jacksonville's 45-42 win:

  1. The fingerprints of destruction were all over Pittsburgh's defense from the opening snap. The Jaguars came out of the gate blasting through a vacant Steelers front seven that seemed lost from start to finish without injured linebacker Ryan Shazier to lead the way. Jacksonville's game-opening, eight-play, 66-yard march saw quarterback Blake Bortles unfurl crisp, play-action lobs and lean on the team's bruising ground game. That opening drive was capped by coach Doug Marrone displaying major onions on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, dialing up Leonard Fournette for a diving score that set the tone right away for Sunday's fascinating upset.
  1. Buried in a 21-0 hole in the first half, Pittsburgh's greatest nightmare was in full bloom, with all the old questions and doubts creeping back: Is this a team worthy of the Super Bowl? Able to handle their own business in the biggest spot possible? Or a roster destined to once again tap the self-destruct button come January?

The answer, for Steelers fans, is comprehensively grim.

Early mistakes backed Pittsburgh into a corner. Ben Roethlisberger's fourth pass of the day landed in the arms of Jacksonville linebacker Myles Jack, who stopped on a dime to cradle the ball at Pittsburgh's 18-yard line. One play later, Leonard Fournette blasted off tackle for a touchdown gallop that put the Steelers down 14-0. When Le'Veon Bell was stuffed on a fourth-down run on the following drive -- an ugly, predictable play-call -- it was fair to wonder if the favored Steelers were in serious trouble. It was more than fair to ask that question again when a subsequent strip-sack of Roethlisberger triggered a 50-yard touchdown return by Jaguars linebacker Telvin Smith, burying the Steelers in a 28-7 hole.

  1. The amazing Roethlisberger wasn't finished, though, keeping the Steelers alive with an outrageous 469 yards and five scores, including four of the most sensational touchdown throws you'll see all season. Momentum seemed to shift when Big Ben cut Jacksonville's lead to 28-21 with a marvelous 19-yard, third-quarter scoring strike to Le'Veon Bell. Minutes later, trailing 35-21, Roethlisberger shipped a fourth-down laser into the arms of Antonio Brown for a score that officially turned this into the best game we've seen in months. Playing for the first time since Week 14, Brown overcame a slow start to pile up 132 yards and two scores off seven grabs, looking once again like the best player on Planet Earth.
  1. Instead of crumbling, though, Blake Bortles and the Jaguars refused to let up. Jacksonville answered a pair of second-quarter touchdowns by Pittsburgh with clock-chewing scoring drives of their own. The first of those saw Fournette bang in for his third touchdown of the day after Bortles whipped a 45-yard completion to a leaping Keelan Cole at Pittsburgh's 3-yard line. Bortles returned one drive later to peg fullback Tommy Bohanon on a 14-yard touchdown pass to forge a 42-28 lead with four-plus minutes left in the game. Say what you will about Bortles. His box score was mundane, but the radioactive Jaguars passer made one key play after the next, impressively finding open targets and refusing to turn the ball over.
  1. It was a popular conceit all week that Jacksonville's Week 5 romp over the Steelers was nothing more than ancient, meaningless fodder. In truth, this Pittsburgh team just doesn't match up well with the Jaguars. After piling up 181 yards against Pittsburgh in Week 5, Fournette -- looking better than he has in months -- plowed for 82 yards and two scores in less than a half before leaving with an ankle injury. Fournette returned in the third quarter to finish with 109 yards at 4.4 yards per pop, spending his pre-injury snaps as a whirling, powerful, dominating presence. Jacksonville came into Sunday with a crystal-clear game plan to punish a Steelers defense that completely fell apart when it mattered most.
  1. And that's where the blame lies for Pittsburgh. The glaring absence of Shazier was never more evident than today, with Jacksonville gashing the Steelers on key third-down snaps and simply looking like the better team for long stretches. Instead of folding the tent inside the two-minute warning, Jacksonville put Pittsburgh away with a clutch 45-yard Josh Lambo field goal. Plenty longed for a Steelers-Patriots rematch they'll never see, but Pittsburgh has given up 75 points, 691 yards and seven turnovers to the Jaguars over eight quarters of play. Simply inexcusable for a team that saw itself as a Super Bowl-worthy operation.
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