The last time the Jaguars played at Heinz Field, they proved to the Steelers and the rest of the NFL that they were a legitimate NFL playoff team with a dominant 30-9 victory. This time, they’ll have to prove it again in Pittsburgh to advance to the AFC championship game.
Jacksonville’s defense broke out as “Sacksonville” with that stunning upset of the Steelers in Week 5. The Jaguars pressured Ben Roethlisberger into five interceptions and two sacks, and had the exclamation point of rookie Leonard Fournette closing the rout with a 90-yard touchdown run.
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Since then, the Jaguars are 8-4, including their wild-card victory against the Bills on Sunday. But the Week 5 loss was an even bigger turning point for the Steelers, who finished the regular season 10-1 after that wake-up call.
The big question for the rematch: Will wide receiver Antonio Brown (calf) be healthy enough to go for the Steelers and give them someone who can break through the Jaguars’ tough secondary? His presence will be critical for Big Ben to put that big meltdown against Jacksonville behind him.
Meanwhile, can Blake Bortles and the Jaguars find a lot more offense on the road to support the defense? Here’s how Sporting News’ NFL experts see Sunday’s divisional playoff game playing out:
NFL playoff picks: Jaguars at Steelers (-7)
- Date, time: Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET
- Location: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh
- TV: CBS
- Live streaming: FuboTV (free trial)
- Odds: Steelers -7; total: 40.5
Vinnie Iyer: The Steelers will be in much better shape for the rematch assuming Brown plays. The offensive dysfunction they were going through earlier in the season is gone, thanks to offensive coordinator Todd Haley getting Roethlisberger back into the right balance of feeding Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell. The emergence of rookie wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster as a third threat is huge, and has even put Martavis Bryant in more favorable coverage situations.
Roethlisberger needs to get the ball out quickly to avoid the Jaguars’ pass rush. Expect Haley to also roll him out to buy time for his targets to get open. Big Ben needs to go away from testing cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye too often. In certain sets, that will make tight end Vance McDonald an X-factor.
Meanwhile, Bortles isn’t the same careful QB away from Jacksonville. The Steelers D finished one sack ahead of the Jaguars (56-55) in the regular season to lead the league. If Pittsburgh can contain Fournette early, Bortles will have trouble getting the ball downfield.
It might be tough sledding for Brown and Bell early, but they will overcome a tough assignment to make big plays after the catch and make sure the Steelers get to the AFC championship game.
Pick: Steelers 26, Jaguars 16
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David Steele: Five picks. Roethlisberger surely has been reminded of that all season, even as the Steelers were riding high into the playoffs and coming within a controversial replay reversal (and another awful end-zone throw) against the Patriots from being the AFC’s No. 1 seed. That five-interception game in October, and that 30-9 shellacking, now sticks out like a sore thumb. The Steelers didn’t lose again until that infamous Patriots game, eight wins later. Still … five picks, and 30-9.
The Jaguars, meanwhile, entrenched their defensive credentials further in their wild-card win against the Bills, and got away with a performance by their offense that, to be polite, was pedestrian. That formula has been good enough before, including against the Steelers, so it’s not unreasonable to assume it could be good enough again.
Brown’s health will go a long way toward determining how potent the Steelers offense will be against that Jaguars defense. The Steelers are the better team. Roethlisberger is the better quarterback. A repeat of that early October upset isn’t impossible. But it’s unlikely.
Pick: Steelers 26, Jaguars 21