PITTSBURGH, Pa. – They surged early and hung on late.
Whatever the Jaguars did Sunday afternoon, it was enough for one of the biggest victories in franchise history -- and the biggest in a long, long time.
Rookie running back Leonard Fournette rushed for 109 yards three touchdowns, and the Jaguars held off a wild second-half rally by the Pittsburgh Steelers for a 45-42 victory in an AFC Divisional Playoff at Heinz Field on a frigid, sunny Sunday afternoon.
The Jaguars (12-6), the AFC South Champions and the No. 3 seed in the AFC, will play the top-seeded defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots (14-3) in the AFC Championship game at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass., Sunday at 3:05 p.m. The Steelers finished the season 13-4.
The Jaguars forced two turnovers, with linebacker Telvin Smith’s 50-yard fumble return with 2:20 remaining in the first half giving the Jaguars a 21-point lead.
The Steelers rallied multiple times after that, with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throwing touchdown passes on back-to-back possessions in the second and third quarter to set up a wild, back-and-forth second half in which the Jaguars never trailed. The Steelers had chances to tie, but the Jaguars retook momentum early in the fourth quarter.
That came on Fournette’s third touchdown of the game, a three-yard run up the middle with 10:34 remaining one play after a 45-yard pass from quarterback Blake Bortles to rookie wide receiver Keelan Cole.
Roethlisberger’s 43-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Antonio Brown pulled the Steelers to within 35-28 with 9:05 remaining. That was the Steelers’ second fourth-down touchdown of the game.
The Jaguars retook a 14-point lead with Bortles’ first and only touchdown pass of the game – a 14-yard pass to fullback Tommy Bohanon that made it 42-28, Jaguars, with 4:19 remaining.
An eight-yard run by Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell with 2:18 remaining pulled the Steelers to within seven again, 42-35, with 2:18 remaining. James O’Shaughnessy recovered the ensuing onside kick for the Jaguars, who then drove for a 45-yard field goal by kicker Josh Lambo.
That made it 45-35, with 1:45 remaining. The Steelers scored with :01 remaining for the final margin.
It will be the Jaguars’ third AFC Championship game appearance. They lost the AFC Championship game in New England (20-6) following the 1996 season and lost to the Tennessee Titans (33-14) in Jacksonville following the 1999 season. This is the Jaguars’ first playoff appearance since 2007.
With the victory, the Jaguars beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh for a second time this season; they beat the Steelers 30-9 in Pittsburgh in October. The 2007 Jaguars were the only other team to win in Pittsburgh twice in the same season.
Fournette, who carried 25 times, left the game with an ankle injury in the second quarter and later returned. The Jaguars finished the game with 164 yards and four touchdowns rushing after rushing for 231 in Pittsburgh in October.
Bortles completed 14 of 26 passes for 214 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. Roethlisberger completed 37 of 58 passes for 469 yards with five touchdowns and an interception. Brown finished with seven receptions for 132 yards and two touchdowns.
The Jaguars sacked Roethlisberger twice, with defensive end Yannick Ngakoue’s sack leading to Smith’s fumble return for a touchdown.
Step by step:
*The Jaguars turned in one of their most impressive offensive series of the season on the game’s opening drive, moving 66 yards on eight plays to take a 7-0 lead when Fournette dove in on 4th-and-goal from the Steelers 1; Bortles completed three of four passes for 53 yards on the possession. The teams traded punts on their ensuing series, then Jaguars linebacker Myles Jack intercepted Roethlisberger at the Steelers 18. Fournette scored around the right side on the ensuing play for a 14-0 Jaguars lead with 5:26 remaining in the quarter. Cornerback Jalen Ramsey and defensive Malik Jackson stuffed Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell on 4th-and-1 from the Steelers 21 on the ensuing series to keep Jacksonville’s lead at fourteen points late in the quarter. …
*The Jaguars pushed the lead to 21-0 on the ensuing series, with running back T.J. Yeldon capping a 79-yard drive with a four-yard run; the Jaguars had 12 first downs to two for the Steelers at that point. Pittsburgh cut the lead to two touchdowns when Roethlisberger’s 23-yard pass to Brown made it 21-7 with 8:20 remaining in the second quarter. The rest of the first half had a wild feel, with Smith’s 50-yard fumble return making it 28-7 with 2:20 remaining and Roethlisberger’s 36-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Martavis Bryant with :25 remaining in the quarter making it 28-14 at halftime.
*The Steelers continued to hold momentum early in the third quarter, pulling to within 28-21 with a 19-yard pass from Roethlisberger to Bell on the first possession of the quarter.
*The Jaguars forced a punt and a three-and-out on the next two possessions, with Fournette’s three-yard run pushing the lead back to 14 on the Jaguars’ first possession of the final period.
*Notable: When the Jaguars forced a punt on the Steelers’ first possession, it marked the 15th time in 18 games the defense has held opponents scoreless on their first possession. The temperature was 18 degrees at kickoff, marking the fourth-coldest game in Jaguars history. … When Fournette scored an 18-yard touchdown in the second quarter, he became the first rookie running back since 2009 to score two touchdowns in a postseason game. … Yeldon’s second-quarter touchdown run made the Jaguars the first team to rush for three touchdowns in a postseason game against the Steelers. …
*Injury report: Wide receiver Marqise Lee left with a first-quarter foot injury but returned. … Safety Barry Church left with a second-quarter shoulder injury but returned. … Jaguars safety Tashaun Gipson sustained a foot injury and Jarrod Wilson played in his place after that. ... Jaguars defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. left with a should injury in the fourth quarter and returned. … Jaguars inactives Sunday: Wide receiver Jaydon Mickens (hamstring), running back Chris Ivory, nose tackle Eli Ankou, linebacker Deon King, offensive guard Chris Reed, offensive lineman Josh Walker and offensive lineman William Poehls.
*What’s next: The Jaguars will play the Patriots in the AFC Championship game at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass., Sunday at 3:05 p.m.