Jaguars found first rival in Steelers
Published: Sunday, December 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, November 30, 2002 at 10:18 p.m.
The Jaguars entered the NFL in 1995 without any obvious rivals. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were some four hours away, not to mention in another conference. The Atlanta Falcons were five hours away, also in another conference. The Miami Dolphins? Sure, same conference, but different division and some six hours away to boot.
Jacksonville needed a rival, someone to measure up against, someone to hate. Enter the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Owners of four Super Bowl championships, the Steelers were the big, bad bullies of the old AFC Central Division. The Jaguars entered that division, and immediately knew who they had to knock off in order to gain some respect and prominence.
"They were the benchmark," Jacksonville head coach Tom Coughlin said.
Surprisingly, the Jaguars - who meet the Steelers for the 15th time today at 1 p.m. at Alltel Stadium - started the rivalry with some success. In 1995, they earned a season split. The Jaguars won 20-16 at Alltel Stadium in their first-ever meeting. They later lost in Pittsburgh, 24-7.
From there, the rivalry intensified. On Sept. 22, 1997, on Monday Night Football, Jacksonville posted a dramatic 30-21 victory at Alltel Stadium - easily the most memorable game in the series.
On the game's final play, with the Jaguars leading 23-21, the Steelers lined up for a game-winning field goal. Norm Johnson's 39-yard attempt was blocked by Clyde Simmons. Chris Hudson took the ball, and scampered 58 yards down the sidelines for a touchdown. On his way, Steelers head coach Bill Cowher threw a casual punching gesture in Hudson's direction.
Had he connected, Cowher would have been certain to receive a hefty fine, maybe even a suspension.
"I could have (tackled) him," Cowher said at the time. "It crossed my mind. But thank God I didn't. I'm just glad I didn't do it."
It didn't end there.
The teams, one emotionally charged, one equally discouraged, shuffled off to the locker room. But because the game ended in regulation, an extra point needed to be attempted. Officials dragged them back out to the field, and Mike Hollis booted the extra point, concluding the scoring. It was a red-letter night in the Jaguars' short history, one to forget in Pittsburgh's rich annals.
"We've played very well against them," Coughlin said. "We've played hard."
Later in the season, the Steelers exacted revenge, taking a 23-17 overtime victory in Pittsburgh.
"I think when you have two good football teams in the same division, that's how rivalries are started and I think it's always been that way," Cowher said. "We've never had a lot of success playing down in Jacksonville, but at the same time we've been able to win a few of the games up here."
The Jaguars hold an 8-6 lead in the series, posting a sweep in 1999. They are 6-1 vs. Pittsburgh at Alltel Stadium. In the seven seasons the two teams were division foes, Pittsburgh won the Central four times, Jacksonville two.
"I think they're two very competitive teams. It usually comes down to close football," Cowher said. "It comes down to the end. Certainly the crowd has always been a big factor. They're two very competitive teams and they're very similar."
This season, there's a different feel. The Jaguars are now in the AFC South, the Steelers the AFC North. They play just once, barring an unlikely playoff encounter.
But that doesn't mean the rivalry is dead. It's changed for sure. It may never be the same again. But it's still an important game, if for no other reasons than the obvious: The Steelers (6-4-1) are in first place, a half-game ahead of Cleveland. The Jaguars (5-6) are in third place, two games from the top spot.
It's desperation time.
"I know for us it's a very big game. We're excited about the game," Coughlin said. "We're excited about reviewing the history of the relationship between the two franchises and it is a very important, special game for us."
You can reach Tim Sullivan by calling 374-5050 or by e-mail at SullivT@gvillesun.com
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