JACKSONVILLE – You know the storylines. You’ve heard the themes.
The AFC South Champion and third-seeded Jaguars (11-6) will play the AFC North Champion and second-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3) in an AFC Divisional Playoff at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Sunday at 1:05 p.m. The winner goes to the AFC Championship Game and the loser goes home.
It’s the NFL postseason, a one-and-done tournament.
The reward of winning is high, and the cost of losing is severe. By now, you’ve heard that and every other pregame theme for this rematch of the Jaguars’ 30-9 victory in Pittsburgh in Week 5.
That October Jaguars victory means nothing … That’s one storyline.
*Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger wants redemption … *is another, and that one no doubt is real after Roethlisberger threw a career-high five interceptions in the October meeting.
*The Jaguars can’t do in January what they did in the regular season … *That has been getting said a lot, too, and the thought here is the Jaguars indeed face a far tougher task than they did in October. This is a talented Steelers team that has won 10 of 11 games since Week 5. They are also playing at home, and home-field advantage matters in the postseason.
Here’s another thought, though – that even with the Steelers having talent, home-field advantage and experience playing in bitter cold, it’s absolutely wrong to think the Jaguars can’t win Sunday. The Jaguars’ defense is very good; the offense has struggled lately, but it was ranked sixth in the NFL in total yards and fifth in points, so the thought that the Jaguars can score isn’t unreasonable.
Yes, the Steelers are favored. That’s OK. They’ve earned it. But the Jaguars can win. They absolutely can.
Here are 10 things they must do to do that:
*1.Run. *Let’s get this out of the way: the Jaguars and rookie running back Leonard Fournette have struggled enough to run lately that it’s probably unrealistic to think Jacksonville will dominate in this area as they did in October. The Jaguars don’t have to match their 231 Week 5 rushing yards. But they must run OK enough to control tempo, enough to set up moderate down-and-distance situations, enough that the Steelers respect it. That won’t be easy. It is necessary.
*2.Pass downfield. *If the Jaguars can’t dominate running, how will they score? By hitting big plays in the passing game. The Jaguars never really tried this against Buffalo last week. They’ll have to try it Sunday.
*3.Pressure Big Ben … *Roethlisberger is difficult to sack because of his size and strength. But he’s not overly mobile and he will hold the ball. That means you can pressure him, and the Jaguars did that very well in October.
*4. … and intercept Big Ben, too. *Roethlisberger is unlikely to throw another five interceptions, but he almost certainly will challenge the Jaguars’ All-Pro cornerbacks, Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye. He’ll do that because his wide receivers – Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and JuJu Smith-Schuster – are too good to ignore. Ramsey and Bouye won’t back down from the challenge. The guess here is they’ll thrive on it.
*5.Score on defense – or on special teams. *The Jaguars had seven defensive touchdowns this season and two on special teams. Two of those defensive touchdowns came against the Steelers. The Jaguars’ offense is struggling. It needs a score from the defense or special teams. Or a short field. Something to create some easy points.
*6.Contain Le’Veon Bell. *Bell is one of the NFL’s most versatile, productive running backs. He ran effectively early against the Jaguars in October before the Steelers’ went away from him. They won’t likely go away from him so quickly Sunday. The difference for the Jaguars: defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, who has helped the run defense since being acquired in a mid-October trade.
*7.Hold the Steelers to field goals. *The Steelers are too good offensively not to move the ball. The key for the Jaguars? Can they force field goals when Pittsburgh moves into the red zone? They did this three times in October. They must do it Sunday, too.
*8.Brave the cold. *The elements will be in the Steelers’ favor. They’re used to the cold and it will be a big hurdle to overcome. Ignore the heaters. Play through the heavy ball and thudding hits. There will be plenty of time to get warm on the plane home.
9.Make field goals. Jaguars kicker Josh Lambo has been remarkable since signing with the team in October. No NFL venue is tougher than Heinz Field. Make Lambo Magic last.
10.Keep strutting. Their belief in themselves has defined this remarkable young team all season. They must keep talking. They must flexing. They must keep backing it all up. If they do, they’ll be playing next week.