When Marcedes Lewis walked off Heinz Field on January 5, 2008, celebrating the Jaguars’ 31-29 wild-card playoff win and second victory at that same venue in a three-week period, he figured gaining entry into the NFL postseason would be a regular thing.
Nearly a decade later, while Lewis has reached his initial goal of playing 10 years in the league, the Jaguars’ elder statesman at 33 laughs about how warped his perspective was back then.
“After Year 2, I was like, ‘Dang, we can get to the playoffs every year,’ “ said Lewis. “When you’re a young guy, you really don’t understand those opportunities come far and few between.”
But few at One Everbank Field Drive imagined this franchise would be on the verge of joining this non-elite company: the Buffalo Bills (2000-present), Cincinnati Bengals (1993-2004), Cleveland Browns (2003-present) and the St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams (2005-present) as the only NFL franchises to go a full decade without reaching the playoffs since free agency began in 1993.
But if the Jaguars can go back to Heinz Field Sunday and win as an 8-point underdog – generally regarded as their toughest matchup of the season – it might provide the push they need to avoid that undistinguished list of postseason absentees.
The last Jaguars’ quarterback to lead them there, David Garrard, shakes his head over the playoff drought approaching a decade, saying: “I never would have thought that in a million years.”
Now the focus has to be on the Jaguars changing history. It’s conceivable they could snap out of their playoff funk by capturing a suspect AFC South division, where nobody looks like a 10-win team. But there has to be a liftoff point, something to catapult Doug Marrone’s team into consistently raising its level of play instead of falling back into old bad habits.
Nothing would provide a bigger jolt of momentum than taking down a storied NFL franchise, a six-time Super Bowl champion, in its own house. And the encouraging part is, the Jaguars have created more cherished memories in Pittsburgh than any other NFL city. I’ll get into that later.
For now, what matters is the significance of the immediate payoff of a Jaguars victory. Not only would it keep them atop the division at 3-2, even if it means being tied with the Houston Texans or Tennessee Titans, they’d also have the edge of a slightly easier remaining schedule than the rest of the AFC South.
But everything starts with the Jaguars proving they’re mature enough, resilient enough, to not let the hangover of last week’s aggravating defeat to the New York Jets or the grind of a grueling three-week travel itinerary undermine Sunday’s mission.
This is a better team than it was coming out of preseason, but standing pat won’t keep the Jaguars in the AFC South hunt. They must perform at a higher level, especially quarterback Blake Bortles and the rest of the offense’s inconsistent parts.
You can’t have Lewis catching three TDs one game, then zero catches in all the others. It’s tough to sustain winning with Leonard Fournette averaging 3.5 yards per carry, or having only 10 plays of 20-plus yards in four games.
But even with Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger having the luxury of killer-B weapons Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and running back Le’Veon Bell, winning in Pittsburgh is doable because the Jaguars have a swarming defense that has shown it can dominate, especially when playing with a lead.
“At least we have hope now,” said Garrard. “There’s definitely a different vibe. You go back a year or three years ago, it was just ‘don’t get blown out.’ Now there’s a chance and it usually comes down to how our quarterback is operating.
“It’s almost night and day between Blake [Bortles] struggling and Blake being competent. You never know what you’re going to get from him.”
The good thing is, and it’s often an overlooked part of Jaguars’ history, they tend to play better in Pittsburgh than anywhere else. Many of this franchise’s top road memories have come at Heinz Field or the old Three Rivers Stadium.
Jacksonville’s last playoff win, and last victory over the Steelers, came when Garrard’s 32-yard run off a quarterback draw set up Josh Scobee’s game-winning field goal in that AFC wild-card game. It marked the only time in Steelers’ history that anybody won twice in Pittsburgh in one season. Three weeks earlier, Garrard threw for three TD passes in a 29-22 Jaguar victory.
In the 2000 season, Jacksonville’s last appearance at Three Rivers produced the greatest game in the storied career of Fred Taylor. He rushed for a franchise-record 234 yards on 30 carries and accounted for all four Jaguars’ TDs in a 34-24 triumph.
Whether it was Rashean Mathis’ 41-yard return for an overtime TD in 2005, or Dom Capers’ defense totally smothering quarterback Kordell Stewart for two safeties to close out a 17-3 win in 1999, Pittsburgh is where the Jaguars have made their best road memories.
Sunday would be an ideal time to create another one.
Gene.firstname.lastname@example.org: (904) 359-4540