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'Hugely important'


The last time the Jaguars and Steelers faced each other, the Jaguars held the Steelers to 26 yards rushing, so the Jaguars have that going for them, which is nice.

Rushing yards are expected to be at a premium on Sunday at Heinz Field, as winter arrives in Pittsburgh. The weather forecast is for wind, cold and snow. The game forecast is for run the ball, stop the run and don't turn it over.

It's December. It's time for playoff-style football.

"I've always liked competing in the elements; being able to handle it mentally. It's just something else you're battling," Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio said. "It should be a great atmosphere and it should be very much like a month from now and we may experience it again."

Yeah, the Jaguars could find themselves returning to Pittsburgh three weeks from now for a wild-card round playoff game. That would occur if the Steelers win the AFC North, are seeded fourth and the Jaguars fifth, or the Steelers are seeded third and the Jaguars sixth.

Pittsburgh holds a one-game lead and the tiebreaker over the Cleveland Browns in the AFC North and would clinch the division title with a win over the Jaguars and a Cleveland loss to Buffalo. The Steelers can clinch a playoff berth with a win.

The Jaguars would clinch a wild-card berth with a win over the Steelers and a Tennessee loss in Kansas City. A loss could initiate a testy scenario that could leave the Jaguars needing to win in Houston on the final day of the season to make it into the playoffs.

Sunday's game has several storylines. It's a head-to-head matchup between two teams that love to play physical football. It's a battle of Pro Bowl candidates: Fred Taylor against Willie Parker and David Garrard against Ben Roethlisberger, though Roethlisberger is listed on the Steelers' injury report as questionable for Sunday's game due to a sore right shoulder. Roethlisberger practiced for the first time this week on Friday but was said to have struggled to throw the ball.

Weather could become the major storyline of the game. The Jaguars haven't played a game this season in anything but warm, dry conditions. They'll get their first blast of winter on Saturday, however, when the door of their plane opens in Pittsburgh.

"When you get hit in the cold weather, it hurts a whole lot more than when it's 80 degrees. It's football. You hope you're man enough to slug it out with them," Garrard said.

Del Rio said field conditions shouldn't be a storyline. The Heinz Field turf came under great scrutiny following a mud-bath game a few weeks ago on Monday Night Football. New turf had just been installed when a torrential rain began. The Steelers have played one game on that turf since then and there were no complaints.

"It's my understanding that it'll be better than when we've been up there before. That shouldn't be a story," Del Rio said of the turf.

"I'm sure it's going to be in great shape," Steelers rookie coach Mike Tomlin said.

Tomlin replaced Bill Cowher last winter and, at 9-4, Tomlin is off to a fast start, but his defense was ravaged for 399 yards passing in last Sunday's 34-13 loss in New England, and even though the Steelers have continued their renown for a strong running game, most of those yards have come on the outside this year. The vaunted Steelers inside power running game would appear to be gone.

"I wasn't concerned with what they had done in the past. I have a vision of things we want to get done here, things that I believe will make us a good, consistent, competitive football team; one that pursues championships. We are a work in progress and I know it is December and I know that we're getting into the thick of this thing, but every day we acknowledge that we're an evolving football team," Tomlin said.

The popular opinion in Jacksonville is that this game will be the last chance in the regular season for the Jaguars to define themselves.

"You define yourself over your body of work. I don't think it does any good to say this one is more important than the last one. Is the San Diego game not important now? It was hugely important when we played it. Is the Tennessee game not important now? It was hugely important when we played it," Del Rio said.

As kickoff nears, Sunday's game would also appear to be hugely important, for both teams.

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