By Nick Shook
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Well, well, what do we have here?
So much for that Steelers-Patriots rematch. Jacksonville rolled into Pittsburgh, punched the Steeelers in the mouth and managed to dance around the ring long enough to emerge victorious. The method wasn’t surprising, but the outcome was. The Jaguars opened the contest with an emphatic touchdown drive, forced a turnover and scored again, and even returned a strip-sack fumble for a touchdown. Pittsburgh — both the Steelers and their fans — barely knew what hit them by halftime.
Two key contributors from that upset find themselves in this space this week, and for the first time in a long time, we also welcome a player who’s currently trying to wash the bitter taste of defeat out of his mouth. Divisional Weekend was just as wonderful as we expected (except for Patriots-Titans).
Here are your greatest on the road from Divisional Weekend. Say it with me now: DUUUUUVAALLLLL!!
Greatest on the Road
Telvin Smith, Jacksonville Jaguars
Where do we start with Telvin Smith? The linebacker has shown massive improvement all season long as part of an incredibly talented Jaguars defense, but Sunday might have been his best game yet.
Smith racked up 14 tackles, flying all over the field for a Jaguarsdefense that was forced to stand tall despite spending much of the second half on the field. His most important play came early, though, with the Jaguars leading 21-7 and attempting to maintain control of the game’s early momentum after giving up a quick touchdown.
Come for Yannick Ngakoue‘s incredibly effective pass rush. Stick around for Smith’s scoop and score.
Ngakoue — one of the biggest Pro Bowl snubs of the year — rushed upfield before squeezing back inside to hit Ben Roethlisberger from behind as he stepped up into the pocket and knock the ball loose. Smith was there to pick it up, but he wasn’t content with a simple recovery. He was determined to take it to the crib.
Smith’s defensive score gave Jacksonville a three-score lead that was enough to help the Jaguars upset the Steelers and head back to Florida confident with a week of preparation before their meeting with the Patriots for the AFC crown. It’s another impressive performance for a linebacker who’s quickly rising to the league’s best.
Also considered …
Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
Thanks to a miraculous, game-ending touchdown completion, Brees didn’t come away with a win. But the quarterback did everything in his power to push the Saints toward an appearance in the NFC title game.
Brees was excellent in the second half Sunday, especially after Minnesota lost safety Andrew Sendejo to a concussion. The veteran quarterback led the Saints on a 21-point comeback, erasing Minnesota’s 17-0 and 20-14 lead with a flurry of points in the third and fourth quarters. His 50-yard drive in just 1:04 appeared to leave the Vikings with only a prayer’s chance in the final 30 seconds.
Then the prayer was answered with Stefon Diggs‘ 61-yard touchdown catch and run. Tough break for one of the league’s best quarterbacks, even on the eve of his 39th birthday.
Talk about a bittersweet celebration of life.
Brees’ final line — 25-of-40 passing, 294 yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions — was enough to put the Saints in position to win another playoff game and keep their excellent season going. It just wasn’t enough to help Marcus Williams tackle Diggs. Sometimes, that’s the way the cookie crumbles.
Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars
Would you look at that?! Fournette was a machine on the ground in the first half, bowling over defenders and setting the tone on the ground for a Jaguars team that came into Pittsburgh bent on establishing its offensive presence. The running back capped Jacksonville’s opening possession with a soaring, fourth-down touchdown run, using inside linebacker Sean Spence‘s shoulder as an extra boost on his dive across the goal line.
That was just the beginning for Fournette, who took another handoff down the right sideline immediately after a Myles Jack interception and outran all 11 defenders to sneak inside the pylon and put Jacksonville ahead 14-0. Fournette finished the second half with 82 yards rushing and two touchdowns, piled up largely in just the first quarter after an ankle injury sent him to the locker room early in the second quarter.
He returned after halftime but wasn’t the same back, totaling just 27 yards on 13 carries in the second half. Fortunately for the Jaguars, three of those yards came on Fournette’s third and final touchdown run of the game early in the fourth quarter. His presence alone also helped free fullback Tommy Bohanon down the middle of a short field for his touchdown reception, which put the Jaguarsahead by 14 with 4:24 left to play.
Fournette’s early play and presence, through the aforementioned ankle injury, was the offensive difference for Jacksonville, which finds itself in the AFC title game for the first time in nearly two decades. Would you believe he’s only a rookie? Us neither.