Tomorrow night, the Super Bowl arrives early for Jacksonville.
"They call it 'Pittsburgh Week,'" said Steelers safety Mike Logan, who has played on both sides of the game.
"When I was down there preparing for Pittsburgh, they prepared like it was the biggest game on the schedule, regardless of what was going on or where we were standing. They take it pretty seriously."
The Jaguars always have considered the Steelers their biggest rivals, right from the start when as a first-year expansion team, they shocked the Steelers, 20-16, Oct. 8, 1995. That they now play them as the defending Super Bowl champs on a Monday night at home ranks among their biggest games in their 12-year history, right up with that victory against the Steelers in the franchise's sixth game.
"The rivalry," Charles Bailey said, "was brewing."
Bailey serves as the Jaguars' pro personnel director, a job he held with the Steelers when the Jaguars formed in 1995. Tom Coughlin, Jacksonville's first head coach, targeted the Steelers not only as the team to beat in the AFC Central Division, but the one which he would most like to copy.
"During those '90s I think we, the Pittsburgh Steelers, set the tone for what being physical was, what running was and taking one game at time," Bailey said. "I think a lot of teams followed that blueprint, which Bill Cowher and those guys still follow today. We know they're going to run the football, we know they're coming with Blitzburgh. Guys' temperatures go up here when they play the Pittsburgh Steelers."
They play for the 18th time tomorrow night in Jacksonville and while the rivalry may have cooled since the teams went their separate division ways in the NFL realignment in 2002, they played two of their most exciting games of the series in each of the past two seasons.
"Now that the divisions changed and we don't play Jacksonville every year, it seems like it's lessened," Logan said. "But to them, I don't think it does."
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger returns to a scene where he pulled off some of the magic that marked his rookie season. Trailing the Jaguars with 1:55 left in a Sunday night game, Roethlisberger led the offense 56 yards on six plays with no timeouts left, and Jeff Reed kicked a 37-yard field goal to win it, 17-16.
Roethlisberger missed the game last season against Jacksonville in Heinz Field Oct. 16 because of a knee injury six days earlier in San Diego. Tommy Maddox replaced him and was terrible; he fumbled away a chance to win the game in overtime, then threw a pass that Jacksonville cornerback Rashean Mathis intercepted and returned 41 yards for a touchdown to give the Jaguars a 23-17 victory.
That also left Jacksonville with a 9-8 edge in the series, one of only two losing records Bill Cowher has against NFL teams in which he has met at least five times.
When in their first season the Jaguars stunned the Steelers, it set the tone for a series often described as physical. Despite that loss, the Steelers would, 31/2 months later, go on to make the Super Bowl. The Jaguars reached the AFC title game in just their second season and followed with records of 11-5, 11-5 and 14-2, and another AFC title game visit.
They did a good job molding themselves after one of the NFL's grand old franchises.
"Man, I was here when we played them twice a year," Steelers cornerback Deshea Townsend, 30, said. "I can remember when they had Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell and Fred Taylor and Mark Brunell. It was tough then to go down to Jacksonville and get a win. Now we're down playing them from two games to one game but anytime we play these guys we know it's going to be physical."
The Jaguars, though, have not been able to model themselves after the Steelers in one important way -- since their debut in 1995, they've been unable to capture the hearts of Northern Florida, where college football remains king. Things were OK in the second half of the 1990s, but tumbled badly after they lost to Tennessee at home, 33-14, in the AFC championship game following the 1999 season.
Four consecutive losing seasons followed and the fan base eroded. Last year, they covered 10,000 of their seats at Alltell Stadium (reminiscent of the Pirates in their final years at Three Rivers Stadium), which reduced capacity to 67,164. It created more of a demand for tickets and also helped assure fewer local TV blackouts of their games.
The scheduling gods presented the Jaguars this year with a marketing person's dream: Cowboys, Steelers, Colts, Giants, Patriots. They sold out all of their non-premium games through season ticket sales, and they might even avoid becoming the one or two NFL teams to move to Los Angeles when the time is ripe.
Both teams enter tomorrow night's game having won their openers and once again, the Jaguars will look to the Steelers for an identity.
"We were a measuring stick in their division for so long when they initially started," said Logan. "They feel if they can compete against us they can compete against the rest of the league."
No day at the beach
Trips to Jacksonville have generally not been kind to the Steelers. Most, in fact, have been downright unusual which accounts for their 3-6 record at the Gator Bowl/Alltell Stadium.Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Ben Roethlisberger's first visit to Jacksonville helped grow the Big Ben lore.
Click photo for larger image.
Matchup: Steelers (1-0) at Jaguars (1-0).
When: 8:30 p.m.
Where: Alltell Stadium, Jacksonville, Fla.