A spot in the AFC Championship awaits the winner of this 1990s-throwback playoff game.
The Jacksonville Jaguars weren’t supposed to be here. The perennial AFC South bottom-dwellers — and frequent roast recipient on NBC’s The Good Place — were pegged for another middling season despite a leveled-up defense thanks to uneven quarterback play and a decade’s worth of disappointment.
But somewhere along the way, Blake Bortles played just well enough to keep his Jaguars alive, and a talented roster took care of the rest. Defensive Player of the Year candidates Calais Campbell and Jalen Ramsey terrorized quarterbacks to make Jacksonville a team no opponent was comfortable facing. The Jags finished the season first in the league in defensive efficiency and second in total defense and sacks per game en route to its first division title of the millennium.
It’ll still take some time to shake off the musty smell of mediocrity that had settled over northern Florida. One massive shot of fresh air may come Sunday afternoon. The Pittsburgh Steelers have been a top-five team all season, a reigning member of the AFC’s old-guard elite. Finding a way to topple them at Heinz Field amid a sea of Terrible Towels would go a long way toward proving Jacksonville’s legitimacy.
That’s easier said than done. The only team in the league to record more sacks than the Jaguars was the Steelers, who have used a litany of high-value draft picks to rebuild the Steel Curtain defense that put the franchise on the map so many years ago. Cameron Heyward, Vince Williams, T.J. Watt, and Bud Dupree have helped build a pressure-creating front seven that’s been deep enough to cover for the loss of Pro Bowl linebacker Ryan Shazier.
And while the Pittsburgh defense stacks up favorable with the Jaguars’ unit, the Steelers offense is a skyscraper compared to Bortles’ split-level ranch home near the rendering plant. Two-time Super Bowl champion Ben Roethlisberger is surrounded by weapons, including All-Pros Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. Add in weapons like Martavis Bryant and JuJu Smith-Schuster and it’s easy to see why Pittsburgh is a significant home favorite to advance to the AFC title game.
- Antonio Brown is back from the calf injury that kept him from the Steelers’ final games of the season. Will he be rusty?
Brown suffered a torn calf muscle in Week 15 against the New England Patriots, when his leg got awkwardly bent while he tried to make a touchdown catch. It initially had the looks of a season-ending injury when Brown spent several minutes on the turf, but the Steelers avoided a worst-case scenario. Brown missed the final two weeks of the regular season, but the bye week gave him extra time to rest.
- Jalen Ramsey has developed into one of the league’s elite cornerbacks — and he’ll have the chance to test himself against the Steelers.
“Usually in situations like that when we’re up in the two minute, with the corners we play 10 yards off, if not more,” Ramsey said. “Two plays before that, with Peterman we played the same coverage, we played off and he threw that quick hitch to A.J. [Bouye]’s side. They line up in the same formation, just flipped on my side so I figured they were running the same route. I took a read step and as soon as he threw it, I broke on it.”
- For the first time in a long time, the Steelers will try to rely on a healthy Le’Veon Bell throughout a full postseason.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have had their health issues in the past when it mattered the most. Bell’s postseason career is the perfect example of some of their issues.
2014: Bell injures knee in Week 17 misses Wild Card Game.
2015: Bell injures knee midway through the season, season over.
2016: Bell injures groin in the AFC Championship Game, does not return.
- Ben Roethlisberger said he wanted to play the Jaguars again after a 30-9 spanking earlier in the season. Jacksonville welcomes it.
“Be careful what you wish or. This is what he wanted. This is what he’s going to get.”
Shots fired, bulletin board material posted, whatever else you want to call the two players’ interactions through the media. However, as much as I don’t blame the Jaguars for taking offense to Roethlisberger’s comment, his comments were based more on his own individual desire for redemption, not solely directed towards the Jaguars’ defense.
- But the bigger concern is the Jacksonville offense, which needs to find an identity to have a chance of beating the Steelers.
You have to mix in some deep shots as well, early in the game. The Jaguars should have their full array of healthy wide receivers on Sunday, so test a sketchy Steelers secondary down the field early on. I understand why the Jaguars did what they did against the Bills, going for shorter passes and screens to combat a loaded box and catch them looking in the backfield, but you also have to try to back them off early in the game. Bortles hasn’t exactly instilled confidence passing the ball the past few weeks, but you’ve got to do better in the passing game if you want to win.
- Sure, the Jaguars front seven bullied the Bills last week — but how will they do without a racist oaf ineffectually trying to rustle their jimmies on Sunday?
Great win to day! And 64, you goin have to come harder than some weak racist slurs. I’m proud of my African heritage, as are 70% of the other Black players in this league. #Iaintjonathanmartin!
— YANNICK NGAKOUE! (@YannGetSacks91) January 8, 2018