JuJu Smith-Schuster

Jaguars stun Steelers 45-42 to earn trip to AFC title game

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PITTSBURGH (AP) The Jacksonville Jaguars, yes those Jacksonville Jaguars, are heading to the AFC championship game.

Rookie running back Leonard Fournette ran for 109 yards and three touchdowns, Blake Bortles added 214 yards passing and a vital fourth-quarter score as the relentless Jaguars stunned the Pittsburgh Steelers 45-42 on Sunday.

The third-seeded Jaguars (12-6) will face top-seeded New England next week in Foxborough, Massachusetts after jumping on Pittsburgh early, then holding on late. Jacksonville raced to a 21-point lead, fended off a Steelers rally and responded every time Pittsburgh (13-4) challenged.

Ben Roethlisberger threw for 469 yards and set a franchise record with five touchdown passes, but was also intercepted once and had a fumble returned for a score. All-Pro Antonio Brown caught seven passes for 132 yards and two touchdowns in his return from a left calf injury. Le'Veon Bell had 155 yards of total offense and two scores.

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But Pittsburgh’s vaunted “Killer Bs” couldn’t keep pace with Jacksonville, one of four NFL franchises to never make the Super Bowl.

The Jaguars dominated the Steelers back in October, winning by three touchdowns in a performance so overwhelming Roethlisberger only half-jokingly wondered aloud whether he still had “it’ after throwing a career-high five picks.

Roethlisberger and his teammates left little doubt they hoped for a rematch, one that came to fruition after Jacksonville outlasted Buffalo in an ugly wild-card victory; the Jaguars survived in spite of an 87-yard passing performance by Bortles.

Jacksonville cornerback A.J. Bouye cautioned Pittsburgh to be careful what it wished for, and the Jaguars hardly appeared intimidated by the 18-degree chill or trying to earn their first road playoff win in a decade.

Fournette’s ever-churning legs set the tone early. He soared for a 1-yard touchdown run on fourth down on Jacksonville’s first possession. e sprinted for an 18-yard score on the first play following a Roethlisberger pick, and bulled over from 3 yards in the fourth quarter after the Steelers cut the lead to a touchdown.

Bortles has found himself a touchstone during Jacksonville’s resurgence following a decade of losing, even allowing last week that he’ll never be able to silence all of his critics no matter what.

Might be time to test that theory.

While he wasn’t flawless, he also wasn’t afraid. Having the burly Fournette certainly helped, but Bortles also never hesitated – the Steelers led the NFL with a franchise-record 55 sacks but never once got to Bortles. If he wasn’t scrambling for extra yardage he was using play-action or deftly executed screen passes. His 45-yard completion in the fourth quarter set up Fournette’s final score, and his 14-yard flip to Tommy Bohannon with 4:19 left vaulted the Jaguars to the NFL’s final four for only third time in team history.

The Jaguars did it on a day the NFL’s top-ranked defense hardly looked like it. Though Jacksonville forced a pair of first-half turnovers, including Roethlisberger’s fumble that Telvin Smith returned 48 yards for a score and a 28-7 lead, Pittsburgh rolled up 545 yards.

Still, it’s 2 yards the Steelers didn’t get that helped send them into an offseason filled with questions.

Twice Pittsburgh had fourth-and-1 in Jacksonville territory. Twice it did something other than have the 6-foot-5 Roethlisberger sneak. The Steelers ran wide in the first quarter and Bell was stuffed for a 4-yard loss. The Jaguars responded immediately by going 75 yards in 11 plays, the final one a 4-yard sprint by T.J. Yeldon that put them up 21-0.

The Steelers were down a touchdown early in the fourth quarter and had fourth-and-inches at the Jacksonville 39. Roethlisberger checked at the line of scrimmage, faked a handoff to Bell and instead threw incomplete to diving rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster.

UP NEXT

The Jaguars travel to New England, where they were beaten in the 1996 AFC title game.

The Steelers, despite tying for the league’s best record, head home.

For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

Woe and 16: Browns go winless after 28-24 loss to Steelers

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PITTSBURGH (AP) The Cleveland Browns joined the 2008 Detroit Lions as the only teams in NFL history to go 0-16 when they failed to find a way to beat the backup-laden Pittsburgh Steelers in a 28-24 loss on Sunday.

Cleveland had a chance late in the fourth quarter, but quarterback DeShone Kizer‘s fourth-down pass to Corey Coleman bounced off Coleman’s hands and fell incomplete.

And for the 16th time in 2017, the Browns walked off the field searching for answers that are as elusive now as they’ve been at any point since the franchise’s return to the NFL nearly two decades ago. Head coach Hue Jackson is expected to return despite a 1-31 record and the Browns have two of the top four picks in the 2018 draft.

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Kizer finished with 314 yards passing and two touchdowns to Rashard Higgins but also threw a fourth-quarter pick, his NFL-leading 22nd of the season.

The AFC North champion Steelers (13-3) sat stars Ben Roethlisberger and Le'Veon Bell among others but it hardly mattered. Landry Jones completed 23 of 27 passes for 239 yards with a touchdown and an interception, and rookie wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster caught nine passes for 143 yards and a score. He also returned a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown.

Pittsburgh sacked Kizer six times, boosting its season total to 56, a franchise record.

Nearly four months removed from a taut 21-18 loss to Pittsburgh in the season opener – a game that seemed to indicate the Browns were ready to take a significant step forward in Jackson’s second year – Cleveland walked onto frigid Heinz Field still looking for its first win in 372 days.

The wait will continue for another eight months following three hours that symbolized Cleveland’s historically miserable season.

While there were bouts of competency, including a pair of takeaways by the defense and long Kizer hookups to Higgins and Josh Gordon, the Browns simply could not get out of their own way. Twice in the first half they drew third-down defensive penalties that extended Pittsburgh drives. Three times in the fourth quarter they had the ball and a chance to go ahead.

The first two ended with turnovers, giving Cleveland an NFL-high 41 on the season. The third ended with Kizer somehow escaping pressure on fourth down at the Pittsburgh 27 only to have his pass clank off Coleman’s hands and fall to the frozen turf, one last missed opportunity in a year filled with far too many.

While Jackson, who will jump in Lake Erie at some point in the near future to fulfill his vow the Browns wouldn’t go 1-15 as they did in 2016, is expected back in 2018, another offseason filled with searching awaits.

UP NEXT

Browns: “With the first pick in the 2018 NFL draft, the Cleveland Browns select … ”

Steelers: Will enjoy a week off before hosting the divisional round the weekend of Jan. 13-14.

For more AP NFL coverage: http://pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP-NFL

Steelers betting favorites over rival Ravens for Sunday Night Football

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Ben Roethlisberger will face a defense that has given him fits without one of his best receivers on Sunday night, while the betting line is set right at the point where the Pittsburgh Steelers cause fits for bettors.

The Steelers are listed as a 4.5-point favorite against the Baltimore Ravens with a 43.5-point total for the Week 14 Sunday Night Football matchup at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com.

Over the last four seasons, Pittsburgh is 7-1 straight-up but 4-4 against the spread when favored by 3.5 to 6.5 points at home. The Ravens have been a consistent cover against AFC North competition, to the tune of 10-2 ATS in their last 12 games vs. divisional opponents. That trend might overlap with the Steelers being 5-0 SU in their last five divisional home games.

The Ravens are 7-5 SU and 6-5-1 ATS, but are 0-3 SU against teams presently in a playoff position. Whether they can rise to meet the level of the Steelers will likely start with whether the offensive line anchored by LT Ronnie Stanley and RT Austin Howard, which has allowed only one sack in the past two games, can shut down DE Cameron Heyward and the Pittsburgh pass rush (which is second in the NFL with 40 sacks).

If they hold up, QB Joe Flacco and targets such as WR Breshad Perriman and WR Mike Wallace could exploit a Steelers pass defense that has been rather generous at allowing long-strike completions since CB Joe Haden (fibula) went down.

Baltimore, through Alex Collins, is solid in the rushing phase. It’s hard to know what to expect from Pittsburgh’s run defense in the team’s first game since a serious injury to ILB Ryan Shazier (spine).

The Steelers are 10-2 SU and 6-6 ATS and Roethlisberger has an ugly 4-to-6 touchdown pass/interception ratio across his last five games against the Ravens. With CB Jimmy Smith (ACL/PED suspension) out of the picture, it is just a matter of when WR Antonio Brown will break off a big play. The Steelers will be counting on Eli Rogers or Martavis Bryant to fill in for the absence of JuJu Smith-Schuster (suspension).

Without Smith-Schuster, who is excellent at sealing off defenders as a run blocker, the Steelers might use more double tight-end sets with Jesse James and Vance McDonald. That could serve two purposes: opening lanes for RB Le'Veon Bell, who scampered for 186 rushing-receiving yards against the Ravens in Week 4, as well as seizing on the Ravens’ year-long struggles covering tight ends.

Pittsburgh, second to New England on the odds to win the AFC championship, is 1-3 ATS in its last four games against the Ravens, and 1-3 ATS over its last four, but between Brown, Bell and Heyward they have three difference-makers at key spots.

The total has gone over in six of the Ravens’ last eight games. The total has gone over in the Steelers’ last five games in Week 14.

For more info, picks and a breakdown of this week’s top sports betting news check out the new OddsShark podcast with Jon Campbell and Andrew Avery. Subscribe on iTunes, or check it out at OddsShark.libsyn.com.