The first time I ever felt convinced my baseball team was good was July 8, 2012. The Pirates beat the Giants at PNC Park that afternoon, 13-2, on the strength of a strong A.J. Burnett start and two home runs from Andrew McCutchen. Pittsburgh entered the day 47-37, and the win sent the Bucs off to the All-Star break in position to end the longest losing-seasons streak in major North American sports history: 19 years.
The Pirates ended that day a game up in the NL Central. Both McCutchen home runs met with thunderous MVP chants from a decent crowd of 30,000. They’d collapse after the break and finish 79-83, a preposterous 18 games out. But McCutchen established himself as a superstar, the best player the Pirates had put on the field since early-’90s Barry Bonds. He’d go on to be the cornerstone player on the first winning Pirates club of my lifetime in 2013 and additional playoff teams the two years after that.
McCutchen’s brilliance during a four-year peak from 2012 to 2015 is obvious to anyone who can read a Baseball-Reference page. He won the National League’s MVP honor in 2013 and made five All-Star Games in five years at one point, with four Silver Sluggers sprinkled in. The list of playersmore valuable than him in that span: Mike Trout, and that’s it. Everything about McCutchen was a thrill — his wide-receiver speed, his first-baseman power, the personality that still oozes out of him.
The trade of McCutchen to the Giants on Monday isn’t just sad because it means the Pirates are tearing down a core that won 98 games three seasons ago. Tanking rebuilds happen all the time, all around the league. Baseball economics and the Pirates’ stinginess made it obvious for years that this day was coming right about now, one year before the end of a seven-year, $65 million extension McCutchen signed in 2012.
This isn’t just sad because it ends an era. It’s sad because it ends the only somewhat happy era a generation of Pirates fans has ever seen.
The Pirates’ two decades in the wilderness between Sid Bream’s slide in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS and the McCutchen-led revival in 2013 cost the franchise legions of young fans. The baseball club has become a distant third in the city behind the Steelers and Penguins — a status born from years of losing, aggravated by a sense that ownership’s never really been interested in spending to make the team competitive.
But what the Pirates did from 2013-15 was magical, even though they didn’t get beyond one playoff game in two of the three years. They regularly sold out their jewel of a ballpark on the North Shore. They had a fun cast of young players, some perfect veteran fits like Burnett, Francisco Liriano, and Russell Martin, and, in Clint Hurdle, a manager who’d make you want to run through a wall. McCutchen was the catalyst for everything, an all-world centerpiece in center field.
Their 2013 Wild Card Game win against the Reds will stand as one of the best moments in the city’s modern sports history. That was the night 39,000 people all dressed in black dogged the Reds’ Jonny Cueto by chanting his name in a long, yinzer drawl — “CUEEEEETTOOOOO” — until Cueto literally dropped the ball and then gave up a home run to Martin on the next pitch.
That wasn’t a McCutchen moment, strictly speaking, but it might as well have been. Even as general manager Neal Huntington built a team around him, McCutchen was the Pirates’ pride. (He reached base four times in five plate appearances that night, anyway.)
Pittsburgh is a tribal sports city. The athletes it loves most are the ones who love it back. McCutchen had only played there for four years out of the 20-year losing streak the Pirates ended in 2013, his MVP season. But when the Bucs won their 82nd game on a hot September night in Arlington, Texas, McCutchen looked to the heavens like he’d suffered through allthose years of losing just like the rest of us.
The game that clinched the end of the losing streak was a 1-0 win against the Rangers. The starting pitcher was Gerrit Cole, a No. 1 overall pick a few years earlier who struck out nine in seven innings. The Pirates traded Cole to the Astros for an unexciting package two days before dealing McCutchen. (The two relievers who followed Cole that night in Arlington, Tony Watson and Mark Melancon, are long gone.)
The Pirates never did break all the way through. Their Wild Card win in 2013 gave way to a five-game NLDS loss to the Cardinals. They lost one-game playoffs to Peak Madison Bumgarner and Peak Jake Arietta the next two years, and they probably would’ve faced a time-traveling Nolan Ryan if they’d made another.
They didn’t score a run in their 2014 and 2015 Wild Card losses. I have no idea when their next chance to score a run in the postseason will be, but it’s not going to be soon.
The Pirates’ window is shut now.
They were losers in 2016 and 2017, as McCutchen declined from a star to merely pretty good. Now McCutchen’s gone the way of every Pirates star since Bonds. Cutch’s departure will sting a little more than the day Huntington traded Jason Bay.
This happens in baseball, the American sport most tilted toward rich teams. But no other team knew futility as never-ending as the Pirates’, and nobody else had this perfect a superstar at this perfect a moment to vanquish all of that at once.
Pittsburgh sports fans are, on the whole, spoiled. If you were born in 1994 like me, you missed golden eras for all three major professional teams in the city. But you’ve still seen three Stanley Cups since 2009 and two Super Bowl wins since 2006.
At least everyone’s got other things to watch. Continued emotional investment in the Pirates has revealed itself to be a swindle, only worthwhile for fleeting moments during what’s now going to be a third decade of general mediocrity or worse.
Maybe the Pirates will find another Andrew McCutchen one day. That they couldn’t do more with the one they had is one of their worst tragedies yet.
Andrew McCutchen wasn't just the face of the franchise. He was the catalyst of cataclysmic change for the Pirates.
The All-Star center fielder was at the centerpiece of their transformative turnaround after two decades of losing with three consecutive playoffs.
Cutch helped make summers fun again in Pittsburgh, bringing fans back to PNC Park by leading the Pirates into contention.
And they gave him away.
The Pirates traded McCutchen, their heart and soul for nine seasons, to the San Francisco Giants for a pair of prospects and international pool money.
That they did this just two years after their owner, Bottom-Line Bob Nutting, said he wished he could make McCutchen a Pirate For Life is a betrayal.
"I don't think it was lip service at all," Nutting said. "We have great respect for Andrew. In a perfect world, we would love to have him here. As a practical matter, we have to do the right thing for the franchise at this point to bring as much talent as we possibly can to get us back into playoff contention."
Through forced smiles, the Pirates tried to put a positive spin on a deal that will go down as Pittsburgh's most unpopular since the Penguins sent Jaromir Jagr to the Washington Capitals.
Combined with sending ace pitcher Gerrit Cole to the Houston Astros on Saturday, the Pirates shed $21.5 million in salary and signaled that they were starting over.
Pirates fans knew this day was coming but still weren't ready for the slap in the face. Nor did it help that Pirates sent McCutchen to the same team that Barry Bonds left them for 25 years ago.
Worse yet, Nutting said that "in a perfect world," he would have loved to keep Cutch, but "the realities of baseball right now don't allow that to be possible."
Nor do the realities of Nutting's ownership.
That's the hard truth here, that the Pirates want to control payroll and create financial flexibility by paying only players who are outperforming their contracts.
McCutchen was set to make $14.75 million this season, and the front office figured, after 78- and 75- win seasons, that the Pirates could finish fourth again without Cutch and Cole.
"Andrew McCutchen has become the household name in Pittsburgh when it comes to baseball," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. "We understand that there's some angry people out there right now because Andrew was their favorite player. … This was not going to be a popular decision."
Huntington called it an "oddity" that a superstar would spend his entire career with the same team, the way that Cal Ripken did with the Baltimore Orioles.
"The nature of professional sports in this day and age," he said, "is that players come and players go."
The financial realities of Major League Baseball differ from those of the NFL and NHL, which is why Ben Roethlisberger will spend his entire career as a Steeler and Sidney Crosby will do the same as a Penguin. But the Steelers and Penguins also value a superstar in a way the Pirates don't.
The Pirates benefited from signing McCutchen to a bargain — a six-year, $51.5-million contract — but never had anything but informal conversations about extending the five-time All-Star and 2013 NL MVP.
"There's no question that hockey, football and baseball have very different landscapes," Nutting said.
"We never used the challenges that we have as an excuse but we're also realistic to face them. It would be delusional to not understand that we have limitations that we absolutely have to make this team better."
Here's the problem: Trading McCutchen — and Cole, for that matter — didn't make the Pirates better. Not this summer, anyway.
The reality is, McCutchen was still their best position player and Cole their best starting pitcher.
So, the Pirates got worse.
But they made it abundantly clear that they have no interest in paying players on the wrong side of 30, even one catcher Francisco Cervelli called "the king of Pittsburgh" in a tweet.
In a farewell, McCutchen called Pittsburgh "My Home. My Fan. My City."
Nutting called it "one of the most emotionally agonizing decisions that we have had to make in my tenure."
Finding a new face of the franchise will be even harder, as the Pirates proved that life with them has limits.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.
Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen were both traded over the holiday weekend.
It’s the end of an era in Pittsburgh. Two days after the Pirates dealt staff ace Gerrit Cole to the Astros for a package of prospects, the team made an even bigger move on Monday afternoon, sending former NL MVP and face of the franchise Andrew McCutchen to the Giants in exchange for two minor leaguers: pitcher Kyle Crick and outfielder Bryan Reynolds. With that, the Pirates have become the latest of the National League’s tankers—a dispiritingly large group that threatens to turn a good chunk of the Senior Circuit into a punching bag for the league’s contenders. As for the Giants, adding McCutchen continues their hell-or-high-water attempt at digging out of last year’s 98-loss catastrophe, but while his arrival fills a need, it may not be enough to get them back into contention.
The 31-year-old McCutchen is as much a Pittsburgh staple as Primanti Bros., the Terrible Towel and Iron City beer. The No. 11 pick of the 2005 draft out of a Florida high school, McCutchen has spent his entire nine-year career in Pirates black-and-gold, emerging as one of the game’s transcendent talents along the way. His apex came in 2013, when he won the MVP award by hitting .317/.404/.508 with 21 homers, 84 RBIs, 27 stolen bases, a 157 OPS+ and 8.1 Wins Above Replacement—that last one a career high. He was an instrumental part of the first Pirates team to make the postseason in 21 years, as the once moribund Buccos won 94 games and beat the Reds in the NL wild-card game. But Pittsburgh couldn’t get past long-time rival St. Louis in the Division Series, and though the Pirates ripped off 88- and 98-win seasons in ’14 and ’15, respectively, they were dropped both times in the wild-card game and haven’t been back to the playoffs since.
As Pittsburgh’s fortunes fell, so did McCutchen’s production. His 2014 and ’15 seasons were both stellar, but ’16 saw a sharp decline in his overall numbers, as he posted full-season lows in all three slash stats, OPS+ (104), and stolen bases (six, with seven times caught stealing). His defense, too, fell completely apart, as he stumbled to a horrific -28 Defensive Runs Saved in centerfield. All of that added up to -0.7 WAR on the year—third worst among all hitters with 450 or more plate appearances on the season. He rebounded in 2017, hitting .279/.363/.486 with a 121 OPS+ and 2.5 WAR, but his days as a superstar look to be over.
So, too, are the Pirates’ days as contenders; after falling to 78 wins in 2016 and 75 last year, Pittsburgh has begun the teardown. And while there’ll be plenty of young Pirates fans crying tonight over the loss of their childhood superstar, moving McCutchen—a free agent at season’s end—was fait accompli once the front office decided to ship Cole to Houston.
Whether the Pirates should be rebuilding is another question entirely. Certainly they would have been hard-pressed to challenge the Cubs, Cardinals or rising Brewers in the NL Central this year. But the return for Cole felt light, and McCutchen’s trade didn’t bring back any true blue-chippers either. Crick is a 25-year-old former first-rounder with a big fastball, but his control problems mean he’s likely no more than a future reliever. Reynolds, San Francisco’s top pick in the 2016 draft, is the better get as a switch-hitting college bat with plus speed and contact, but he needs to work on his plate discipline, and his stock will suffer if he can’t stick in centerfield. Debate all you want whether or not gutting the roster is the right move for the Pirates, but neither of these trades inspires much confidence that the next great Pittsburgh team is anywhere near existence, and they won’t make fans currently schlepping their Cole and McCutchen jerseys to Goodwill feel any better either.
It’s hard not to feel like this is more about the money for the Pirates, who between Cole and McCutchen have cut $21.5 million from their books in 48 hours. Pittsburgh has never been a big spender—its 2016 payroll of $109 million was fifth-lowest in baseball and nearly $50 million below the league average. But while the Pirates are nowhere near the Yankees or Dodgers in terms of financial power, they also don’t have onerous long-term deals on the roster—and they havea $50 million infusion of cash headed their way (as do the other 29 teams) as a result of MLB’s sale of BAMTech, the league’s streaming video service, to Disney last August. Between that and their cut of the league’s revenue sharing, the money should be there if Pittsburgh wanted to spend it.
Nor was this a Pirates team with no hope going forward. McCutchen may have been a goner next winter, but Cole, Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, Jameson Taillon, and top prospect Adam Frazier are as enviable a core as any with which to build a contender both in the present and the future. It would’ve been tricky to navigate, but there was a path to Pittsburgh winning in 2018 and beyond if the team committed to spending where needed.
Instead, the Pirates will tear it down, with veterans Josh Harrison, Francisco Cervelli and Jordy Mercer strong bets to be moved in the next month or so. In doing so, Pittsburgh will join the Marlins, Braves, Phillies, Reds, and Padres in turning nearly half of the NL into a competition-free joke—a morass of 60-to-75-win teams choosing to aim for a distant horizon of success over investing money into fielding a contending squad. It’s a shame for both Pirates fans and the league as a whole that this is the current state of baseball, increasingly divided into super-contenders and bottom-feeders with no one in between. Bottoming out can pay dividends, as the Cubs and Astros have proven, but it’s still a risky move that threatens to plunge the Pirates back into their pre-McCutchen irrelevance.
The Giants, meanwhile, will try to crawl out of that uninspiring group of bummers—not that they really had much choice either way. A total disaster in 2017, San Francisco’s options this winter were limited. The team’s payroll was already strapped, with $191 million spent last year for a last-place finish and $150 million already committed to 2018 before a single player had been signed. Ordinarily, losing damn near 100 games is a sign that it’s time to blow it all up. But the Giants are relatively bereft of the players you move in a fire sale; their roster is primarily composed of aging veterans earning superstar dollars and Madison Bumgarner making peanuts. Bumgarner and Buster Posey aside, there is virtually no one the Giants could move to start a rebuild and get back the top prospects needed to improve an anemic farm system.
As such, trading for McCutchen is the way forward. He’s an easier piece to add than Evan Longoria, who still has five years and $86 million to go on his deal. With only one year and $14.75 million left on his contract, McCutchen isn’t much of a cost outlay. And even with his powers diminished, he should provide a gigantic boost to an outfield unit that was absolutely wretched in 2017; Giants outfielders posted a.685 OPS last year, dead last in the league.
Where McCutchen will play in that outfield, though, remains to be seen. After his disastrous 2016, the plan was to move the former Gold Glover out of centerfield and into right, with Marte taking his place. But the latter’s PED suspension scuttled that idea, and while McCutchen wasn’t great, he was passable enough that San Francisco could stick with him. The potential problem is AT&T Park’s cavernous outfield—404 feet to the left-center gap, an absurd 421 feet to right-center. Covering that much ground is a tall task for even the game’s best centerfielders; it’ll be a brutal test for McCutchen, who’ll turn 32 in October and whose range is already slipping.
No matter what McCutchen does offensively or whether he’s in center or left, though, he’ll be an upgrade over the likes of Gorkys Hernandez and Jarrett Parker. But like Longoria, while he’s an improvement, he’s a limited one who doesn’t help an old team get any younger.
Like the Pirates, the Giants faced a tricky and dangerous road back to contention in 2018. San Fransciso has chosen to walk it, embracing the Fyre Festival founder mentality of “Let’s just do it and be legends.” By acquiring McCutchen, the Giants have gone all in, but there’s no guarantee that even the former MVP at his best has enough to turn them into contenders—especially with the Dodgers, Diamondbacks and Rockies all blocking their way in the NL West.
Then again, what else could the Giants have done? Besides, maybe history will be on their side once more. A little over 25 years ago, San Francisco made an offseason splash by acquiring another former MVP who wore No. 22 from the Pirates. His name was Barry Bonds. Pirates fans will have to hope that this won’t be déjà vu.
Blake Bortles scrambles out of the pocket in Sunday's 45-42 win over the Steelers (Don Wright/AP)
A season that started with Super Bowl aspirations, one filled with incredible comebacks and last-minute victories, ended with a touchdown in the final second.
Yet, there was no celebration from JuJu Smith-Schuster, the rookie receiver who had turned touchdowns into viral video sensations.
It was a hollow moment Sunday at Heinz Field, the solemn silence that followed the devastating defeat to the Jacksonville Jaguars in an AFC divisional playoff.
"Of course, because you know it's not enough," said Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, whose 4-yarder to Smith-Schuster was his fifth touchdown pass of a 469-yard performance.
"We wanted an opportunity to go win the game. That's what we all crave and want. That opportunity just didn't happen."
Instead, we were left to contemplate this final score: Jaguars 45, Steelers 42.
A season dedicated to Dan Rooney, their late chairman, and Ryan Shazier, their inside linebacker who suffered a spine injury, ended short of a rematch with the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game, let alone a seventh Lombardi.
That was hard to swallow for the Steelers. Inside their locker room was pure devastation from a team with three All-Pros and six Pro Bowl picks, to many the NFL's most talented roster.
Steelers inside linebacker Vince Williams wasn't about to sugarcoat it, either. He said there was "definitely a sense" the Steelers underachieved.
"Whenever you are a Pittsburgh Steeler and you don't win the Super Bowl," Williams said, "you underachieve."
The standard is the standard, after all, to borrow Steelers coach Mike Tomlin's favorite phrase.
What we would like to borrow is Tomlin's playbook, to gain some understanding of the calls that cost the Steelers this game.
Tomlin was unapologetic about his decision-making, crediting the effort but blaming "detail execution" while refusing to analyze the loss "in a big-picture fashion."
So, let's fashion this in a small picture: From the start, the Steelers blew it.
Debate all you want the decisions to defer, to run a toss right to Le'Veon Bell on fourth-and-1 late in the first quarter or throw a pass to Smith-Schuster on fourth-and-1 early in the fourth, to attempt an onsides kick after cutting a two-touchdown deficit to seven points with 2 minutes, 18 seconds remaining.
They all backfired and blew up on the Steelers in a big way.
Instead of testing a Jacksonville defense that Roethlisberger called "one of the best I've ever played against," the Steelers trusted a defense that struggled to stop the run and had a penchant for allowing big pass plays.
They bet on beating Blake Bortles, who ran for 1 more yard than he threw against the Buffalo Bills in the AFC wild card. Bortles picked them apart with play-action passes and bootlegs, then handed it to bruising back Leonard Fournette for a 1-yard touchdown run and 7-0 lead.
On fourth-and-1, no less.
That was monumental because Jacksonville knew it could control the game if it had an early lead. The Steelers relied on Le'Veon Bell in the playoffs last year, and he broke their postseason single-game rushing record in back-to-back games. But it's hard to run when you're trailing, and Roethlisberger's interception at the Steelers' 18 set up Fournette's next score. It was 14-0 before you could blink.
Jacksonville swarmed Bell for a 4-yard loss on the first fourth-and-1, then responded with a 75-yard scoring drive that saw Fournette convert the first of eight times on 14 third downs. The Steelers offense couldn't stay on the field, and their defense couldn't get the Jaguars off the field.
No wonder fans booed them.
What followed was a microcosm of their season, one full of distractions that players claim were magnified by the media. The Steelers came back, thanks to a pair of fourth-and-long touchdown passes, to Martavis Bryant and Antonio Brown, that were things of beauty — and despite a Roethlisberger fumble that was returned for a touchdown.
In hindsight, you can say the fourth-down calls offset one another, as did the decision to defer when the Steelers opened the second half with a 77-yard scoring drive on another picture-perfect pass, this time to Bell. The Steelers kept scoring until the final whistle, but it was too late.
Just because the Steelers bailed out Tomlin doesn't absolve the bad calls.
Jacksonville handed the Steelers their most lopsided loss of the season, loading up the line and daring them to throw. Roethlisberger passed 55 times for 312 yards in that 30-9 loss Oct. 8. He exceeded those totals by throwing it 58 times for 469 yards. Never mind the five times previous times Roethlisberger threw for 300 yards or more in the playoffs ended in defeat.
The way the Steelers' season ended was anything but super, except for one thing.
"It's super disappointing," Williams said. "I feel like we failed everybody. We failed the City of Pittsburgh. I failed Ryan. That's my best friend. I feel like I failed my best friend and Mr. Rooney. We had a lot of expectations this season. We had a lot of hype, a lot of buzz generated. To come out here in the second round, at home, in front of Heinz and in front of everybody we care about and everybody that loves us and fail, that feels like …"
Well, you know the feeling.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.
Ben Roethlisberger fumbles as he is sacked in the first half of Sunday's 45-42 loss to the Jaguars. (Keith Srakocic/AP)
PITTSBURGH | It’s not like the Jaguars didn’t try to forewarn the NFL and the rest of the country about the danger of taking this former league bottom-feeder for granted.
Yet all year long, despite winning the AFC South title and slipping past the Buffalo Bills last week for their first playoff victory in a decade, doubts persisted about the Jaguars and most especially beleaguered quarterback Blake Bortles.
Well, America, do you believe now? Or maybe you can just accept this pointed message from defensive tackle Malik Jackson: “We’ve transcended into a new team. This isn’t your uncle’s Jacksonville Jaguars and they’re not your granddad’s Pittsburgh Steelers.”
Really, the scoreboard at Heinz Field from Sunday’s AFC divisional playoff shootout said it all: Jaguars 45, Steelers 42.
The eye-opening fashion in which a Bortles-led Jaguars’ offense throttled the Steelers in their own house should be enough to turn all those mouthy Bortles critics, many of them opposing players, and Jaguars’ skeptics into crickets.
If not, what’s it going to take to silence them? Taking down Tom Brady and the mighty Patriots in Sunday’s AFC Championship game at Gillette Stadium? Hey, don’t put it past these upstart Jags to do that, too.
A few of us (not mentioning names, we know who we are) thought Doug Marrone’s team could pull off a second victory over the Steelers in Pittsburgh, but nobody in their right mind imagined it coming in this fashion.
On a day where Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throws five touchdown passes and laterals to Le’Veon Bell to get another score, a Joe-Montana-cool Bortles still manages to outduel a future Hall of Famer and secure the biggest redemption victory of his life.
“At the end of the day, you’re either going to love us or hate us,” said guard A.J. Cann. “Same with Blake, either love him or hate him, but we damn sure love him on this team. We appreciate him for the man he is, and the player and confidence he has for battling each and every play.”
So those days of Houston Texans pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney calling him “trash,” then Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas classifying him as a “sub-par” quarterback, and Tennessee Titans safety Kevin Byard saying his team needed to “make Brady look like Blake Bortles” to have a shot at beating the Patriots, all of that should cease and desist.
Because whatever anyone thinks about No. 5, it’s hard for any piling on of Bortles to be taken seriously now with a 2-0 playoff record and leading the Jaguars to their greatest victory since the 30-27 upset of the Super Bowl-favored Denver Broncos in 1997 at Mile High Stadium.
Yet when he stood victorious at the postgame podium, Bortles took his usual route of the high road. He declined the opportunity to verbally fire back at those who maligned him.
“I really don’t care,” Bortles said. “I couldn’t care less what anyone in the world says about me. I enjoy going to work every day with those guys in that locker room and the coaching staff. I enjoy everything we do, and this is the type of thing that you dream of – to get opportunities to play in games like this. To be able to come here and do that against a team like Pittsburgh, it will never change for me.
“I have no animosity against anyone who said anything [negative]… . There are a lot of guys home on the couch watching this. I’m sure they are wishing that they could play. I know in years past, I have been.”
Then again, Bortles didn’t have to respond to his trash-talkers because his teammates gladly did it for him.
“I’m super happy for him,” said receiver Marqise Lee. “A lot of people talking that stupid — and we got an opportunity to shove it in their face. He stepped up when we needed it.”
Backup quarterback Chad Henne, one of the most reserved Jaguars in that locker room, couldn’t resist his own blowback, adding: “I couldn’t be more proud to be his teammate. Anybody who’s got anything to say [to Bortles], I mean, you might as well keep your mouth shut because you’re not playing anymore.”
Bortles and the Jaguars flipped the script by ditching conservatism, letting Pittsburgh know they had every intention of getting in attack mode from the start. The Steelers’ defense was carved up for three touchdowns on the first four possessions. Later, a yellow-towel-waving crowd went eerily silent after Yannick Ngakoue’s strip-sack led to a 50-yard Telvin Smith TD fumble return for a 28-7 lead.
While Roethlisberger spent the rest of the game denting the Jaguars’ No. 1-ranked pass defense for 462 yards, Bortles made sure to dim all hopes of a comeback by continuing to counter-punch everything Big Ben, receiver Antonio Brown and tight end Vance McDonald had in their arsenal.
In one of the NFL’s most hostile environments, Bortles and the offense came to the defense’s rescue for a change. The Jaguars found the end zone on all five of their red-zone chances.
Their last two TDs were set up by a 45-yard bomb to Keelan Cole and a checkdown swing pass to T.J. Yeldon, where Bortles went through four progressions before fooling the defense by turning to his left and finding the running back for a 40-yard pickup. Every time Roethlisberger threatened to put the Steelers back in contention, the quarterback many compared him to when he was drafted had an answer.
“What better place and better stage to do it?” said tight end Marcedes Lewis. “There was something about that huddle and Blake’s presence. We were out there, it was just like, ‘Cool, let’s go do it again. They can’t stop us.’ ”
Jackson, knowing the Jaguars picked up Bortles’ $19 million for 2018, vociferously stated the case for his employer to up the ante.
“A lot of these quarterbacks are paid with no playoff games [on their resume],” said Jackson. “Blake’s a top-four quarterback in the league right now, so he better be paid like a top-four quarterback because he’s playing like one.”
It’ll be up to head coach Doug Marrone to quickly bring the Jaguars down from this high, especially with the NFL’s all-time dynasty in the on-deck circle. But for now, the Jaguars also want to take in this glorious moment.
With fans continuing the celebration Sunday night by greeting the team at EverBank upon their return, it left owner Shad Khan visibly moved and appreciative of the team’s long-awaited ascension, especially after Steelers’ owner Art Rooney congratulated him with a heartfelt handshake outside the team locker room.
“I think it’s been everything we thought and more,” Khan said. “The city deserves it and the team deserves it, they worked hard. Obviously, we’ve had the leadership to take them where they are. So, everybody in Jacksonville, thanks for believing.”
Yes, it turns out Steelers’ safety Mike Mitchell was right last week about forecasting a Pittsburgh-New England rematch. It’ll just take place sometime during the 2018 regular season at Heinz Field, not in the AFC Championship game.
But you can bet Patriots coach Bill Belichick, the NFL king of all-business-all-the-time, and his laser-focused quarterback won’t be taking the Jaguars lightly once they break down the tape.
As for the rest of America, it’s going to have to come to grips with the idea that a league doormat has risen to become the NFL bully nobody should want to mess with.
PITTSBURGH -- All the talk about a seventh Super Bowl push or a Patriots rematch or home-field advantage in the playoffs seems silly now, given the mistakes made inside a froze-over Heinz Field on Sunday.
When the Steelers' defense needed its best, it sold out on a play-action fake and watched Jaguars fullback Tommy Bohanon go untouched for the 14-yard touchdown with 4 minutes, 19 seconds left, all but sealing Jacksonville's 45-42 victory. Josh Lambo's 45-yard field goal with 1:45 left put the game out of reach.
The postgame locker room scene was bleak as several defensive players were emotional. One starter had his head buried in a towel for minutes, and another was openly crying.
Players spoke openly about missed assignments and not playing their gaps at crucial times.
Two botched fourth-and-ones and an awkward onside kick with more than two minutes left and two timeouts to set up the Lambo kick won't age well over the next six months as Pittsburgh ponders what could have been. Coach Mike Tomlin said he stands by his calls.
The game was remarkably brilliant in spots. Back and forth both teams went, taking vicious hits and swinging right back, the Steelers taking momentum back and then fumbling it away.
Roethlisberger, wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le'Veon Bell kept answering, desperate to keep the season alive in a thrilling finish.
But spotting Jacksonville 14 points off turnovers early was too steep of a price, and the Steelers' offense was doomed by three drives inside the Jacksonville 40 netting zero points.
Two fourth-down touchdown dimes from Roethlisberger to Brown and Martavis Bryant weren't enough to overcome Jacksonville's scores off a Myles Jack interception and a Telvin Smith fumble recovery for a score.
Roethlisberger said he wanted to face Jacksonville, and he showed it why with touchdowns and 469 passing yards But the Steelers were buried far too early, and Roethlisberger, who lost the fumble recovered by Smith, fell on the proverbial sword.
"[The stat line] doesn't matter when you give them 14 more. That's on me," Roethlisberger said. "I'll take full blame for those points and that loss. You can't put your defense in that situation."
This didn't feel like a shootout as much as the Steelers simply trying to catch up. The Jaguars led the entire way. The Steelers' final touchdown came in the final second -- literally.
The Steelers looked woefully rusty to start the game.
Jacksonville's slow tight ends went for easy first downs on the game's opening touchdown drive. An outside pitch to Bell on fourth-and-1 at the 25 fell flat as Jacksonville saw it the whole way.
In the final minute of the half, the Steelers ran 20 seconds off the clock before calling a timeout because of personnel confusion with the wide receivers.
The game felt over early in the first half. The Steelers' sideline was stunned. The Pittsburgh crowd was stunned. And Jacksonville kept coming.
The Steelers won two of their three regular-season games when trailing by 14 or more points, and they did their best not to flinch Sunday, evidenced by safety Robert Golden's punt block early in the fourth quarter to set up the offense.
Seven of the Steelers' last nine drives went for at least 42 yards, with back-to-back-to-back drives of 75 yards to end the game.
"Nobody quit, literally to the last second. Nobody stopped. Nobody gave up., that's what makes me proud," Roethlisberger said.
Even when Brown's 23-yard touchdown with 8:20 left in the half gave the slightest hint of life to Heinz Field, snagging the pass in the smallest of spaces with A.J. Bouye in coverage, the Steelers had to answer for Jacksonville's running attack.
When the Steelers sought to make history this season, giving up three first-half rushing touchdowns in a playoff game for the first time in franchise history during the Super Bowl era is not what they meant.
At times Sunday, Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette was going 4 yards before getting touched, and when he was touched, he was dragging defenders an extra 4 to 6 yards. Fournette had 82 yards in the first half before leaving the game temporarily with an ankle injury. The Steelers knew stopping Jacksonville meant stopping the run, and they still gave up 164 rushing yards and four rushing scores.
"Rust did not play a part," said defensive end Cam Heyward, part of a Steelers front that did not sack Blake Bortles. "Execution played a part, not trusting that everybody is going to be in their gaps."
The Steelers simply left too many plays out there. They'll have the next six months to think about them.
Several players swear they weren't looking ahead to the Patriots. Guard Ramon Foster had a few colorful words to dispel that notion, saying, "No way we [expletive] overlooked" the team for which they had two weeks to prepare and beat them 30-9 in Week 5.
Regardless, a championship window with several star players closes for another year.
"I'm hoping we can do it all day," said Brown, who went for 132 yards on a calf that wasn't 100 percent. "Have to start all over."