JACKSONVILLE — When Jacksonville pinned a 30-9 loss on Pittsburgh at Heinz Field in Week 5, it left both teams with 3-2 records, surprising for both, after Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers threw five interceptions to one for Blake Bortles of the Jaguars.
The Steelers were considered king of the AFC North Division and figured to breeze through to another divisional title.
The Jaguars were even the bigger surprise. A 3-2 record five games into the 16-game schedule? Heck, the Jaguars needed all 16 games the year before just to post three wins.
In the 12 weeks that followed the game in Pittsburgh, both teams have gone on to bigger and better results.
The Steelers used the game as motivation and promptly won 10 of their final 11 games.
The Jaguars used that game to show a lot of doubters that this would be a team that could make a run at its own division title, something that Jacksonville hadn’t earned since 1999 when it captured the then-AFC Central crown.
Jacksonville looked solid in wins at Houston to start the season and in London where they routed a good Baltimore team by 37 points. But it was the game in Pittsburgh, where the Jaguars came in as 8-point underdogs and left with a most-convincing 21-point win, allowing the vaunted Steelers’ offense one field goal in each of the first three quarters and nothing more.
It’s the game that basically turned the program into a divisional contender, even if the Titans had posted a lopsided 21-point win on the Jaguars’ home field in Week 2.
Few people would have predicted that the same two teams would meet again, on the same field, in the second round of the AFC playoffs.
This time, the Jaguars, despite owning a 21-point win over the Steelers — come in as 7-point underdogs, looking for another playoff win at Heinz Field like they recorded in 2007, the last time the Jaguars were in the playoffs prior to this season.
So what will it take for the Jaguars to post another win over Pittsburgh? Statistics say that it may rest with quarterback Blake Bortles and whether he turns the ball over to the Steelers’ defense.
In nine of the Jaguars’ 11 wins this season (including the playoff victory), Bortles was interception-free. He threw one interception in the win over Pittsburgh and had two costly interceptions when the Jaguars hung on to beat the Los Angeles Chargers. Both came in the closing minutes of regulation, but the Jaguars were able to overcome both picks.
When the Jaguars have lost this season, Bortles has been more careless with his throws. He’s thrown at least one interception in all six losses, including two picks in both losses to Tennessee and had three of his passes picked off in the 44-33 debacle at San Francisco.
“It’s been that way all year long; really, it always has been,” Bortles responded when asked whether the team has an excellent chance of winning if the offense doesn’t turn the ball over. Any time in the NFL if you don’t turn the ball over you’re going to have a chance to win the game, especially going into the playoffs.
“It only becomes more important. Playing a team like Pittsburgh it’s that much more important. You don’t want to give those guys any extra opportunities or put our defense in any bad situations on our side of the field. I think as long as we’re ending every drive in a kick we’ll definitely have a chance to win the game.”
Coming into the 2017 season, Bortles had never completed fewer than 13 passes or thrown fewer than 23 passes in a game during his three NFL seasons. But he set career-lows in the opener against Houston when he was 11-for-21.
Bortles went even lower in both categories in the Pittsburgh game with eight completions in 14 attempts. Asked if he was looking forward to throwing more than 14 times against Pittsburgh this time, Bortles had a surprising answer.
“Hopefully we can throw less; that would be awesome,” he said. “Leonard (Fournette) goes off again (181 yards in 28 carries) and those guys up front play as well as they did last time and we can run the ball up there and not have to throw at all.
“It was something that happened last time, but you never know. We’re going into it with our plan and what we want to do and get a feel for the game and find out what we’re thinking, what’s working, what’s going on. But like I said, it could be even another one of those games or it could be you go up there and throw it 50 times. Kind of however the game is rolling and whatever we think gives us the best chance to win and score points.”
SERIES HISTORY: 25th all-time meeting. Jaguars lead series, 13-11. Totals include a 30-9 Jaguars win in Week 5 and a playoff win over the Steelers in 2007 in an AFC wild-card game. Jaguars won that memorable game at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh when Josh Scobee kicked a 25-yard field goal with 37 seconds left in the game. The win earlier this year against the Steelers was one of five games that the Jaguars won by 20 points or more. It was also one of the three games this season in which Jacksonville did not allow a touchdown. With that win, Jacksonville has now won four of its last five trips to Pittsburgh, starting with an overtime win in 2005.
–Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had one of the worst games of his career when the Jaguars and Steelers met in Week 5. That’s when the Jaguars intercepted five of Roethlisberger’s passes, two of which they returned for touchdowns in a 2-minute, 39-second span in the third quarter. Afterwards Roethlisberger said in his post-game press conference, “Maybe I don’t have it anymore.”
But the crafty veteran who has played more than 200 NFL games, responded from that game to lead the Steelers to 10 wins in their final 11 games.
But it was obvious that the Jaguars game was still haunting Roethlisberger, even this past week when the Steelers were idle. Appearing on a local radio show in Pittsburgh, the Steelers quarterback had this to say when asked about which team he’d like to face in his team’s divisional playoff game.
“Obviously any game that we’re going to play — since it’s the postseason — is going to be a difficult opponent,” Roethlisberger said. “But I think, just for me personally, I’d love to just prove that five interceptions wasn’t me in that game.”
Those words spread through the Jaguars locker room on Monday, prompting cornerback A.J. Bouye to offer his response.
“Be careful what you wish for,” said Bouye, who has a team-leading and career-best six interceptions this season. “This is what he wanted, so this is what he is going to get.”
Roethlisberger threw the ball 55 times in the game, completing 33 for 312 yards but no scores. It marked the first time in his career that he had no touchdown passes and four or more interceptions.
–The Jaguars’ first playoff appearance since 2007 is earning the Jaguars some national recognition. Following Jacksonville’s win over Buffalo in the AFC wild-card round last weekend, Jaguars fans have geared up to support rookie running back Leonard Fournette as the team prepares for this Sunday’s game against Pittsburgh.
The interest in Fournette has increased to the extent that Fournette is ranked No. 8 overall in jersey sales this week on the DICK’S Sporting Goods Jersey Report.
Fournette has the seventh best-selling jersey in the NFL this week, up 32 spots from No. 39 at this time a week ago. Fan interest in quarterback Bortles’ jersey has also spiked as his No. 5 jersey is now ranked No. 33 after ranking No. 67 at this time a week ago. The Jaguars have jumped in merchandise sales as a team, ranking No. 8 overall, up 15 spots from No. 23 a week ago.
NOTES: CB Aaron Colvin did not practice on Wednesday due to an illness. … LB Telvin Smith was held out of Wednesday’s practice due to an ankle injury. … LB Paul Posluszny missed a good portion of last Sunday’s game against Buffalo due to an abdomen injury. He did not practice on Wednesday due to the injury. … CB Jalen Ramsey practiced on a limited basis on Wednesday due to an Achilles injury. … TE Marcedes Lewis was limited in Wednesday’s practice due to an ankle injury. … DT Abry Jones was limited in Wednesday’s practice with an ankle injury. … LB Blair Brown filled in for Paul Posluszny in Sunday’s game against Buffalo. He was limited in Wednesday’s practice due to an ankle injury. … C Brandon Linder did not play in the first game with Pittsburgh this year due to an unspecified illness. Linder missed three games with the illness, but has been a starter in the other 13 contests, all at center except the Cincinnati game when he started at right guard.