Sunday, January 06, 2008

Jaguars relinquish 18-point lead but stun Steelers at end

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The past means nothing to the Jacksonville Jaguars in Pittsburgh, and neither does a frantic Steelers fourth-quarter rally. The Jaguars overcame both obstacles there for the second time in three weeks, and next up might be another date with history.
Josh Scobee saved the game by kicking a 25-yard field goal with 37 seconds remaining and the Jaguars came back after squandering an 18-point lead in the fourth quarter to beat the Steelers 31-29 on Saturday night in an AFC wild-card game that was wild in every sense of the word.
Jacksonville, becoming the first opponent to win twice in Pittsburgh in the same season in the Steelers' 75-season history, appeared to be done after Najeh Davenport's second 1-yard TD run of the game gave the Steelers a 29-28 lead with about six minutes remaining. But quarterback David Garrard, not an exceptional runner, found a seam on a convert-or-else fourth-and-2 play and rambled 32 yards to the Steelers 11 with 1:56 left.
"Right before we went out, I pulled the guys together and said, 'Guys, you got to love it, this is what we're here for,' " coach Jack Del Rio said. "Now let's go out and make some plays and win it."
The Jaguars will play unbeaten New England in Foxborough on Saturday night, unless the Titans upset the Chargers in the other AFC wild-card game Sunday. If that happens, Jacksonville will play next Sunday at Indianapolis.
Garrard aided the Steelers' comeback by throwing two interceptions -- one less than he had all season -- only to come up with the play that may have saved the Jaguars' season.
"They kind of lost their gaps, they thought pass, I was able to get through there," Garrard said. "I just wanted to get a first down. I did enough to get into field-goal range and that was all I was thinking about."
Steelers linebacker Larry Foote argued emphatically that Jacksonville's offensive line held on Garrard's run.
"I don't want to get fined, but watch the long quarterback sneak," Foote said. "Watch the middle of the defensive line and you'll see. You'll see it. Watch what happens in the middle of the field. ... You see a big old hole open up and you'll see the reason why."
Ben Roethlisberger (29-of-42, 337 yards) put the Steelers into a deep hole himself by throwing three interceptions before halftime, then got rolling after he began lining up in a shotgun formation and threw touchdown passes to Santonio Holmes (37 yards) and Heath Miller (14 yards) in 4 1/2 minutes of the fourth quarter to get Pittsburgh within 28-23.
"Ben is our leader, he's always going to be our leader. I'll ride or die with him any day," right tackle Willie Colon said in a subdued Steelers locker room, one filled with disappointment but no screaming or angry words. "He's tremendous and I love him to death and he led us back."
The Steelers rallied from 15 points down to tie Jacksonville late in the Jaguars' 29-22 win at Heinz Field on Dec. 16, but couldn't close the deal. They couldn't this time, either, even though Roethlisberger, shouldering the Steelers' offense virtually by himself with no running game, was 17-of-23 for 263 yards and two touchdowns in the second half. Hines Ward made 10 catches for 135 yards, but the Willie Parker-less Steelers ran for only 43 yards on 26 carries.
Pittsburgh also came up two points short by gambling, perhaps unwisely, for 2-point conversions after each of its final two touchdowns and getting neither. If the Steelers had kicked both times, Scobee's field goal would have only tied it.
"It's very disappointing, everyone's fired up," linebacker Clark Haggans said. "We fought hard. We came up short. It was a play here, a play there."
The Jaguars have beaten Pittsburgh four times in the last three seasons, including that Dec. 16 win, and they appeared ready to do easily by building a 28-10 lead behind backup running back Maurice Jones-Drew's playmaking and Rashean Mathis' two important interceptions.
Then, in less than only about eight minutes, they almost gave away their season.
"I was very proud of our guys for responding after watching that 18-point lead evaporate," Del Rio said. "Certainly, getting this experience will benefit our football team. We wanted to stay calm, stay poised and understand that that's what you need to do, make some plays. We needed every bit of them."
Jones-Drew, in a performance filled with big plays, scored on a 43-yard swing pass after one of Roethlisberger's interceptions and a 10-yard run that provided the 18-point lead. Jones-Drew's 96-yard kickoff return the first time Jacksonville touched the ball set up Fred Taylor's 1-yard touchdown run and immediately answered the Steelers' opening-possession 80-yard touchdown drive.
Taylor, who ran for 147 yards in Pittsburgh last month and had 381 yards in his last two games there, was held to 48 yards on 16 carries and, but it didn't matter.
"It was a tough way to get a win and we got one," Jones-Drew said.
The Jaguars came in off six wins in their last eight games, while the Steelers -- missing five starters, including star running back Parker -- limped into the postseason with three losses in four games and four in seven.
With no Parker, the NFL's leading rusher until he broke his right leg Dec. 20 against St. Louis, the Steelers needed to be creative offensively and Roethlisberger was exactly that on the opening possession. Using rollouts and swing passes to gain the yardage they normally get on Parker's running, the Steelers drove 80 yards for Davenport's 1-yard TD run and a 7-0 lead.
That efficient, creative Steelers offense disappeared the rest of the half, replaced by the familiar mistake-a-minute style so common when they ended five seasons with home playoff losses under former coach Bill Cower from 1992-2004. Cowher, coincidentally, resigned as coach after 15 seasons a year to the day Saturday.
Mathis, who decided Jacksonville's 23-17 overtime win at Heinz Field in 2005 with an interception return touchdown in overtime, jumped on a slant pattern by Holmes early in the second quarter for his 63-yard interception return. Two plays before, the Steelers appeared to get a big break when a tipped pass intended for Miller deflected to Ward for a 33-yard gain, a mini-Immaculate Reception 35 years and two weeks after the original.
Roethlisberger, perhaps attempting to prove he wasn't discouraged by that interception, went right back at Mathis on Pittsburgh's next possession -- and was intercepted by him again. The Jaguars promptly scored two plays later, on a 43-yard swing pass to Jones-Drew that made it 21-7.
With the Steelers driving late in the half, after Scobee's missed 46-yard field goal attempt, Roethlisberger was intercepted yet again by rookie backup lineman Derek Landri.
Despite the comeback, the Steelers ended their first season under new coach Mike Tomlin the same way they did their first under Cowher in 1992, with a first-game playoff loss on their home field.
"We fell short," Tomlin said. "Nothing really soothes the feeling we have right now."

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