PITTSBURGH | Less than two weeks before his wedding, Jacksonville resident Craig Thissen has no doubts he is marrying the right woman.
His confidence level in the Jaguars entering Sunday’s AFC Divisional Round playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers? Now that’s what has him worried.
“I’m not sure which Jaguars offense is going to show up for the game,” Thissen said while sitting in Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport early Friday morning. “As far as the wedding, we’re prepared for it, and we know we’re making the right decision. There’s nothing to be nervous about there.”
Thissen and a friend, Tony Veiga, were among the Jaguars fans who began to trickle into Pittsburgh two days ahead of the game. That contingent was growing Saturday night.
Like others who made the trip, Thissen viewed the game as a can’t-miss opportunity to watch the Jaguars continue their improbable season and was willing to shell out big money for airfare and a game ticket. Thissen and Veiga said they paid about $680 each for the flight and $185 apiece to sit in section 219 of Heinz Field.
Unlike probably everyone else coming from Jacksonville, Thissen, a 37-year-old Florida Army National Guard helicopter pilot, also used the weekend to have his bachelor party. He and a small group of friends had loose plans Friday and Saturday before Sunday’s 1:05 p.m. kickoff.
Just before boarding a flight to Pittsburgh, he joked: “I guess I picked the right one if she can be happy for me to go watch the Jaguars.”
The weather in Pittsburgh deteriorated quickly Friday afternoon and produced harsh winds and consistent rain. By early Saturday morning, several inches of snow was being cleared from the streets, with more likely to fall Saturday night and into Sunday morning.
Street sweepers were working overtime Saturday, with piles of snow reaching more than 10 feet high in various parking lots. Vehicles parked in the street were covered in snow, with icicles hanging off the bumpers.
The forecast for kickoff remains brutally cold — around 15 degrees with light winds — but snow is not expected during the game. Really, it’s perfect for playoff football.
“It’s exciting, man. We’re die-hard Jags fans, and we’ve been season-ticket holders for years, and we have suffered long enough,” Amanda Buffington said while walking through the Mount Washington area Saturday.
Buffington made the 12-hour drive to Pittsburgh on Friday with her father and a family friend. She added: “We’re going to enjoy every second of this.”
Indeed, more Jaguars fans began to arrive Saturday. The Jaguars’ charter flight landed in Pittsburgh at 2:25 p.m. and it included Mayor Lenny Curry.
For the Jags fans, Southern Tier Brewing Co. quickly became a popular watering hole. Bold City Brigade — the team’s best-known fan group — planned to pack McFadden’s bar and restaurant early Sunday morning.
Behind a stalwart defense, the Jaguars won their first AFC South title with a 10-6 regular season record. They dispatched Buffalo, 10-3, in the wild-card round last Sunday at EverBank Field. It was the franchise’s first playoff victory since January 2008 at Pittsburgh.
Beating the Steelers for a second time this season — the Jaguars came to Pittsburgh and won in a 30-9 romp in Week 5 — would earn them a trip to the AFC Championship Game for the first time since the 1999 season. And it will require another stellar effort.
That said, optimism seems to be wearing black and teal this weekend.
“Our defense is something else, all of them,” LJ Fettig said as he walked around Heinz Field on Friday with his wife, Brittany, and two others. “All of the Pro Bowlers and All-Pros the Steelers have on offense, we’ve got just as many on defense.”
“If [quarterback] Blake [Bortles] doesn’t make mistakes, we win the game,” Eric Levy said while walking through Pittsburgh’s Market Square en route to Saturday’s Detroit Red Wings-Pittsburgh Penguins hockey game. “The defense is going to show up.”
On Friday, Thissen was still trying to piece together his schedule for the weekend. He originally thought about going to Las Vegas for his bachelor party, but that plan was scrapped immediately after the Jaguars beat the Bills.
Instead, the latest chapter in his story played out in Pittsburgh.
Thissen said he purchased the engagement ring he eventually gave to his fiancee, Christina Archer, while he was deployed to Iraq for nine months. That was his third tour of duty. Thissen said he was previously stationed in Bosnia in 2004 and Kuwait in 2000.
While he was overseas, the ring was delivered to his mother, and he got it from her upon his return last April. Thissen proposed to Archer in May, putting the ring alongside a breakfast he cooked for her as part of a birthday surprise.
The two will marry Jan. 27 at a resort in Palm Coast.
“It’s difficult to find someone who is accepting of [military life],” Thissen said. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t appreciate that she stood by me and waited for me to come home from my deployment.”
Thissen is never sure where he might be sent next, so enjoying these moments is important. Veiga agreed. He said spending the money required to make the trip was an easy decision. He was hopeful others from Jacksonville felt the same.
“We haven’t had many opportunities to do something like this, so we wanted to take advantage of it,” Veiga said. “We knew probably a dozen more people who wanted to go but couldn’t because of the cost of the flights.”
With a young, talented nucleus of players, the Jaguars appear to be a team that could compete for playoff trips and possibly even championships for years. That would mean plenty more chances for similar road trips.
But why think so far ahead? If the Jaguars were to end up in the Super Bowl this season, it would be played just eight days after Thissen is married.
Talk about a wedding gift.
“We had success against the Steelers earlier in the year, but that doesn’t always translate,” Thissen said. “I do think we have a really good chance.”
Phillip Heilman: (904) 359-4063