Jaguars vs. Steelers: Top 10 Games Between the AFC Central's Last Great Rivals

Joshua Hayes@@JayPHayes1982Correspondent IIJuly 10, 2011

Jaguars vs. Steelers: Top 10 Games Between the AFC Central's Last Great Rivals

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    Tempers have cooled and absence has made the heart grow fonder (or more tolerant), but little more than a decade ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Jacksonville Jaguars were in the midst of establishing one of the most passionate rivalries in the NFL.

    In the "old" AFC Central loomed storied franchises who embodied rich pasts, Cleveland and Pittsburgh.  Along for the ride were the "Luv' Ya, Blue!" Houston Oilers and the snake-bitten Cincinnati Bengals. ;

    Pittsburgh was the biggest bully on the block, in the midst of "Cowher Power," and preparing itself for a "One for the Thumb" championship.  Truly, the AFC Central belonged to the Steelers in the mid-90's, a time when Super Bowl aspirations were high!

    Following a narrow defeat to the San Diego Chargers in January, the Steelers looked ahead to the 1995 season as an opportunity to return to the AFC Championship Game and win.

    Pittsburgh was the perennial favorite in the division and the American Conference, and Steelers fans couldn't be blamed if they perceived the road to Arizona (the host site for the Super Bowl) a bit easier. 

    Two winnable games stood out like sore thumbs, and the opponent was the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars.  After all, expansion teams were "freebies," and to many towel-twirling fans, Pittsburgh was perceived as having a 2-0 handicap.

    In this time, the Baltimore Ravens were a team dressed in brown and Pittsburgh's arch-rival.  The season that was 1995 would become the springboard for odd circumstances.  These unbelievable happenings truly set the stage for a new rivalry to be born in the final years of the old Central Division.

    In that season, the Cleveland Browns owner, Art Modell, would announce his plans to relocate his franchise, prompting Steelers fans to wear orange bands during a Monday Night Football game as a showing of support for fans against the move.

    Later, the Titans would be birthed from the former Houston Oilers, and in the first year of realignment, Houston's new franchise would be the Texans, an old Dallas franchise that is now the Kansas City Chiefs!

    (Taking a breath for air....)

    Yet, in lieu of all of that business, nothing was odder in the AFC Central than those new cats with the teal uniforms. 

    Like a defensive kitten with sharp teeth and a penchant to strike its claws at those who approach it, the Jags were pesky.  Steelers fans perceived a 20-16 loss to the expansion Jaguars as a display of their own team's deficiencies. 

    After all, expansion squads, a la the 1976 Tampa Buccaneers, didn't win games let alone beat great teams.

    The warning signs were there, though, that both new teams, Jacksonville and Carolina (who beat the great 49ers in the NFC West that season), could be a new breed of cat as it concerned first-year franchises in the NFL.  

    Unlike prior expansions, the two teams were afforded additional draft picks on top of the expansion lottery, which allowed them to pick players from the other NFL franchises.  

    On top of this, the free agency era, which allowed teams to wheel and deal for players more freely than restrictive eras, gave the squads the opportunity to solidify an actual competitive roster.

    The result was two squads that combined for 11 wins in their inaugural seasons.  In their sophomore campaigns, Jacksonville and Carolina both competed in their respective conference's championship bout, a feat that both teams have not combined to accomplish in the same season since that unpredictable 1996 campaign.

    Kittens and little brothers are very similar.  They are scrappy when they're little, but they'll reserve themselves to a dominant figure if they press hard enough. 

    Unlike little brothers, however, both clubs became cats, with a big bite, in the space of under a year.  In this case, the older brother is a proud franchise that is more than 60 years the senior of its opponent.

    The storied Steelers saw the Browns leave town, and with Baltimore off to a slow start, it was absolutely unexpected that the Jacksonville Jaguars, who hardly earned their stripes for such successes, would be their new arch-rival.

    Yet, that's exactly how it was!

    Losing in 1995 in the clubs' first-ever meeting, the Steelers wrote the defeat off as an aberration, defeating the Jags later in the season, 24-7, during a classic win streak that propelled them to their first Super Bowl since 1980.

    The tried and true tradition of Pittsburgh would seemingly be no match for the inexperienced Jaguars, who went on record as saying they chose to design themselves after the Steelers, hoping to meet and exceed their rivals as the king of the AFC Central Division.  The fast track to NFL legitimacy would be to dethrone the storied Steelers. 

    Immediately, Jacksonville held true to their belief that beating Pittsburgh was critical to their success.  The Steelers lost all of their first five games against the Florida rivals, assuring the seeds of NFL rivalry would be planted and properly cultivated: balance of power....and hatred!

    The Jaguars viewed the Steelers as "beating big brother," while the Men of Steel saw their ego as bruised with losses to the young franchise.  By 1997, the most classic season of the rivalry, both teams had legitimate Super Bowl aspirations.   Yet, the Steelers, for superiority or pride or both, fended off Jacksonville in their pursuit of the division title.

    Nevertheless, like the car of the same name, the Jaguars wasted little time in clinching the division, winning it by 1998. 

    Realignment in 2002 separated the Steelers from their hated impersonators, but the ire of a heated rivalry continues to feed both teams when they meet for occasional inter-divisional battles to this day. 

    It's probably less intense for Pittsburgh, but nevertheless, memories of the late 1990's still burn in the fans old enough to remember!

    The Jaguars still call it "Pittsburgh Week," and the Steelers and their fans certainly want to set the record straight against a franchise that has won exactly six fewer Super Bowls, yet boasts a distinct advantage in the series, 12-9. 

    The edge includes a four-game win streak, shutout, and a three-game stretch in which the Steelers did not score a touchdown.

    Surely, some fans in the 'Burgh see these games as a chance for big brother to finally put that "little pest in his place!" 

    In a rivalry that has varied in its intensity, these are the 10 greatest games, pitting Man vs. Cat in the form of Men of Steel vs. Jaguars. 

Honorable Mention: DeWayne for DeWin (In Pittsburgh, 1998)

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    The Steelers were a tried and true winner under coach Bill Cowher, and the Jaguars were the team that everybody knew was breathing down their necks.  In 1997, Pittsburgh fended off Jacksonville via tie-break to win the AFC Central despite an identical record and split of the season series.

    By 1998, Jacksonville was in position to dethrone the Steelers, leading the AFC Central by two games with an 8-2 record.  Pittsburgh wouldn't lose the division for a lack of trying, winning this contest to move to within a game of their rival.

    It would be the Steelers' final win of the season, as four days later, an infamous coin toss during Thanksgiving dinner cost the team a win in Detroit.  The demoralized Steelers would not recover.

    However, for one day, it appeared they would somehow find a way to edge out those pesky Jags.

    Unlike most games between the clubs, southpaw quarterback Mark Brunell was not his normally efficient self, completing only 18 of 42 pass attempts with three interceptions.   One of those turnovers came in the first quarter, an interception return for a touchdown by DeWayne Washington.

    Also abnormal was the efficiency of Kordell Stewart, who completed 25 of 36 passes with a fourth-quarter touchdown and no turnovers.

    With both running games seeing only modest success, the disproportion of play at quarterback would seem to be a significant statistical difference.  Pittsburgh was winning the turnover battle 3-0. 

    Yet, in the final minutes of the fourth quarter, Brunell hit Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell for a touchdown and subsequent two-point conversion, cutting a 23-7 lead to eight points.

    For their domination, the Steelers would still have to fend off a feisty Jacksonville team....again!

    The Jaguars got the ball back, but the Pittsburgh cornerback who heroically led off the scoring capped the victory.  DeWayne Washington intercepted Brunell, and the Steelers won, 30-15.

    For a glorious Pittsburgh day, the capital "W" in the defensive back's first and last name stood for win.

10. Role Reversal Complete (In Jacksonville, 1999)

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    The Jaguars had finally seized the AFC Central from Pittsburgh in 1998, and the subsequent season would determine if it was an aberration.

    As the Steelers entered Jacksonville, they had already lost to the team back in Pittsburgh, 17-3, marking the first road victory for a team in the series.

    The Week 12 match-up would be exclusively for pride, as Pittsburgh's 5-6 record was a far cry from the 10-1 mark of the "Teal Terrors."

    Make no mistake: the Steelers were not going to simply lie down for the young franchise from Florida.

    The defense's performance would make fans of the Black n' Gold proud, but an anemic offense was the death knell for the team. 

    In fact, the struggling offense would only score nine points against their division rivals all season, and 12 total over the course of three consecutive games.  This was the final game in a dominant trio for Jacksonville.

    The two defenses dealt blows to their opponents.  Neither team could find the end zone, and the score was tied 6-6 nearing the end of the third quarter.

    Thoughts of an upset began to loom large in the minds of the Steelers Nation, the notion of a 9-6 victory having to be satisfying enough.

    Both defenses had traded blows, the ESPN Sunday Night Football crew heralded Pittsburgh as a team that would not "pass the division torch without a real fight."

    Even with notions of a defensive victory, fans in Pittsburgh knew that any touchdown would spell doom for their team's anemic offense.

    Every franchise has killers associated with it, players that consistently give it fits.  Jimmy Smith was a Steelers killer.

    So, it was no surprise when Mark Brunell hit the star wideout with a 27-yard strike to give the Jaguars a 13-6 lead.

    Jacksonville would finish off Pittsburgh with a fourth-quarter run by James Stewart to extend the lead to 20-6.

    This game provided evidence of a notion most fans suspected heading into the season; Jacksonville had surpassed Pittsburgh in full, and it was the Steelers who would have to catch the Jags in order to claim the division.

    Jacksonville went on to destroy Dan Marino in his final game, 62-7, before their season ended in a home loss to the Titans in the AFC Championship Game.

9. Reed Is Right (In Jacksonville, 2002)

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    In the preseason, Tom Coughlin had the unenviable task of cutting down his roster, and the casualties included a little-known kicker with a propensity for crazy hair styles.

    His crazy crown would come back to haunt Coughlin in a big-hair way.

    The Steelers' Tommy Maddox was the story of the 2002 NFL season, but an injury in Tennessee sidelined him.  Kordell Stewart, who had a shaky history in starts against Jacksonville, would quarterback in relief, hoping that "Tommy Gun's" absence wouldn't expose a Super Soaker.

    Slash's performance was two-fold; the offense moved the ball but couldn't score touchdowns.

    Jeff Reed, a newly acquired kicker who was playing his first game in a Steelers uniform, kicked three field goals in the first half.  None of these were of greater distance than 30 yards, so there was little commotion. 

    Trailing only 16-10 at halftime, the Jaguars had an opportunity to win the game with one score.  Jeff Reed would fend the Jaguars off, finishing the game 6-for-6 on attempts, each of them critical in a 25-23 win. 

    He began his big day in the third quarter, hitting a 46-yard field goal to give the Steelers a 19-10 lead.

    Another short field goal by Reed was followed by a Jacksonville touchdown, and the Steelers' inability to score touchdowns was clearly keeping the game close.

    Midway though the fourth quarter, another Pittsburgh drive stalled at the Jacksonville 33-yard line.  Leading by five points, their option was to punt and pin the Jaguars deep or attempt a 50-yard field goal with their new kicker.

    They opted for the latter. 

    Tom Coughlin's expression as Reed nailed the long field goal was exasperation in its purest state. 

    A late touchdown by Steeler-killer Jimmy Smith was followed by a failed two-point conversion attempt, and Pittsburgh held on to win 25-23. 

    Jeff Reed kicked more than just six field goals that day.... 

8. Teal Terror Taylor (In Pittsburgh, 2000)

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    The Steelers run defense is traditionally considered among the best in the game.  Two- and three-year stretches in which no running back eclipses the 100-yard benchmark against their defense are not uncommon. 

    As such, when the opposition is able to establish a running game against them, it gets noticed.

    In a list of best games, most contests will make the cut for being agonizingly close or pronouncedly meaningful.  A few make the cut for supreme accomplishments and historical merit.

    This falls into the latter category. 

    When the 3-7 Jaguars came to the Steel City to play the energized Steelers (5-5 after an 0-3 start), they fell behind 7-0 in the first quarter.  The game seemed to be going as planned, and few could have anticipated the standout performance that would be forthcoming.

    When an opponent reaches 100 yards rushing against the Steelers, it takes top billing in the sports section of Pittsburgh's "Tribune Review."

    When an opponent reaches 234 yards, the community does everything short of burning every newspaper, trying to hide the evidence.

    Fred Taylor dominated the Steelers on Three Rivers Stadium turf. 

    His FOUR (yes, four) touchdowns themselves totalled 69 yards, and by the start of the fourth quarter, Jacksonville led 34-10.  A late Steelers rally made the score appear closer, 34-24.

    The loss did tremendous damage to Pittsburgh's playoff aspirations, but more embarrassing was the fashion in which it happened. 

    There was no spread offense or special teams blunders.  Jacksonville simply ran over the Steelers defense, and Taylor, in the stadium's final season, set the record for rushing yards by an opponent at Three Rivers Stadium.

    Of note, in a game that narrowly missed this list, the Jaguars dominated the Steelers at Heinz Field in December 2007, as Fred Taylor rushed for 147 yards, most ever by an opposing running back in the stadium's history.

    While the Steelers came back to tie the game, a great deal of their opportunity was born of Jacksonville's inadequate kicking game, a product of snowy conditions. 

    Pittsburgh did come back from a large deficit late in the game to force a tied score, but just as suddenly, the Jags put the game away on a Fred Taylor touchdown run.

    By 2007, the teams were no longer division rivals and the intensity of the rivalry had decreased.  The regular season contest saw Maurice Jones-Drew and the aforementioned "Teal Terror of Taylor" serve notice that they were not to be taken lightly, spring-boarding a modest rekindling of the rivalry in the upcoming playoffs and following season.

7. Maddox Mayhem (In Pittsburgh, 2005)

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    The 2005 Steelers were coming off of a 15-1 campaign that included a 15-game winning streak engineered by then-rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger

    In that stretch of games, Pittsburgh beat the 6-5 Jaguars at Alltel Stadium in Jacksonville, 17-16.  It was a game that locals described as the biggest for the young Jags franchise since their dominance of the late 1990s.

    With a measure of revenge in the forefront of their minds, Byron Leftwich and the Jaguars flew into Pittsburgh knowing they would have to play their finest game of the season to defeat the Steelers. 

    In reality, Jacksonville did not play their finest game of the season; they simply wouldn't need it.

    The overwhelming sentiment of fans is that it takes a whole team to win or lose a game.  I tend to take it from the perspective of a chain, where every link has to be tremendously strong, the length being only as secure as the weakest link.  In that manner, it does take teams to win games.

    Yet, if there was ever proof that one weak link could cause a team loss, Jaguars vs. Steelers in 2005 is Exhibit A.

    Tommy Maddox gets an overwhelming amount of grief from Steelers fans, undeservedly.  At worst, his presence ended the Kordell Stewart era and sprung into action the concept of a team need for long-term stability at the quarterback position.   Spoiled fans have forgotten that Pittsburgh started Kent Graham earlier in the century. 

    During his tenure in 2002, Maddox was on fire, breathing life into a Steelers offense whose aerial attack was inconsistent. 

    It wasn't all great, though.  While "Tommy Gun" resurrected the team for a season, he may have been a catalyst for a confused identity, as Pittsburgh began to abandon some of the fundamentals (such as clock possession and running on offense) that were Bill Cowher trademarks during his time to date. 

    2003 showed Maddox as being on the decline in his career, and by 2004, he was replaced as the starter by Ben Roethlisberger due to injury.

    Roles reversed for this 2005 contest, as an injury to Big Ben brought Tommy back into the fray.   It may have been bad timing, as the Jaguars defensive front, anchored by Thomas Henderson and Marcus Stroud at the tackle positions, was a run-stuffing machine.

    True to form, Jacksonville put the game into Maddox's hands, holding the Steelers to less than 60 yards rushing.

    The quarterback threw two interceptions in the first quarter, spotting the Jaguars a 7-0 lead.  Seemingly not phased by his misfortune, he responded with a second quarter touchdown.  After an Antwaan  Randle El punt return touchdown, the Steelers led at the half, 14-10.

    Both offenses continued to be stagnant in the second half, but the Jaguars put together their only drive with any rhythm, and regulation ended in a tie.

    To start the overtime, the Steelers' Quincy Morgan returned the kickoff to Jacksonville's 26-yard line.  Then, the unthinkable occurred....

    Willie Parker fumbled on first down, but recovered.  Then, instead of playing it safe, Tommy Maddox dropped back on third down and...fumbled the ball without being hit!  The Jaguars pounced, preventing Jeff Reed from an overtime attempt.

    After the Steelers defense stood stall, Maddox ended an 11-for-28 afternoon by throwing a gift the Jaguars Rashean Mathis.

    Thinking they would have to play their best game of the season to win at Pittsburgh, Jacksonville returned to Florida victorious after having played one of their worst games.  

    The final score was 23-17.

    In one afternoon, "Touchdown Tommy" became "Turnover Tommy," and many fans still most remember this unsettling afternoon of football from a quarterback who also gave the franchise some warm memories. 

6. "Don't Quit." (In Jacksonville, 2008)

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    In the episode of "America's Game: The Super Bowl Champions" outlining the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger discusses his quarterbacking style and outlook on life. 

    While his personal life will cause critics to take his word at arm's length, a poem read by the quarterback outlines his philosophy:

    "When things go wrong, as they sometimes will,
    When the road you’re trudging seems all up hill,
    When the funds are low and the debts are high,
    And you want to smile, but you have to sigh,
    When care is pressing you down a bit,
    Rest! if you must; but don’t you quit.

    Life is queer with its twists and turns,
    As everyone of us sometimes learns,
    And many a failure turns about
    When he might have won had he stuck it out;
    Don’t give up, though the pace seems slow;
    You might succeed with another blow.

    Often the goal is nearer than
    It seems to a faint and faltering man,
    Often the struggler has given up
    When he might have captured the victor’s cup.
    And he learned too late, when the night slipped down,
    How close he was to the golden crown.

    Success is failure turned inside out;
    The silver tint of the clouds of doubt;
    And you never can tell how close you are,
    It may be near when it seems afar;
    So stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit;
    It’s when things seem worst that you mustn’t quit."

    The program then highlights the Jaguars vs. Steelers Sunday Night Football game, a rematch of a playoff game in which the Jags beat Pittsburgh at Heinz Field. 

    Roethlisberger and the offense dominated the game statistically, yet as the proverbial thorn in the team's side, everyone had to know that the depleted Jaguars simply were not going to go away.

    An explosive affair saw Jacksonville leading 21-20. 

    In one of many fourth-quarter comebacks, Big Ben engineered a game-winning drive for the ages.  While the circumstances may not have been uncommon, the quarterback made a couple of highlight-reel plays in his typical gunslinger style.

    On one play, Reggie Hayward prepared to sack Roethlisberger, pulling him down by the jersey.  Yet, the ball was thrown as Ben flung his arm forward, hitting Heinz Ward with a perfectly thrown pass.

    David Garrard summarized the play after the game:

    “I’ve never seen something like that before in that situation, with the game on the line, guys pulling him to the ground and he throws it 20 yards down the field, on the money."

    Ben would hit Ward on a perfect fade into the corner of the end zone, lifting Pittsburgh to a 26-21 win.

5. Feels Like the First Time (In Jacksonville, 1995)

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    An expansion team named the Jaguars?

    Granted, in the NFL, they say that it's important not to overlook anybody.  It's stated that any team can win on any given Sunday.

    Fans have doubts and make guarantees. 

    Then, games happen that make all of us who feel like we know what's going on realize that we don't know a thing.

    To the Steelers, an expansion team named the Jaguars was a cat without claws.

    Jacksonville changed the perspective very quickly.  Indeed, that's why they play the games!

    Mark Brunell hit Cedric Tillman with a 10-yard touchdown pass to give Jacksonville a quick 7-0 lead, which they doubled at the start of the second quarter.

    Trailing 14-0, Neil O'Donnell hit tight end Steve Avery in the left flat, and he proceeded to churn out yardage, outmuscling the Jacksonville secondary and getting into the end zone. 

    From there, the teams traded field goals, and down 20-13, a Steelers drive in the fourth quarter stalled, and Bill Cowher opted to kick another field goal.

    Yancey Thigpen had a tremendous effort, catching six passes for 160 yards.  It wouldn't be enough.

    Jacksonville would ultimately hold off Pittsburgh's comeback, resulting in the biggest win of their short existence, commanding respect and earning the ire of fans in the Steel City.

    It was the beginning of a nasty trend, as Alltel Stadium in Jacksonville was a house of horrors for the Steelers, who were 0-5 on the road against the Jaguars to start the rivalry.

4. Rookie Rally (In Jacksonville, 2004)

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    2004 was a special year in Pittsburgh.

    Combining Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers was synergy in its peak form.  A perfect formula seemed to be resulting, and a few wins were strung together.

    The question lingered:  was it synthetic or was this the real deal?   Could a rookie quarterback really be this great?

    By the time the Steelers traveled to Florida for their first meeting with the Jaguars since realignment in 2002, they were 10-1.  The primetime game saw the 6-5 Jaguars fighting for a potential playoff spot.

    Many in the Jacksonville community regarded the game as the biggest for the franchise since their dominance of the late 1990s.   

    The young gun in Pittsburgh delivered another fast start, hitting Hines Ward for a touchdown and an early 7-0 lead.

    Former Steelers receiver Troy Edwards evened the score on an outstanding run after the catch, but Roethlisberger responded with a 26-yard touchdown to tight end Jay Riemersma.

    The Steelers led 14-7 at halftime, but it felt like more.  For their dominant play in the first half, their lackluster play in the second half nearly cost them the game.  Penalties prevented Pittsburgh from skinning a very pesky cat.

    Byron Leftwich and the Jaguars began to accumulate first downs, though the new-age Steel Curtain would not allow touchdowns.  Three Josh Scobee field goals gave Jacksonville a surprising 16-14 lead in the final minutes. 

    Aplomb.  Poise.  Assurance.

    These were the feelings Steelers fans had grown accustomed to with Roethlisberger as their quarterback.  Once again, the "kid" delivered in the clutch, and the Steelers seemed to win the game 17-16.

    Leftwich drove the Jaguars to the Steelers 42-yard line,and it seemed to be irrelevant, as Jacksonville needed a Hail Mary pass completion to win the game.

    Enter: Josh Scobee.

    In a curious decision, Jack Del Rio sent in Scobee to attempt a 60-yard field goal to win the game. 

    The ball thundered off of the kicker's foot and approached the uprights.... 

    WIDE RIGHT!  But barely, and the kick had plenty of leg.

    In a clean game with no turnovers, both teams delivered a monumental effort in one of the finest games of the 2004 season. 

3. Wild Card's Wild Finish (In Pittsburgh, 2008)

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    January 2008 saw a tired, injured former champion enter the playoffs in the wrong way.  The Steelers had lost three of their last four games, including a 29-22 dismantling at the hands of Jacksonville that should have been much worse.

    In the earlier regular season game, the Jaguars ground the Steelers defensive front into a pulp, before Josh Scobee's two extra-point misses mercifully allowed Pittsburgh back into the game. 

    After erasing a 22-7 deficit, Pittsburgh watched as Jacksonville took the ball into the end zone to finish regulation, ramming Fred Taylor down the heart of the defense with surprising ease.

    While momentum was not on their side, Pittsburgh had a lot to prove.  The Black and Gold was ready to deliver black and blue to the team that did the same to them weeks earlier.

    The early going looked promising for the 'Burgh, as Ben Roethlisberger drove the offense with crisp efficiency to a 7-0 lead.

    Then, "Pocket Hercules" received the ensuing kickoff.

    Maurice Jones-Drew returned the football to the one-yard line of Pittsburgh, resulting in the tying score shortly thereafter. 

    Next, Roethlisberger's seemingly efficient passing night gave way to absolute reckless abandon, as the Jaguars pressure fronts caused the quarterback to get uncharacteristically rattled in the first half. 

    The first interception was returned by Rashean Mathis to give Jacksonville the lead.

    The second was also to Mathis, and the Jaguars' David Garrard hit Jones-Drew for a deep touchdown.

    Before the end of the half, Ben threw another interception, ending a late drive that could have cut into the Jaguars' lead.

    By the end of the third quarter, the situation was utterly grim in Pittsburgh.  Heinz Field was silent, and here is why:

    a) The score was 28-10.

    b) The Steelers would open the fourth quarter facing fourth and long from the Jacksonville 37-yard line.

    c) To that point, Pittsburgh had shown no evidence that they could score 10 more points, sinner make up such a large deficit.

    On fourth down, Roethlisberger hit Santonio Holmes for a touchdown to cut the lead to 28-17.

    Anybody who has read this entire article realizes that Jacksonville runs on Pittsburgh better than any team in football. 

    So, naturally, Jack Del Rio would over-analyze the situation and throw three straight passes.

    The result was the Steelers cutting the lead to 28-23 minutes later.

    Then, the Jaguars got the ball back, and guess what Del Rio did?

    a) Made an appointment with a manicurist.

    b) Made an.....

    Ah, the heck with it!  HE PASSED AGAIN!  This time, an interception set up a shorter drive, and Pittsburgh took a 29-28 lead!

    Twice, Mike Tomlin opted to go for two-point conversion.  After the game, fans were critical of the selection, but hindsight is 20/20.  The reality is that these were both solid calls based on the respective circumstances.

    The first attempt came while trailing 28-23, and it would have given the Steelers the opportunity to tie the game with a field goal.   The subsequent touchdown was not guaranteed by any means! 

    The second would have given his team a three-point lead.

    After the Steelers had rallied, Jacksonville got the ball back with one last opportunity to win the football game, trailing by a single point.

    On a controversial fourth-and-2, David Garrard ran deep into Steelers' territory for the critical first down.  Replays showed that offensive holding did occur, but there was no guarantee Jacksonville would not have obtained the necessary yardage anyway, even on a fourth-and-12.

    The Jaguars would win, 31-29.

    What killed the Steelers was not the blown call.  It was utter stagnation for the better part of three quarters, albeit from exhaustion or being outmatched. 

    Either way, two old division rivals played in an electrifying playoff game that lived up to its billing as a Wild Card.

The Year That Was 1997

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    The top two Jaguars vs. Steelers games were both played in 1997, at the height of the teams' very mutual disdain.

    With only two selections left in the countdown, many are surely wondering why the playoff battle does not rank at the top of the list.

    Playoff games have greater impact than all regular season games (outside of playoff qualifying contests), but the list is dedicated to the best games, not necessarily the most important.

    By 2008, the former Jaguars-Steelers rivalry did not carry the same passion as the division battles between Cowher's Men of Steel and Coughlin's Cardiac Cats of the 90's.

    1997 marked an emotional crescendo, the pinnacle of intensity and aggression between these enemies.

    Before that season, the Jaguars were an "expansion" franchise, looking to get its claws into solid soil before eventually surprising fans with a Cinderella run to the 1997 AFC Championship Game.

    After 1997, the Steelers began to falter as "Cowher Power" lost momentum and the great teams of the decade had slowly dwindled with the onset of free agency.

    It was in one particular season that both teams displayed clear greatness.

    In 1997, experts varied on their opinions regarding who would eventually win the AFC Central, but they did not waver on the actual combatants:  Pittsburgh and Jacksonville.  A majority favored the Jaguars, as the Steelers would likely be starting unproven quarterback Kordell Stewart.

    The rivals would finish with identical records, mutually entering the playoffs as 11-5 teams with exciting potential. 

    The division winner was Pittsburgh, assuring the Steelers a more passable road to Super Bowl XXXII in San Diego.

    They split the season series in two classic thrillers that top this list.

    So, which game is the winner?

    Is it the unforgettable Monday Night Football affair in hot, humid Florida that came down to a game-ending Norm Johnston field goal attempt?

    Or, did the overtime thriller at Three Rivers Stadium eclipse the classic contest from earlier in the season?

    In a way, the selection is both easy and difficult.  With two great games to choose from, there is no wrong answer.

    There is no right answer, either.

2. Theater at Three Rivers Stadium (In Pittsburgh, 1997)

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    Midway through the '97 season, both the Steelers and Jaguars were 5-2.  A victory in their eighth game of the season would go a long way toward determining which team would have a legitimate shot at representing the AFC in the upcoming Super Bowl.

    The proud Steelers had been working hard to fend off the surging felines, as the third season of Jacksonville football saw the squad attempting to return to the AFC Championship Game.

    Playoff byes in 1994 and 1995 taught Pittsburgh the value of a division championship, and they were not ready to lose their grip on the AFC Central Division.

    Pittsburgh was slow out of the gate to start the game, a tendency that plagued their '97 campaign. 

    Jacksonville capitalized.  Mark Brunell threw a touchdown to little-known Willie Jackson, and the Jaguars led 10-0 at halftime.

    If the first half was a curse for the Steelers, second halves proved to be their strength all season.  As trend would have it, Kordell Stewart hit Courtney Hawkins with a 28-yard touchdown to make the score 10-7 in the third quarter.

    After Slash had slashed the cats, the Jaguars started to show their claws, answering the drive with their own march into Pittsburgh territory.  Facing fourth-and-1 from the 2-yard line, Jacksonville handed the football to James Stewart.  Greg Lloyd stuffed the running back.

    From there, Stewart engineered a complete turn in momentum, executing a 98-yard offensive drive that culminated in another touchdown.  So close to being down 20-7 or worse, Pittsburgh now led 14-10.

    With all of the momentum, the defense continued to quiet the Jaguars' offensive engine to a mere purr, and Jacksonville punted midway through the fourth quarter.

    On the ensuing possession, Jerome Bettis fumbled the football in Jags territory, and Jacksonville capitalized with a Brunell touchdown pass.  Suddenly, the Steelers trailed.

    Showcasing the heart of a champion, Stewart and the offense drove again, but their attempt to win the game stalled deep in Jaguars territory.  Norm Johnson tied the score, and the game ultimately went into overtime.

    There are a lot of great storyline angles that can be derived from sports events, and redemption is one of the finest endings a game can offer. 

    Sports are often used as an analogy for the ups and downs of life, and in this manner, they offer fans unscripted drama that could rival the creative mind!  Indeed, sports are great theater.

    In this play, Bettis would show a great character dynamic, rising from antagonist to protagonist in the Steel City in less than thirty minutes.

    Jerome Bettis capped the extra session with a 17-yard touchdown rumble off of a perfectly staged shovel pass.   The Steelers won 23-17.

    The stands in Three Rivers Stadium shook as exuberant fans rejoiced in the thrill of victory. 

1. Brunell Returns for Monday Night Football (In Jacksonville, 1997)

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    In the Jaguars second preseason game of 1997, fans held their collective breath as Mark Brunell suffered a knee injury.  Projections looked grim, as a first prognosis had the quarterback missing six games.

    It was to everybody's surprise when the quarterback returned to a 2-0 Jaguars club for a critical Monday Night Football game against Pittsburgh, weeks ahead of schedule.

    The Steelers were 1-1, and they had struggled mightily in a loss to Dallas on opening day (37-7) and a narrow win over the Redskins (14-13).  Of significant concern was the offense, struggling under first-year starter Kordell Stewart. 

    Additionally, Pittsburgh's best cornerback, Chad Scott, was going to miss the game, and Randy Fuller would have to replace him in a secondary that had already underachieved to that point in the season. 

    In the club's first primetime meeting, Brunell had his target, and it became obvious early.

    Tied in the second quarter, ABC's cameras showcased a communication between Brunell and receiver Jimmy Smith.  

    Prior to the touchdown, the quarterback literally called an audible by signalling to Smith with an obvious, non-deceptive hand motion the exact route that he wanted him to run.  Smith obliged and ran in the exact direction offered by Brunell for a wide-open touchdown.

    The Jaguars would continue to abuse Randy Fuller, to whom Smith had been assigned, all night.

    Trailing 17-7 at halftime, the Steelers finally came to life in the second half at Alltel Stadium.  Kordell Stewart had his first good showing as the starting quarterback.

    Slash hit Yancey Thigpen with a third quarter touchdown, and the Steelers entered the final quarter trailing only 20-14.

    Pittsburgh took a 21-20 lead on a 1-yard strike from Stewart to tight end Mark Bruener.  The drive was highlighted by a memorable play that many fans will remember.  Jerome Bettis, who had a wonderful night running the football (21 rushes, 114 yards), ran out of bounds into the Jags busy sideline. 

    As his momentum carried him to the bench, he contorted his body and sat comfortably, kicking his leg up in a classic pose.  The cameras caught the moment perfectly.

    Jaguars fans were not laughing. 

    The Steelers had an opportunity to send Jacksonville a message with their first victory at Alltel Stadium, and for a moment, it appeared the defense clamped down.  After sacking Brunell at his own 35-yard line, Nolan Harrison took a stupid personal foul. 

    Instead of facing a long third down, Brunell, who would complete 24 of 42 passes for over 300 yards in his unexpected return, used good field position to drive Jacksonville to a 23-21 lead. 

    Pittsburgh understood the value of keeping pace with a Jaguars team that was mere months removed from the AFC Championship Game.  The Steelers engineered a fine drive, setting up a Norm Johnson field goal attempt for the win.

    The Jaguars blocked the kick, and Chris Hudson returned the live ball up the sideline.  As he ran toward the end zone, the passion of the football game became evident in the body language of Bill Cowher.  The coach, who would later apologize for his actions, appeared ready to tackle or take a swing at Hudson.

    The touchdown ended a dramatic football game, 30-21.  The Steelers would eventually catch Jacksonville to win the division.  While the Steelers lost the game, both franchises took measures of victory. 

    The Jags defeated their arch-rivals on national television, and Pittsburgh found a rhythm on offense that would help carry them to the AFC Championship Game.


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