The Jaguars will attempt to step into the realm of the elite on Saturday night when they face the Pittsburgh Steelers in an AFC wild-card round playoff game at Heinz Field. A win could send the Jaguars to New England the following week, in a prime-time showdown against the undefeated Patriots.
All of this is heady stuff for the Jaguars, who could find themselves playing back to back prime-time games should they beat the Steelers. A team that played 13 one o'clock games this season could all of a sudden become the league's featured playoff attraction. It all hinges, of course, on beating the Steelers.
That's exactly what the Jaguars did three weeks ago, 29-22, at Heinz Field. The Jaguars rushed for 224 yards that day and embarrassed the Steelers by dominating them physically.
The Steelers clearly have the revenge motive in their favor for this game, but they won't be the same team that lost to the Jaguars three weeks ago. The Steelers' list of players lost to injury has grown even longer since then.
Leading rusher Willie Parker was lost for the season four days later, in a win in St. Louis. Last week, left tackle Marvel Smith underwent back surgery and a few days later his replacement, Max Starks, was lost for the season to a knee injury. Now there's a concern that star safety Troy Polamalu won't be able to play, or that his play will be greatly diminished by the effects of a nagging knee injury.
What will the Steelers do to make up for the players they've lost, which includes defensive end Aaron Smith, the team's best defensive lineman?
"We're going to do the best we can. Who we have is who we have," rookie head coach Mike Tomlin said.
The focus of this game will quickly fall on untested left tackle replacement Trai Essex, who was inactive for all but two games this season. Essex is expected to be quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's blind-side protector and, if that's the case, the Jaguars are likely to test him early and often.
"Like everybody else, this guy has been working and waiting on an opportunity and here it is, he has it. So we'll all find out together," Tomlin said.
The possibility also exists that Tomlin could move guard Alan Faneca to left tackle, which he has played in emergency situations, and replace Faneca at left guard with Chris Kemoeatu.
Tomlin is under fire to protect a Steelers tradition: No team has ever beaten the Steelers in Pittsburgh twice in the same season. The Jaguars, however, have been installed as a slight favorite for this game.
"If you don't like pressure, you're in the wrong business," Tomlin said. "I walk past those Lombardi's (Super Bowl trophies) every day. It's a source of motivation for me."
Tomlin and his coaching staff are facing major problems and decisions across the board for this game, as a result of the team's injuries, but he would seem to have one distinct advantage: a playoff-tested quarterback who seems to thrive on pressure and the spotlight.
Roethlisberger is 5-1 in the postseason, including a Super Bowl win, when he was the youngest quarterback to ever win a Super Bowl. He is also the NFL's second-ranked quarterback in the passer rankings this season with a 104.1 rating, and he set a Steelers record this year with 32 touchdown passes.
"I think it helps," Roethlisberger said of having postseason experience. "I think you have to know what the mentality is because I remember my first year I didn't know what it was about and got killed with it."
Roethlisberger said he is relishing the role of underdog at home.
"It's a great feeling. It really is. They are the better team. They beat us at home the last time so they should be the favorite," Roethlisberger said.
How hard is it to beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh? Well, the Steelers only lost once at home this year, to the Jaguars.
The question is: Was that the real Steelers, or is the real Steelers on the team's injury report?
Tomorrow night will answer that question, along with the Jaguars' attempt to join the ranks of the league's elite.