JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (10-6)
at PITTSBURGH STEELERS (13-3)
Heinz Field – Pittsburgh, PA
Kickoff: Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET
Line: Pittsburgh -7, Total: 41
Ben Roethlisberger has waiting months for another crack at the Jacksonville D.
Jacksonville had no intentions of winning pretty at home against Buffalo in the Wild Card round, and they stuck to form with a 10-3 win over the Bills. The defense looked dominant, as it has almost every week this season, although dominating the Bills offense isn't itself a huge accomplishment. For their Divisional matchup this week in Pittsburgh, the Jags will look to channel their performance from Week 5, when they shut down Pittsburgh with multiple pick-sixes in a 30-9 win. "I'd love to just prove that five interceptions wasn't me in that game," said Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger last week, saying he'd like to see the Jaguars in this round. He's gotten what he wished for, and his team should be plenty well rested after most starters sat in the regular season finale against Cleveland, and then got a bye through Wild Card weekend. Over the last 10 seasons, teams averaging between 23 and 27 points per game coming off an over (PIT) are 64-34 ATS against teams allowing between 14 and 18 PPG. Since 1983, home teams with winning records that have failed to cover the spread in five or six of their last seven games are 40-14 Over against totals between 35.5 and 42 in the second half of the season.
As fantastic as Jacksonville's defense is, hope for Jaguars fans on Sunday resides in whether or not the offense can get anything going. Last weekend's outing against Buffalo wasn't exactly inspiring, though. QB Blake Bortles had one of his ugliest passing performances of the year, mustering only 87 yards on 12-of-23 passing, completing a nice touchdown pass to cap off a game-deciding drive in the third quarter. Incredibly, he rushed for more than he threw, picking up 88 yards on 10 carries. Bortles' one other sub-100-yard passing day this year? Week 5 against Pittsburgh, when he threw 95 yards and an interception. Look for Bortles to see if he can make things happen with his legs for a second straight week, but he's going to need to make some throws at some point against this Steelers defense. They'll likely be stacking the box against RB Leonard Fournette, which is what Buffalo did. He carried the ball 21 times and got only 57 yards against a Bills defense that had been pretty bad against the run all year. He destroyed Pittsburgh earlier in the season, though, running for 181 yards and two touchdowns. Of Bortles' 12 completions last weekend, none went to WRs Marqise Lee or Keelan Cole, two of his top "weapons." Rookie wideout Dede Westbrook caught five balls for 48 yards. Someone in this receiving corps is going to need to step up with big plays on Sunday but, of course, Bortles needs to give them some catchable passes for that to happen.
It's a safe bet that Roethlisberger won't throw five picks, or two pick-sixes, against Jacksonville this time around. But it's far from certain that he'll have a good day against what is both the league's most terrifying pass rush and its stingiest secondary. He took 21 sacks this year, his most since 2014, so it's not like the Steelers are especially primed to protect him. But he is rested, and that should make a difference for a player that seems perpetually banged up. He last played on Christmas, completing 21 of 29 passes for 226 yards and two touchdowns. In his last four games, he's thrown eight touchdowns and only two interceptions. WR Antonio Brown was deservedly in the MVP conversation before tearing his calf in Week 15 against the Patriots, and he's practicing fully to return against Jacksonville this week. He's both the league's best receiver and one of its flashiest, and his battles with Jaguars CB Jalen Ramsey could be the most fascinating one-on-one matchup we'll see in these playoffs. Brown was targeted 19 times in Week 5 and got his numbers with 10 catches for 157 yards but, of course, the Jacksonville secondary was happy with its performance in that game. That outcome suggests that Roethlisberger will need a second wideout to step up and make plays this weekend, with rookie WR JuJu Smith-Schuster the likely candidate for the job and embattled WR Martavis Bryant a dark horse. RB Le'Veon Bell had arguably the best season of his decorated career in 2017, and his ability to get damaging yardage could be the difference in this game. If he finds holes in the Jacksonville front and forces them to pack the box, that could give Roethlisberger enough room to build a lead insurmountable for the Jaguars' weak offense.