One of the NFL season’s most shocking results was Jacksonville going into Heinz Field and hammering the Steelers 30-9 on Oct. 8. It wasn’t that the Jaguars won so much as how they won, intercepting Ben Roethlisberger five times and gashing what would end up as a top-10 run defense for 231 yards.
The question is, can they do it again? On the surface, the answer is yes, because this is how the Jags are built to win. They led the NFL in rushing, and no team ran the ball more in the regular season. The Jacksonville defense is for real as well, ranking second in the league in scoring defense, total defense and takeaways. Running the ball and forcing turnovers is just what the Jaguars do.
But Jacksonville might want to play a better overall game on offense if it really wants to extend the season. Blake Bortles (above, right) threw for a whopping 95 yards in that win, and Leonard Fournette racked up half of his 181 yards rushing on a 90-yard score with less than two minutes to play with the game already decided. On his other 27 carries, he gained 91 yards (3.4 ypc). Less than 100 yards passing and averaging 3.4 yards per rush is not way to win a playoff game.
The fact is that the Steelers led 9-7 before two picks — both on tipped passes — were returned for touchdowns. If those interceptors had been tackled, are we sure the Jags' offense even scores points? It took probably the worst day of Roethlisberger’s career to create that result in October. The Jags can’t count on it happening again.
AFC Divisional Playoff: Jacksonville at Pittsburgh
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 14 at 1:05 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Steelers -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Antonio Brown’s health
Pittsburgh's All-Pro wide receiver partially tore his left calf muscle four weeks ago, but he returned to practice fully this week. Teammates said he looked like is usual self. That makes for a great matchup against the NFL’s No. 1 pass defense. Despite the score, Brown (right) did find holes in the Jaguars' secondary, catching 10 passes for 157 yards in the first meeting between these teams. If he is fully healthy, expect him to get plenty of attention from the Jaguars. History tells us Brown will get his catches no matter what — he’s caught at least 100 passes in five straight seasons — but his presence also opens things up for the rest of the Steelers’ weapons.
2. Bortles must be better
If you thought Blake Bortles’ 95-yard passing game against Pittsburgh was just an off day, think again. Last week against a Buffalo defense that ranked far below the Steelers, Bortles managed just 87 yards on 12-of-23 passing. He struggled badly throwing on a somewhat windy but mild day. How will he fare at Heinz Field, infamous for its swirling winds? The forecast calls for a calmer day, but the temperature also is expected to be in the teens, perhaps not the best conditions for a quarterback who has played his entire pro and college career for teams in Florida. Bortles also has struggled badly against playoff teams this season, averaging just 160.8 passing yards per game with three touchdowns and six interceptions. To be fair, he also had a four-game stretch in December that saw him average well over 300 yards while tossing nine touchdowns with just three picks. So he can be better, and the Jags need him to be this week.
3. The run game will rule the day
While a huge day from Brown or an ugly day from Bortles would certainly swing this game, odds are the team that finds success running the ball on a frigid day will win. Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell should find running room against a Jags defense that ranked 21st in rushing yards allowed and 26th in yards per carry allowed. The Steelers ranked 10th in yards allowed, but were actually worse than Jacksonville (27th) in yards per carry allowed and definitely miss injured linebacker Ryan Shazier. So Fournette could be a big factor. The problem for Jacksonville is that the Jags definitely need to worry about the Steelers' passing game, while Pittsburgh can load up to stop Leonard Fournette and dare Bortles to throw. That’s what Buffalo did last week, and the rookie managed just 57 yards. That won’t be good enough this week.
Another bunch of Steelers turnovers is unlikely, but the Jaguars have the defense and running game to win on the road in the cold if they can avoid falling behind early and putting the game all in Blake Bortles’ hands. But is that scenario in Jacksonville's best interests or exactly what Pittsburgh wants to see unfold?