PITTSBURGH — Rookie Leonard Fournette ran for three touchdowns while quarterback Blake Bortles played well enough to keep the Pittsburgh Steelers at bay, and the Jacksonville Jaguars pulled off a 45-42 upset to secure a spot in their third AFC Championship game.
Thanks in part to their smothering defense, the Jaguars got out to an early lead, took the Heinz Field crowd out of the game and wound up scoring the most points ever by a visitor at Pittsburgh in a postseason game.
The Jaguars also short-circuited a rematch of last season’s AFC title game. Instead they are the team looking to topple Tom Brady and the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium next weekend.
Fournette, who had to be taken to the locker room during the first half because of an ankle injury, led all rushers with 109 yards in 25 carries.
Ben Roethlisberger threw five touchdown passes, two to receiver Antonio Brown, who missed much of December with a partially torn calf.
It’s Jacksonville’s third appearance in the conference title game, the first two coming in 1996 (versus New England) and 1999 (vs. Tennessee). The Jaguars were blown out of both of those games, each time at home.
Sunday marked the second time this season the Jaguars won at Pittsburgh. The first game came in Week 5, when Jacksonville picked off five passes by Roethlisberger in a 30-9 victory.
Before the Steelers scrambled back in the second half, the game was on its way to disintegrating into a similar type of blowout.
Although Pittsburgh never led, it was within a touchdown on four separate occasions — 7-0, 28-21, 35-28 and 42-35 — and cut the score to three by game’s end. But the Steelers could never quite claw their way completely out of the hole.
The first signs of life for Pittsburgh came toward the end of the first half.
The Steelers breathed some life back into the stadium with 1:55 left in the half when, on fourth-and-11, Roethlisberger dropped a 36-yard touchdown pass into the hands of Martavis Bryant. That cut Jacksonville’s lead to 28-14 and gave the stunned home team some semblance of hope heading into the locker room.
To that point, the game had been a thrashing by the Jaguars, who posted a 30-9 victory here earlier this season.
About the only thing to go wrong for Jacksonville was losing Fournette to an ankle injury in the second quarter, although he returned in the third.
On their opening possession, the Jaguars marched 66 yards in eight plays, scoring on a 1-yard dive by Fournette.
Fournette would score again five minutes later with a 17-yard run off right tackle. That one-play drive was set up by a Myles Jack interception deep in Pittsburgh territory.
Heinz Field was quiet as a library when the Jaguars went up 21-0 on a 4-yard run by T.J. Yeldon early in the second quarter.
But Pittsburgh fans were re-energized on the Steelers possession that followed, when Roethlisberger hit Antonio Brown for a 23-yard touchdown pass.
That enthusiasm didn’t last long. With 2:33 left in the half, Jaguars defensive end Yannick Ngakoue had a strip-sack of Roethlisberger at midfield. Linebacker Telvin Smith scooped up the ball and ran it back 50 yards for a touchdown, pointing back at a Pittsburgh defender as he ran the final five yards (costing him an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty).
Roethlisberger held the ball for ages in the first half, a problem compounded by the fact the Steelers lost starting right tackle Marcus Gilbert to a concussion in the first half.