January 5, 2012

2008: Jaguars Survive Comeback to Beat Steelers in Wild Card Playoff Game

The Pittsburgh Steelers were the hosts for the AFC Wild Card playoff game against the Jacksonville Jaguars on January 5, 2008, yet they were widely considered to be underdogs. For one thing, the Steelers had won the AFC North in 2007 with a 10-6 record while Jacksonville placed second in the AFC South and secured a wild card slot at 11-5. Furthermore, the Jaguars had beaten the Steelers at Heinz Field during the regular season and seemed to have the momentum coming into the game – while Pittsburgh lost three of its last four contests, Jacksonville had won six of the final eight regular season games.

The Steelers, under first-year Head Coach Mike Tomlin, bounced back from a disappointing 8-8 record in 2006, a year after winning the Super Bowl. However, by the time they reached the playoffs, they were without five starters, including RB Willie Parker, who rushed for 1316 yards before suffering a broken leg. Star SS Troy Polamalu was playing, but had suffered through an injury-riddled year and was not in top form. Still, the offense featured QB Ben Roethlisberger, coming off his best year to date in his fourth season, and WR Hines Ward. The defense was as tough and seasoned as usual, and had benefited from the play of LB James Harrison in his breakout year.

Jacksonville was coached by Jack Del Rio and featured a ball-control running game on offense. The one-two running back punch of 31-year-old veteran Fred Taylor (1202 yards, five touchdowns) and 22-year-old Maurice Jones-Drew (768 yards, 9 TDs), in his second season, was potent. QB David Garrard was in his sixth year, but only second as the starter, and while his numbers weren’t overwhelming, he was intercepted only three times while tossing 18 touchdown passes. The defense was tough, especially at linebacker, but was also without tackles John Henderson and Marcus Stroud due to injury.

There was an enthusiastic crowd of 63,629 in attendance on a Saturday night at Heinz Field. They saw the Steelers start off well on the game’s initial series. Pittsburgh went 80 yards in 10 plays, highlighted by Roethlisberger (pictured at right) throwing to Ward for a 31-yard gain in a third-and-four situation and a 15-yard personal foul penalty on the Jaguars on a play in which the quarterback had been sacked. RB Najeh Davenport went up the middle for the final yard and a touchdown that put the Steelers ahead by 7-0.

The Pittsburgh fans were in a frenzy, but it didn’t take Jacksonville long to respond as Jones-Drew returned the ensuing kickoff 96 yards down the middle of the field to the Steelers’ one yard line. Taylor scored on the next play and Josh Scobee’s extra point made it 7-7.

The teams traded punts until CB Rashean Mathis intercepted a Roethlisberger pass and returned it 63 yards for a touchdown. Three plays after the Steelers got the ball back, Mathis picked Roethlisberger off again, and while the return was only for a yard this time, it gave the Jaguars the ball at the Pittsburgh 46 and set up another score. It only took two plays as Jones-Drew caught a swing pass from Garrard and turned it into a 43-yard touchdown.

Following a three-and-out possession by the Steelers, Jacksonville again had good field position following a punt and drove to the Pittsburgh 28. However, Scobee’s 46-yard field goal attempt was wide to the right.

Getting the ball again just before the two-minute warning, the Steelers drove from their 36 to the Jacksonville 21. Roethlisberger completed five passes (one was taken away following a challenge) including 18 yards to Davenport on a third-and-four play. However, backup DT Derek Landri intercepted a pass – the third given up by Roethlisberger – to end the threat and the teams went into halftime with the Jaguars maintaining a 21-7 lead.

The Steelers got a break early in the third quarter when LB James Farrior intercepted a Garrard pass, giving them the ball at the Jacksonville 43. Pittsburgh advanced to the 10 yard line in seven plays and Jeff Reed booted a 28-yard field goal.

The Jaguars came right back with an eight-play, 82-yard drive of their own. Garrard scrambled for 12 yards and a first down in a third-and-two situation from his own 26 and a facemask penalty moved the ball past midfield. Garrard then completed back-to-back passes to WR Ernest Wilford for 20 and 19 yards to the Pittsburgh 10. From there, Jones-Drew ran 10 yards off tackle for a touchdown and Jacksonville led by a daunting 28-10 margin.

That was the score heading into the fourth quarter, but on the first play of the final period Roethlisberger threw to WR Santonio Holmes for a 37-yard touchdown that, with the successful PAT, made it an 11-point game. The Jaguars went three-and-out on their next possession and Pittsburgh, taking over at its 31 yard line following the punt, scored again in ten plays. Roethlisberger completed six passes, three of them to Ward and one for a 14-yard TD to TE Heath Miller. The Steelers went for a two-point conversion and initially appeared to have succeeded when Roethlisberger threw to Ward in the end zone, but it was nullified by a holding penalty and Roethlisberger’s attempt to then run the ball in failed. Still, Jacksonville’s lead was down to just five points at 28-23.

Three plays into the Jaguars’ next series, Garrard was again intercepted, this time by CB Ike Taylor, who returned it 31 yards to the Jacksonville 16. Roethlisberger threw to RB Carey Davis for eight yards and, two plays later, it was first-and-goal at the five. However, after a pass to Ward gained four yards to the one, Roethlisberger threw three straight incompletions. The last was on fourth down, but drew a pass interference penalty and Davenport ran in for the touchdown that put Pittsburgh in the lead by a point. Once more, the Steelers tried for a two-point conversion, and once again it failed as Roethlisberger’s pass intended for WR Nate Washington fell incomplete. Still, Pittsburgh had put together a 19-point run to go in front by 29-28 with 6:21 remaining on the clock.

Jacksonville’s offense had been quiet, but showed signs of life. Taking over at their 22, the Jaguars were moved backward by a penalty but, on a third-and-13 play, Garrard completed a pass to WR Dennis Northcutt for 17 yards and a first down. The drive stalled thereafter, and LB LaMarr Woodley’s sack of Garrard forced a punt. A 53-yard kick by Adam Podlesh, combined with an eight-yard return by WR Cedrick Wilson, had the Steelers taking over at their 22.

Now it was the turn of Pittsburgh’s offense to go three-and-out, and Daniel Sepulveda’s punt and Northcutt’s 16-yard return gave the Jaguars good field position near midfield with 2:38 to go.

Facing a fourth-and-two situation at the Pittsburgh 43, Garrard made the pivotal play of the game as he ran for 32 yards on a quarterback draw to the eleven yard line (pictured at top). After running the clock down to 40 seconds, Scobee came on to kick a 20-yard field goal that put the Jaguars back in front. Following the kickoff, Roethlisberger fumbled when sacked, Jacksonville recovered, and that was it as the Jaguars held on for the 31-29 win.

The Steelers had more total yards (340 to 239) and first downs (24 to 14) than Jacksonville. However, Pittsburgh also turned the ball over four times, to two suffered by the Jaguars, and the quarterback known as “Big Ben” was sacked six times (Garrard was dumped on four occasions). Ultimately, the decision to try for two-point conversions following the last pair of Pittsburgh touchdowns had big consequences in what ended up being a two-point game when they failed. The Steelers were also hurt by the lack of a running attack, particularly after the first quarter, as they gained just 43 yards on 26 attempts (to 135 yards on 29 carries for Jacksonville).

Thanks to the long fourth-down run, David Garrard led the Jaguars in rushing with 58 yards on 5 attempts while completing 9 of 21 passes for 140 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. Fred Taylor was held to 48 yards on 16 carries and Maurice Jones-Drew (pictured below) added 29 yards and a TD on 8 rushes. Jones-Drew also had 43 yards and a score on his lone pass reception while Ernest Wilford caught two passes for 39 yards.

Ben Roethlisberger went to the air 42 times and completed 29 for 337 yards with two TDs and the three first-half interceptions. Hines Ward caught 10 of those passes for 135 yards and Heath Miller contributed 8 receptions for 85 yards and a touchdown. Najeh Davenport led the anemic running game with 25 yards on 16 attempts, although two were good for scores.

“They kind of lost their gaps, they thought pass, I was able to get through there,” said Garrard of his key fourth down carry. “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.”

“It's very disappointing, everyone's fired up,” said Pittsburgh LB Clark Haggans. “We fought hard. We came up short. It was a play here, a play there.”

“We fell short,” summed up Mike Tomlin. “Nothing really soothes the feeling we have right now.”

Jacksonville lost the next week in the Divisional round to the undefeated New England Patriots. They dropped to a disappointing 5-11 in ’08. The Steelers, on the other hand, came back to go 12-4 and win the Super Bowl.