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Steelers topple Jaguars

The Associated Press

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- After two near misses, the Pittsburgh Steelers got their first victory.

With Kordell Stewart avoiding costly mistakes and Jerome Bettis leading a running game that produced 209 yards and three touchdowns, the Steelers beat the Jacksonville Jaguars 24-13 Sunday.

They made more of the kind of errors that can cost a team games, but an inspired defense kept the sputtering Jaguars out of the end zone until the final minute to drop Jacksonville (2-3) below .500 for the first time since 1996.

"It's been tough opening 0-3," coach Bill Cowher said.

"They played two games they could've won and should've won, but we didn't. The most important thing is not to lose sight of how you got into the 59th minute and be in a position to win a game. As I told the guys, don't focus on that last 40 or 50 seconds. Let's focus on what we did to get ourselves in that position."

The Steelers (1-3) withstood a blocked punt, a kickoff that went out of bounds to give Jacksonville the ball at its 40, and three turnovers -- one of them on a fumble charged to receiver Plaxico Burress, who spiked the ball at the end of a 19-yard pass play.

The rookie stumbled and fell to the ground without being touched by a defensive player. When Burress got up and slammed the ball to the ground, Jacksonville's Danny Clark scooped it up and ran it back 44 yards.

Six plays later, the Jaguars were stopped on downs at the 4. Burress was the first player to run out on the field and congratulate the defense for protecting a 24-6 lead.

"I'm just glad it didn't cost us the game," Burress said. "I thought the play was over. I was mad because I didn't stay up. I thought I could have run farther. I learned a lesson. I'll never spike it again except in the end zone."

Bettis scored on runs of 1 and 3 yards. Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala's 5-yard, first-quarter TD ended Pittsburgh's three-game touchdown drought against Jacksonville, which had won three straight in the AFC Central rivalry.

The Steelers sacked Mark Brunell seven times and forced two turnovers by the quarterback, who completed 15 of 32 passes for 137 yards and one interception. The Jaguars were limited to two field goals by Steve Lindsey until Jamie Martin threw an 11-yard TD pass to Keenan McCardell with 9 seconds left in the game.

"We had a lot of opportunities. They just took us out of our game," Brunell said. "We wanted to run the ball and we weren't able to. When that's taken away, you have to throw it, and we didn't execute there, either."

Stewart, starting with Kent Graham out because of a bruised right hip, completed 10 of 16 passes for 132 yards with one interception. The Steelers rushed for 209 yards with Bettis running for 97 yards on 28 carries and Fuamatu-Ma'afala gaining 51 yards on seven attempts.

The Jaguars were embarrassed 43-14 by Indianapolis last Monday night and sputtered on offense for the third straight week. The defense started the game without linebacker Lonnie Marts (abdominal strain) and was further weakened when linebacker Hardy Nickerson pulled his right hamstring in the second quarter.

"We're not a very good football team right now. 'We're not doing much that I can relate to," Jacksonville coach Tom Coughlin said.

"Somebody questioned me about our team lacking fire. I would challenge that one. We knew the situation: 'How are we going to come back after the Monday night game?' The fact of the matter is, we did not make any significant plays early on to give ourselves the spark that we needed."

Brunell, questionable to play early in the week after straining his left calf against the Colts, didn't complete a pass until a minute into the second quarter. The Jaguars were held to minus 4 yards in the opening quarter and failed to get into the end zone after Donovin Darius blocked Josh Miller's punt and Greg DeLong recovered at the Steelers 4.

Pittsburgh drove 53 yards and took a 7-3 lead on Fuamatu-Ma'afala's touchdown, a drive that was helped by a personal foul penalty on Gary Walker for a late hit on Stewart.

Stewart scrambled for 34 yards and completed passes of 15 yards to Hines Ward and 14 yards to Burress to set up a second-quarter field goal. He then took advantage of Lee Flowers' interception to put the Steelers up 17-3.

Lindsey kicked a 48-yard field goal for Jacksonville just before the half, but the Steelers kept the Jaguars from getting back in the game by stopping Brunell on downs twice inside the Pittsburgh 20.

McCardell finished with 11 receptions for 137 yards.

Notes: The Steelers won for the first time in six tries at Alltel Stadium ... Jacksonville's Jimmy Smith had two catches for 20 yards, extending his streak of consecutive games with at least one reception to 77 ... The Jaguars are below .500 for the first time since Week 15 of the 1996 season, a streak of 58 consecutive weeks.

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