JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser and senior correspondent Brian Sexton look back at the Jaguars' victory over Pittsburgh in an AFC Divisional Playoff and ahead to Sunday's AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots
1.Reviewing the preview.When previewing Jaguars-Steelers, the thought here was the Jaguars needed to pressure and intercept Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, contain running back Le'Veon Bell and make big plays offensively. They did the first and second enough to win – and they did the third far more than many dreamed possible. Roethlisberger threw five touchdowns, but a sack/fumble by defensive end Yannick Ngakoue led to a 50-yard fumble return by linebacker Telvin Smith and an interception by linebacker Myles Jack set up a touchdown. Bell caught a touchdown and ran for another, but the score didn't allow him to dominate. As for the offense, the Jaguars made clutch play after clutch play Sunday – more than in any game this season. They did it in the biggest game, and that unit – particularly the offensive line and quarterback Blake Bortles – are major reasons the Jaguars are playing in the AFC Championship Game.
2.As I saw it. This was as big a victory as the Jaguars ever have had – and yes, it's on a par with the victory over the Denver Broncos in a Divisional Playoff following the 1996 season. This wasn't as major an "upset" as that Denver game, but the Jaguars on Sunday beat the second-seeded team in the AFC on the road, and beat a team that's as talented offensively as any team in the NFL. But while this was technically an upset, this victory was no fluke. The Jaguars didn't allow a sack to a team that led the NFL in sacks this season and it ran on a defense primed to stop rookie running back Leonard Fournette. Bortles played huge in the biggest game of his career and the Jaguars never trailed. Playoff victories go down in franchise lore, and the Jaguars' victory Sunday definitely will have a deserving place there for the Jaguars.
3.Looking ahead, briefly. Up next for the Jaguars: The New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts. Jaguars-Patriots for the AFC title would have been crazy talk in September. But it hasn't been crazy for a long time; the Jaguars deserve to be playing Sunday and have a very real chance to be playing after that. The Patriots are making their seventh consecutive AFC Championship Game appearance, but they haven't won all of those games – and they haven't won the last six Super Bowls, either. Teams with elite defenses playing well in the postseason can beat the Patriots, and the Jaguars are a hot team with a defense that absolutely can disrupt and beat New England. The Jaguars can pressure quarterback Tom Brady, and the secondary can cover. This offense can score. Yes, this is winnable. Absolutely.
1.Reviewing the preview.I wrote last week that the question was whether to let Bortles off the chain, or to play a more conservative approach and lean on the defense. The answer was both. Offensive coordinator Nate Hackett went with the running game early and controlled the passing attack utilizing tight ends. By the time the game was over, Bortles was heaving the ball down the field and using play action to find fullback Tommy Bohanon in the end zone. The Jaguars leaned on the defense for a first-quarter interception that became a Fournette touchdown and Smith's second-quarter touchdown that pushed the lead back to three touchdowns. But the star of the show was Bortles, who was calm, poised and patient in the pocket thanks to an exceptional performance from the offensive line; every time Roethlisberger was on the verge of stealing the show, Bortles came up big. What made his afternoon remarkable was it came on the heels of the Wild Card game in which he missed open receivers and ran for more yardage than he threw. Who could have predicted 45 points against the Steelers a week after 10 against the Bills?
2.As I saw it. The Jaguars were up against it in Pittsburgh, forced to win a second time against a team with legitimate Super Bowl expectations and star performers playing on three weeks rest. Roethlisberger, running back Le'Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown were exceptional for the Steelers and made a game that was at one time on the verge of exploding in the Steelers' faces one that came down to the final minutes. There will be an overreaction this week about the defense giving up nearly 500 passing yards and more big plays than it has in a game all season long. The Jaguars' defense knows it didn't play its best game; more importantly, it did what it had to do against a quarterback who caught fire and whose two primary weapons were Most Valuable Player candidates. To me, that makes the victory in Pittsburgh even more improbable and thus more impressive – and perhaps the most impressive playoff win in Jaguars postseason history.
3.Looking ahead, briefly. The reward for a huge victory over the Steelers: the Patriots in Foxboro, where they've only lost three times in 17 postseason games under Head Coach Bill Belichick and Brady. So what? If we've learned anything this season, it's that matchups matter; this one works for the Jaguars. Someone from Boston or the national media would laugh at that assertion; they haven't seen the Jaguars and I've seen plenty of the Patriots. The Patriots' offensive line isn't as good as it has been and their defense doesn't offer a game-changing type of player until you get to safety Devin McCourty – and he's on the third level. That's optimistic thinking on my part, but the Jaguars' defense can stop their run and cover their receivers. If the pass rush can impact Brady, the Jaguars can win. When you play the best team with the best coach and quarterback in a game they know well, you must bring your best. We'll see if Jaguars Head Coach Doug Marrone can continue to get the best and the most his team has to offer Sunday in New England.