PREGAME STRETCH: Jacksonville at Pittsburgh

Can Steelers stay healthy until kickoff? Will it matter vs. loaded Jags team?

AFC DIVISIONAL ROUND

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (11-6) VS. PITTSBURGH STEELERS (13-3)

CBS, SUNDAY, 1 P.M., HEINZ FIELD, 68,400.

Announcers: Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts. This is now the CBS No. 2 team, but they are a very distant second to Nantz and Romo, who will be making sweet love to the Patriots with their voices on Saturday night. Fouts, especially, seems to have regressed when compared to the top-level analysts (Romo, Collinsworth and Aikman). Also, let’s take a moment here to celebrate the real victory of Jon Gruden returning to the Raiders. He and his wild-eyed schtick is off Monday Night Football. O-F-F-T! Watch the ratings improve next year. Mark our words. Information courtesy www.the506.com

Weather – or not: Partly cloudy, cold, mid 20s. Probably not cold enough to have any serious impact on the warm weather team, but let’s remember a guy like Leonard Fournette – born in New Orleans, college at LSU, first year in Jacksonville – likely has never played a football game in temps below freezing (Jags November game at Cleveland was 38 at kickoff). And Blake Bortles (Florida high school, Central Florida college) hasn’t played many. Information courtesy www.accuweather.com

Referee: Brad Allen. This is the second playoff appearance for Allen, who’s in his fourth year as a white hat and apparently moving up the ranks as he worked Wild Card Weekend last year. Allen will not be with his usual crew so those stats really don’t hold up, but we’ll tell you anyway that his crew was below average this year in both flags thrown and yards assessed. We won’t beat a dead horse too badly here, but mixed crews are stupid. There’s no way you can tell us eight guys working as a unit for the first time on Sunday can call this game Information courtesy www.footballzebras.com, www.profootballreference.com and www.nflpenalties.com (it takes three, count ’em, three web sites to provide you with the best each week in officiating background information).

The last times:

+ Ben Roethlisberger was victimized for five interceptions, two of them on tipped passes that were returned for scores, in a 30-9 scorching at the hands of the Jaguars, one of only three Pittsburgh losses on the year. Leonard Fournette gashed the Steelers for 181 yards rushing, including a 90-yard TD, meaning Blake Bortles only had to attempt 14 passes on the afternoon and the Steelers played zone all day. Le’Veon Bell was not a factor for the Steelers, accounting for only 47 yards rushing and 46 yards receiving on the afternoon.

+ The last time these two met in the playoffs was January 5, 2008, a day that will live in infamy for us because it’s the day we started to realize Mike Tomlin really doesn’t know what he’s doing on game day. To refresh your memory, this was Tomlin’s first playoff game at the end of his first season. The Steelers were 10-6 in their first year AB (After Bettis) but were 2.5-point underdogs at home to start the playoffs. Steeler Killer Rashean Mathis had a first-half Pick Six and Maurice Jones-Drew scored twice to stake the Jags to a comfortable 28-10 entering the fourth quarter. A Ben Roethlisberger to San Antonio Holmes 37-yard TD on the first play of the final frame made it interesting and when Heath Miller caught another TD just four minutes later, things were looking up. Having closed to 28-23 with 10 minutes left in the game here, the Steelers will just kick the extra point and play some defense, right? Nope, Tomlin went for two to get within a field goal with 10 freaking minutes left when he had just scored 13 points in four minutes. No good, down five. Guess what? The Steelers scored again four minutes later to take the lead, 29-28. Without the gimme point from four minutes earlier, Tomlin had to go for two again to try and establish a three-point lead, a lead he could have had easily had he just kicked the GD extra points. No good, of course. The rest is ugly history as David Garrard benefitted from about five should-have-been-called holding penalties (which really was just karma for going to the 2XP with 10 minutes left) to scramble 35 yards on a 4th-and-2 play late in the game and set up Josh Scobee for the game-winning kick. Although Tomlin has taken the Steelers to the highest high several times since that day, we has also lost a bunch of games he should have won and it all started with this game.

The line: Pittsburgh -7/40.5. Smarts say: This line has remained fairly steady since the open with a few swings to -6.5 and -7.5. Put it together with the over/under and you’d have something like 24-17 Steelers. Information courtesy www.pregame.com

When the Steelers have the ball:

PIT offense, 3rd passing, 20th rushing, 8th scoring (25.4 ppg), 3rd sacks allowed (24)

JAX defense, 1st passing, 21st rushing, 2nd scoring (16.8 ppg), 2nd sacks (55)

When the Jaguars have the ball:

JAX offense, 17th passing, 1st rushing, 5th scoring (26.1 ppg), 3rd sacks allowed (24)

PIT defense, 5th passing, 10th rushing, 7th scoring (19.2 ppg), 1st sacks (56)

Giveaway/Takeaway: JAX +10; PIT +2

Strength of schedule: JAX .434; PIT .453

So…: In the first meeting between these two teams, it became apparent very quickly that the Jaguars were a better football team than most gave them credit for at that point in the year and those dominant stats above tell that story pretty clearly. But when considering those dominant stats, consider this. The Jaguars played the easiest schedule in football in 2017 (.434 winning percentage for opponents) and the Steelers weren’t far behind with the third easiest schedule. Information courtesy www.nfl.com and www.espn.com.

Player on the spot: Ben Roethlisberger

Why: So, Roethlisberger throwing five interceptions in these two teams’ first meet most definitely WAS a fluke, but the Jags having the best pass defense in the NFL is NOT. So, while we really like the idea of Roethlisberger seeking revenge, he has to be careful to make sure it’s about the quality of his throws and not the quantity. The way to beat the Jags is by ringing the Bell, preferably about 30 times. If #7 throws for 300, we’re guessing it will be in defeat.

Key matchups:

WR Antonio Brown vs. DB Jalen Ramsey. Why: You might have heard Tony Romo say it during the pandemonium that surrounded Ramsey’s game-winning interception last Sunday, “That’s probably the best cornerback in football.” And we know Brown is the game’s best wide receiver. So, this could a potentially epic clash of titans. Brown went for 10 catches and 147 yards in defeat earlier this year so Ramsey might be the one seeking revenge here. It should be noted, though, that the Steelers are much better equipped to attack Jacksonville’s secondary in this game as neither Juju Smith-Schuster, Martavis Bryant or Vance McDonald were fully integrated into the attack back in early October and Eli Rogers did not play in the game.

Sacksonville vs. Steelers offensive line. Why: While the Steelers lead the league in sacks with an every-man-contributes philosophy, the Jaguars are second with the vast majority of their 55 sacks coming from just four people: Defensive ends Calais Campbell (14), Yannick Ngakoue (12) and Dante Fowler (8) and defensive tackle Malik Jackson (8). Against Buffalo, they looked like a group with bad intentions from the start and battered Tyrod Taylor throughout the game until they finally knocked him out late in the fourth quarter. The Steelers’ offensive line under Mike Munchak has made a living out of making big-time rushers disappear from big-time games, but can they make four big-time rushers disappear? Expect Todd Haley to help out with a lot those wide receiver screens you all love so much. You might remember Antonio Brown took one of them in for a score very early in last year’s playoff opener against Miami.

Quick hits:

+ The Jaguars are coming to Pittsburgh largely because of the LEGS of Blake Bortles, who looked downright lost throwing the football against Tennessee, but burned them for nearly 100 yards on 10 quarterback scrambles. Bortles ran only one time for nine yards in the first meeting with the Steelers, largely because he didn’t have to run or throw because Pittsburgh couldn’t tackle Leonard Fournette and the Jags defense scored twice. You have to think the formula to win Sunday involves flipping those scripts and forcing Bortles to beat you, by land or air.

+ Only the Steelers could enter the postseason relatively healthy and get three key players injured before the team plays a playoff snap. Nothing is ever easy with this team, always with the adversity and the drama.

+ Speaking of drama, or rather, absolutely no drama, we’re intrigued by Ben Roethlisberger going on the record already that he’ll return for the 2018 season. Roethlisberger is due a $5 million roster bonus in each of the next two Marches and is scheduled to make about $12 million in salary each year. The early announcement on 2018 has us wondering if there is not already some discussion under way about extending #7 one more time, probably for four years, through 2021, with him likely only playing two of those years.

+ And even more drama…. or is it? The Le’Veon Bell “story” Thursday – where the RB was asked a hypothetical question about his future and gave an answer, which then was presented in the story’s headline as if Bell was making a statement about his future – is another great example of the absurd overkill of online sports reporting. Nothing to see here, move along please.

Playoff picture:

+ Atlanta at Philadelphia: You have to feel bad for Philly sports fans, to have such a fantastic year and young QB and shot at the Super Bowl and see it go up in flames so quickly. Then to “catch a break” and get the #6 seed to open and the playoffs and have it be this team, which looks very much like a team that is going back to the big game. Wait, who are we kidding? You don’t have to feel bad. LOL. The pick: Falcons 30-23.

+ Tennessee at New England: You don’t have to be Encyclopedia Brown to follow the clues in Seth Wickersham’s story last week on New England’s dysfunction and see the primary source was either Bill Belichick or his agent. So now the question becomes: To what end? Is Belichick truly fed up and on his way out and making sure he’s not painted as the bad guy? Or is he simply try to get Brady’s quack nutritionist away from his team? Either way, Patriots 55-10.

+ New Orleans at Minnesota: With the Eagles in such dire straits, the Vikings have a straight shot at playing the Super Bowl at home, right? Right? Right? Saints 31-21.

The pick: We know a lot of Steelers fans aren’t sweating this game, likening it to last year’s Dolphins playoff game, where a warm-weather team wilted (get it?) in the Pittsburgh chill. Well, to be clear, this Jacksonville team is not last year’s Dolphins, they are a much, much better football team and are a real threat to send the Steelers packing. We see national pundits point to Blake Bortles as the reason they think this will be no contest. We’ve got four words for those sentiments: Tim Tebow and Ryan Mallett, both of whom beat the Steelers in high-stakes games in recent years. Nope, this isn’t going to be a cakewalk and will require four quarters of careful plays from Pittsburgh’s quarterback (who can’t turn the ball over) and defense, which must play disciplined run defense and communicate clearly in the secondary to avoid big-play breakdowns. That’s a formula for winning most playoff games and the Steelers will have to follow that formula (and not just show up) to advance… Pittsburgh 24-21.

Last week: We were right on the mark for the Steelers finale, predicting a Pittsburgh win but a Cleveland cover. We conclude the regular season at 11-5 straight up and 10-6 against the spread for the season. Not too shabby.

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