It’s almost as if what the Jaguars’ defense did to Ben Roethlisberger three months ago at Heinz Field never happened, like the five-interception day and stunning 30-9 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers was fake news.
The oddsmakers are certainly brushing it aside, making the Jaguars a touchdown-plus underdog for Sunday’s AFC divisional playoff rematch. Steelers safety Mike Mitchell — the guy who accepted running back Leonard Fournette’s invitation for a collision in the last meeting and got trucked to the ground — publicly said last week that Pittsburgh was “going to play the [New England] Patriots again” in the AFC Championship game.
Maybe he was just following the lead of head coach Mike Tomlin, who in late November said this to NBC’s Tony Dungy about Pittsburgh’s mid-December matchup with the Patriots: “I’m going to embrace the elephant in the room. There’s going to be fireworks. But it’s probably going to be part one… . It’s going to determine the location of the second one [in the playoffs]. You know?”
Yes, coach, we get where you went there. You’re like much of America or the national media anticipating a Patriots-Steelers rematch, and I believe that only adds an edge for a Jaguars’ team many still take for granted.
“I want [Pittsburgh] to look at the Patriots, focus on that [possible future] matchup, watch no film on the Jaguars,” said Jaguars linebacker Myles Jack. “I think [the Steelers] have more to prove than we do. They’re coming for revenge, we’re just coming in and trying to win a game. If they’re thinking about the Patriots, that’s good.”
Truthfully, the Steelers have been careful this week not to play the Patriots card. They’ve avoided providing the Jaguars with any more bulletin-board fodder, though Roethlisberger did tell a Pittsburgh radio station last week how much he looked forward to possibly playing the Jaguars to show that 5-pick game “wasn’t me.”
“I’m sure a guy like Ben wants an opportunity to redeem himself,” said Jaguars safety Tashaun Gipson.
“He felt like that (loss to the Jaguars) was very uncharacteristic of himself. I’m happy he’s looking forward to that opportunity because that means more opportunities for us [as a defense].”
Given the stakes of the winner advancing to the AFC title game, the motivation level should be equal for both sides. But for all of the Steelers’ storied history (six Super Bowl crowns) and Roethlisberger’s edge in playoff experience (13-7 record) over quarterback Blake Bortles, I also think this matchup, from a mental standpoint, does play in the Jaguars’ favor.
Historically, the Jaguars have never been overmatched playing in Pittsburgh since their first two years of existence. They’re 6-6 overall on the Steelers’ home turf, and 3-1 at Heinz Field against Roethlisberger. New England is the only other AFC team with a winning record (4-2) against Big Ben in his own house.
Some might argue what happened in past matchups is a minimal factor, but that’s not entirely true. You think it doesn’t help the Jaguars’ mindset that they went to Pittsburgh in October and their defense dominated the game? It doesn’t mean Sunday’s meeting will play out the same way. However, success on the road against a team of the Steelers’ pedigree most definitely counts for something, just as the Jaguars’ 0-7 record against Patriots quarterback Tom Brady also can’t be discounted. History always matters to some degree.
“It’s knowing we can go there and beat them,” said Jaguars safety Barry Church. “We can play with anybody in this league. This week won’t be any different. We just got to let our pads do the talking, not our mouth.”
When asked if he thought the lopsided nature of Jacksonville’s win over Pittsburgh meant the Jaguars were in the Steelers’ heads, defensive tackle Malik Jackson replied: “Oh, we definitely are. I see that. They’ve been thinking about us for two weeks. We’re in there.”
Nobody disputes the circumstances for both teams are different than on October 8. The Steelers’ offense goes a lot more through Roethlisberger now than running back Le’Veon Bell. And rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster is a bigger asset for an explosive receiver corps with Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant, helping the Steelers average 27.9 points per game since losing to the Jaguars.
But don’t forget other changes clearly favor the Jaguars, starting with Pittsburgh missing its best defensive player in linebacker Ryan Shazier, who suffered a horrific spinal cord injury in December. The Jaguars will have the services of center Brandon Linder (inactive for last game), plus nose tackle Marcell Dareus (acquired in a trade with Buffalo) and a more dependable placekicker in Josh Lambo (signed at midseason).
So, go ahead, pencil in a Steelers-Patriots rematch in next week’s AFC Championship at your own risk. The 2017 Jaguars thrive on being dismissed.
Gene.email@example.com: (904) 359-4540