PITTSBURGH — The party raged inside the visitor’s locker room at Heinz Field late Sunday afternoon. At the center of it—the locker room, the party, the defense that ranks among the NFL’s top units and the best Jacksonville Jaguars season in more than 20 years—was linebacker Telvin Smith.
Smith took a lap around the locker room, yelling “Let’s go!” and “Pop them guns, man!” and “We knew!” He screamed, “What!?!?” more times than Dave Chappelle playing Lil Jon. He flexed and smiled and danced and skipped as if performing a one-man theatrical production, like this was the best afternoon of his young life and he wanted it to last forever and he didn’t particularly care if there were more important games upcoming.
The Jaguars had just polished off the Steelers, 45-42, to advance to the AFC championship game next weekend in Foxboro. The defense hadn’t played its best game of the season, yielding 545 yards to Pittsburgh and five touchdown passes to Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. But the celebration continued unabated. Smith made sure of that.
“You went out there and moved their a--,” he yelled at the offensive line.
He wasn’t wrong. Jacksonville held a Pittsburgh defense that led the NFL in sacks this season to zero on Sunday, while guiding rookie running back Leonard Fournette to 109 yards and three touchdowns on 25 carries.
“F---ing dominated,” one of the linemen yelled back.
“They thought they wanted us,” Smith said, in what seemed like a vague reference to Roethlisberger saying on his radio show last week that he hoped to face Jacksonville again after the Jaguars intercepted him five times earlier this season.
Smith wagged a finger; his best Dikembe Mutombo impersonation. “Then they got into a real fistfight,” he yelled.
His teammates watched Smith make his way around the locker room. Some nodded along. Others shook their heads. “He’s basically expressing how we all feel right now,” safety Barry Church said. “The way they were talking going into this game, the way everybody has been talking all season. That we just got lucky. Everybody and their mom thought we were going to come in here and get blown out.”
He laughed. “Sorry, moms,” he added.
Cornerback Jalen Ramsey watched Smith waltz into a back room, where anyone within 20 yards could hear him continue his football revival behind a black curtain. Ramsey shook his head. He wondered if Smith would ever shower. “He’s too d--- happy to shower right now,” Ramsey said to fellow corner A.J. Bouye. Then he wondered aloud why the Steelers had been so confident.
So it went. It was that kind of afternoon for Jacksonville, a franchise that is in the playoffs for the first time since the 2007 season, and hosted a playoff game (last week’s win over Buffalo) for the first time since the 1999 campaign. The team’s billionaire owner, Shad Khan, stood just inside the locker room, where, as is his custom, he shook each player’s hand and said, simply, “Congratulations.”
The players knew what Sunday meant to Khan, who assumed control in 2012 and had never won more than five games in any of his first five seasons. His record as owner before this season kicked off was 17-63. He decided to fire coach Gus Bradley, hold on to Doug Marrone as head coach, retain general manager David Caldwell and—and this is an important and—hire former Giants coach Tom Coughlin to oversee all football operations. That would be the very same Tom Coughlin who spent most of Sunday afternoon in the press box, trying to limit his swearing whenever Jacksonville made mistakes, trying—and failing—to control what the reporters who surrounded him could overhear. It was that kind of afternoon.
Jacksonville opened the game Sunday with an easy scoring drive (eight plays, 66 yards) capped off by Fournette’s first touchdown of the afternoon. Fournette added another score later that same quarter, on an 18-yard scamper off right tackle toward the right pylon of the end zone, which came one play after Myles Jack intercepted Roethlisberger, Jacksonville’s sixth pick of the quarterback this season. Smith extended the lead for Jacksonville, long before his locker room lap, scooping up a fumble and returning it 50 yards for a defensive score that silenced the crowd and made it 28-7 with 2:20 left in the first half.
Pittsburgh came back. The Steelers made it 28-21, then made it 35-28, then made it 42-35. The Jaguars always answered—to the surprise of many outside their locker room but not a soul inside it.
Back inside, so many of the players were shouting that it sounded like a soundtrack of the most disrespected team in the history of sports. That’s only a slight exaggeration. Among the complaints: The Steelers had looked past the Jaguars to the Patriots . . . they hadn’t respected the Jacksonville defense, which ranks first or second in almost every major defensive category this season . . . and Blake Bortles, wow, don’t get the Jaguars started on the disrespect cast toward their quarterback, who is always described as embattled or shaky or the reason that Jacksonville isn’t a true Super Bowl contender.
It’s not so much that Bortles didn’t lose the game on Sunday. He was a major reason the Jaguars toppled Pittsburgh, on the road, against one of the NFL’s best offenses. He completed three of four passes for 53 yards on the opening scoring drive. By the end of the day, he was 14-for-26 for 214 yards and a touchdown. Most importantly, he didn’t turn the ball over.
Afterward, Bortles said, “I really don’t care” about his doubters. Regarding vindication, he said, “I’m just happy to win.” And when asked, incredibly, if he was surprised by the Jaguars’ early success, he answered predictably and kindly, “No, not at all.”
At his locker Bortles tugged on a red suit jacket and blue slacks and a light blue dress shirt. His face was almost blank; no smile, no sneer, maybe just a hint of satisfaction. His teammates said he had looked like that as he jogged off the field, as Church thanked him and tight end Marcedes Lewis said, “I love you.” No, it was Bortles’ performance that spoke for him. That, and his teammates. His backup, Chad Henne, said Bortles was the most humble person he’s ever been around.
“The happiest guy should be Blake Bortles right now,” Church said. “If I was him I’d be talking all types of s---.”
Smith eventually did shower, per Ramsey’s instructions, and while he did defensive end Calais Campbell took questions at his locker. Campbell hadn’t slept that well that Saturday, because he was thinking back to his nine seasons in Arizona, the agonizing decision he made this offseason to come to Jacksonville and how he completed, just barely, the most difficult training camp of his life. He was thinking about all that and Khan and Bortles and disrespect and doubts. And here he stood, holding reporters by the shoulders, smiling, chopping his hands for emphasis. “We will be doubted again next week,” he said, laughing, “and that’s fine.”
“It’s kind of poetic, actually,” he added.
Campbell, too, headed to the showers, and on his way back, wrapped only in a towel, he was singing while doling out daps to anyone he passed. “They know, they know, they know,” he sang.
“Hey, I can sing, man,” he added. “They’re going to make a new TV show. Not America’s Got Talent—The Jags’ Got Talent.”
“The Jags do got talent, baby,” he added, as if he needed to emphasize that point to a wider sports world that still sees Jacksonville as suspect, especially with a trip to New England up next. If he’s right, it won’t matter. America will find out soon enough. Like next Sunday, perhaps, against the Patriots.
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