PITTSBURGH — It was one of the most stunning results of the 2017 season and caused double-takes wherever the score was shown. On Oct. 8, the Jaguars beat the Steelers, 30-9, at Heinz Field. The shocking result announced the arrival of the Jaguars and made people question the Steelers.
Three months later, the two teams meet again in Pittsburgh in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs. No one expects Ben Roethlisberger to throw five interceptions this time, and the Steelers won’t be surprised by Leonard Fournette’s running ability.
For the Steelers, this is a chance to return to the AFC Championship, where they lost last year to the Patriots. For the Jaguars, this is an opportunity to prove they deserve to be talked about among the best teams in the NFL.
“We are extremely excited about being in this tournament,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “We don’t take it for granted. There are 24 teams on vacation. There are eight teams remaining. It’s great to be within that eight. We are singularly focused on this week, and specifically the journey that is the preparation of this week.”
The Steelers (13-3) spent a lot of time this week talking about that first meeting with the Jaguars, when everything went wrong for them.
“That game for our entire group was a watershed moment,” offensive coordinator Todd Haley said. “A lot of outside factors that could have been divisive for our group … [I] take my hat off for my guys. They stuck together. Bad football, probably not as bad as it appeared. How we responded to it was very critical. Our guys handled adversity well and moved forward.”
Pittsburgh is vowing this game will be different.
“We were a little behind the eight ball when we played them the first time,” Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell said. “We gave them two touchdowns. We didn’t stick to our game plan so we had to play catch-up a little bit, so we couldn’t really run the ball as much as we wanted to. We will see how this game goes. We want to be balanced. We want to beat those guys with run, play-action, drop-back pass or whatever it is to keep those guys off balance.”
The Jaguars (11-6) know they are moving up in class from last week’s wild-card game against the Bills.
“When you look at the roster from top to bottom, [they’re] probably the most talented roster that we play,” Jaguars coach Doug Marrone said. “And I’m not taking away from any of the teams we played, but they have the most Pro Bowlers, guys that have experience. They have guys that are playing extremely well from top to bottom.”
Steelers WR Antonio Brown vs. Jaguars CB Jalen Ramsey
The biggest news of the week for the Steelers was that Brown is expected to play Sunday. He suffered a calf tear against the Patriots last month and missed the final three games of the regular season. Brown returned to practice this week, and the Steelers were raving about him. He did miss Friday’s practice with an illness.
If Brown is fully healthy, the Steelers’ offense will be at full speed. Brown led the NFL in receiving yards this year with 1,533.
On the other side from Brown is Ramsey, who is establishing himself as one of the best cornerbacks in football. Pro Football Focus has him rated as the No. 2 corner in 2017.
“He’s an elite player,” Ramsey said of Brown. “Highly regarded by everybody, honestly, around the nation or maybe internationally. So yeah, it’s going to be a challenge. We’re going to have to be on our P’s and Q’s and try to execute the game plan as best we can.”
Blake bashing: Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles better have thick skin. He has been getting beat up all over the place after throwing for 87 yards last week against the Bills.
A Titans player even used him as the example of a bad quarterback this week when describing what he wanted to do to Tom Brady.
“I want to make him look like Blake Bortles if I can and try to catch a couple picks,” said Titans All-Pro safety Kevin Byard.
This is a huge game for Bortles. The conventional wisdom is the Jaguars are a quarterback away from being a true Super Bowl contender. He could buck that wisdom this Sunday or could make the Jaguars believe it is time to move on.
Bortles said he isn’t trying to silence his critics.
“It will probably never stop,” he said this week. “There are people who think LeBron James sucks. If that happens, I’m sure there will be a lot of people that always think I suck.”
Ring the Bell: If the Jaguars defense has a weakness, it is against the run. They are No. 2 in total defense but just 21st in rush defense. Can Le’Veon Bell and the Steelers take advantage?
Bell had just 47 yards on 15 carries and 10 catches for 46 yards in the first meeting with the Jaguars. Jacksonville knows they have to slow him down again to win the game.
“He’s a Pro Bowl running back, he’s not one-dimensional,” Jaguars coach Doug Marrone said. “It’s not like this guy is going to take the ball and run downhill and run you over every single time he takes it. He can do that. He can also get the ball outside. He has excellent patience.”
Looking ahead: The Steelers have been talking about an AFC Championship showdown with the Patriots for a while now. Could they get caught looking past the Jaguars?
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin talked about a rematch with the Patriots on Nov. 26 to NBC’s Tony Dungy when they discussed the Dec. 17 game with the Patriots. Then safety Mike Mitchell told Sports Illustrated the Steelers would see the Patriots again a few weeks ago.
“If anything, it benefits us if that’s where their head is at,” Bortles said. “All we’re worried about is beating them. If they’re looking past us and looking on to other things, I think the only thing it does is reflect negatively on them.”
Rush hour: You can be assured that the Jaguars will get after Ben Roethlisberger. They had one of the most fearsome pass rushes in the league. They finished the year with 55 sacks, second only to the Steelers, interestingly enough. Calais Campbell led the team with 14.5 sacks and Malik Jackson had eight.
Jacksonville can rush without even blitzing. Their front four is that good. The key to the game for the Steelers offense will be how much time the offensive line can give Roethlisberger to operate.
The Jaguars’ defense gives them a chance in this game, but the Steelers are just too good. Big Ben leads the Steelers to another AFC title game in a contest that remains close into the second half.
Steelers 24, Jaguars 10