Twice Bitten, Jaguars Defeat Steelers 31-29

The Jacksonville Jaguars won their first playoff game in nearly eight years by going into Pittsburgh, and beating the Steelers in a 31-29 thriller, in front of a crowd of 63,629 at Heinz Field.

This game followed suit of the game played three weeks earlier between these teams, as Pittsburgh led early, then Jacksonville jumped out to a big third quarter lead, before nearly blowing the game.

Pittsburgh opened the game by driving the ball 80 yards in 10 plays on the Jacksonville defense, capped by a Najeh Davenport one-yard touchdown plunge. The Steelers mixed pass and run effectively on that opening drive, and the Jaguars defense looked as if they were guessing. Following the score, Jaguars second-year sensation Maurice Jones-Drew returned the ensuing kickoff 96 yards down to the Pittsburgh one yard line, and Jaguars running back Fred Taylor scored just one play later to tie the game up at seven.

Jacksonville took the lead early in the second quarter when Jaguars cornerback Rashean Mathis stepped in front of a Ben Roethlisberger pass and returned the interception 63 yards for a Jaguars touchdown and a 14-7 lead. Mathis struck again on the very next possession as he grabbed his second interception of the game near midfield. Jacksonville once again cashed in just three plays later as Maurice Jones-Drew caught a swing pass from quarterback David Garrard and took it 43 yards for a touchdown, and a 21-7 lead which the Jaguars would take into halftime. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was asked about what happened in the first half–

"That's been our story here of late. I like the way we fight but we don't execute well enough early on. I felt good about the way we started the game. We marched down and kind of talked about that all week offensively. Started fast. Sent a message but also put ourselves in position to control the clock and win the time of possession. Put together a nice drive, scored. They answered with a kickoff return. That's been a struggle of ours and it really cost us tonight."

The Steelers opened the second half with an interception by James Farrior, and just as they did in the first meeting, they began a furious comeback. Pittsburgh scored on their first four possessions of the second half, aided by two horrible David Garrard interceptions and an unbelievable pass interference call on a fourth down play, to eventually grab a 29-28 fourth quarter lead. After a miserable first half which included three interceptions, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger caught fire in the second half, completing 17 of 23 passes for 194 yards and two touchdowns.

Jaguars quarterback David Garrard suffered through his worst game of the 2007 season, as he completed just 9 of 21 passes for 140 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, for a passer rating of 41.9. Still Garrard had a chance at midfield with just over two minutes remaining and the Jaguars down by one point. That was when Garrard made the biggest play of his life. On a fourth and two play, the Jaguars called a quarterback draw, and Garrard picked up the first down and continued to run 32 yards down to the Pittsburgh 12 yard line. That play forced Pittsburgh to use all of their timeouts and set up kicker Josh Scobee's game winning 25 yard field goal with 37 seconds remaining.

David Garrard talked about his final scramble–

"I knew they weren't going to stop me for two yards. I made some poor throws. It's part of football. You are going to have some bad throws. It's how you respond to them."

Maurice Jones-Drew was the star of the game offensively for Jacksonville. Jones-Drew finished with 29 yards rushing on 8 carries including a touchdown, and he found his way into the end zone again with a 43 yard touchdown reception. Jones-Drew's 96 yard kickoff return took any and all momentum that Pittsburgh had from their opening drive away, and allowed the Jaguars to answer quickly and decisively, on a day where their offense could not find much rhythm. Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio commented on Jones-Drew's return–

"That was such a huge play. They were making plays and that's what it takes to win in this league in the playoffs."

Defensively, the Jaguars forced Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger into three first half interceptions, and sacked the Pittsburgh signal caller six times. Rookie defensive tackle, Derek Landri, was forced into extended action when John Henderson suffered a hamstring injury early on, and played the game of his life. Landri finished with one sack, one interception, numerous quarterback pressures, and the all important fumble recovery which sealed the game for the Jaguars. Safety Sammy Knight led the team with 13 tackles, and rookie linebacker Justin Durant added 12 tackles for the Jaguars.

Overall, the Jaguars weren't sharp on offense, their defense looked gassed in the second half, and the only area of play in which they dominated were special teams. Still, they got the job done and accomplished something that no team has ever done before–win twice in Pittsburgh in the same season. David Garrard talked about the game and the Jaguars season--"It was sweet, even when it gets ugly. Sixty minutes; that's what it's all about." Garrard went on to add– "I think we're a team of destiny."

If they are indeed a team of destiny, the Jaguars will likely have to do the near impossible, which is defeat the undefeated New England Patriots in Foxboro, Massachusetts, in a game scheduled for 8:00 on Saturday night, assuming heavy favorite San Diego wins Sunday's game against the Tennessee Titans. If Tennessee is victorious, the Jaguars will have to travel to Indianapolis to take on a Colts team Sunday afternoon at 1:00 which has defeated them twice already this season, and five of the last six times they've played.


Charlie Bernstein is the Editor-in-Chief of JagNation.com, and a regular syndicated contributor to FoxSports.com, Sirius NFL Radio, MySpace Sports and Sportsillustated.com. Charlie is also a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and is a columnist for the New Smyrna Observer. Feel free to contact him -HERE- with questions or comments.



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