Most analysts have already penciled the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots into the AFC Championship game. Of course, there are still two divisional games that must be played before this happens.
And Pittsburgh’s opponent, the Jacksonville Jaguars, are no pushovers. They boast one of the toughest defenses in the NFL, ranking second in points allowed (16.8) and first in passing yards allowed (169.9).
The Jaguars can also look to their Week 5 dismantling of the Steelers as motivation. They beat Pittsburgh 30-9 and forced quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to throw five interceptions. Of course, that was a long time ago, and the Steelers have only lost one game since.
“We’ve evolved since then,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said of the blowout loss.
The football world has also put the Week 5 loss behind them, given that Pittsburgh is currently a touchdown favorite. But will they come through against this nasty Jaguars’ defense?
Let’s discuss the matter by analyzing both teams and looking at the GTBets odds on this contest.
Odds for Jaguars Steelers 2018 AFC Divisional Playoffs Game (Jan 14 at 1:00pm ET)
Jacksonville vs Pittsburgh Point Spread
Jaguars -7 (-120)
Steelers +7 (+100)
Jacksonville vs Pittsburgh Moneyline
Over 41 (-112)
Under 41 (-108)
Key Factors for Jacksonville (11-6)
Much of this task will fall on quarterback Blake Bortles, who didn’t look very good against the Bills.
On the positive side, he rushed for 88 yards. But Bortles also threw for just 87 yards, becoming only the third quarterback to win a playoff game with more rushing than passing yards (Michael Vick & Bob Griese).
The problem for the fourth-year player is that Pittsburgh won’t score 3 points this week. That means Bortles is going to actually have to make some good throws and keep the Steelers from stacking the box.
If he can do this, it gives Jacksonville running backs Leonard Fournette and T.J. Yeldon more room to operate.
Speaking of Fournette, the rookie has had a late-season slump, rushing for less than 70 yards in five of his last six contests. The LSU product really needs to get going in this one if Jacksonville is going to move the ball.
If nothing else, the Jaguars can at least bank on their strong defenseive core, which includes vicious defensive lineman in Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue, Malik Jackson, and Dante Fowler. This quartet have combined for 42.5 sacks, 41 tackles for a loss, and 74 quarterback hits so far.
Another key defensive player will be cornerback Jalen Ramsey. The All-Pro is possibly the best corner in the league, and he’ll check Steelers All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown. Ramsey has allowed 30 receiving yards or less in 8 of his 17 games. If he can hold Brown under 50 yards, it would be a win for his team.
Jacksonville may be the underdog in a hostile environment. But if Bortles can move this team downfield and score a few times, it’ll put pressure on Pittsburgh to score against an elite defense.
Key Factors for Pittsburgh (13-3)
Pittsburgh has a star-studded offense that can score points through both the air and on the ground. Beginning with the latter, Le’Veon Bell will lead the rushing charge against Jacksonville’s front seven.
Bell is arguably the NFL’s best all-around running back. And he’s gone over 100 rushing yards in all but one game since Week 7. As if this isn’t enough, he caught a league-leading and franchise record 85 passes.
He’ll be motivated by revenge since the Jaguars held him to just 47 rushing yards in the Week 5 loss. But exacting this revenge will be easier said than done, given that he’s only averaging 3.2 yards per carry over his last eight games. Bell needs better than this to consistently pick up yardage against Jacksonville.
Luckily for him, Pittsburgh has more than enough in the passing game to balance out the offense. Roehtlisberger has some fine options to throw to in Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Martavis Bryant.
Brown had a strong game against Ramsey last time out, catching four passes for 91 yards. But Roethlisberger also threw a couple of picks when aiming in his direction.
As long as Pittsburgh can avoid a turnover fest and open things up with Bell’s running ability, they should be able to win this game. And it doesn’t hurt that their talented squad will be playing in the friendly confines of Heinz Field.
Prediction on Jacksonville vs Pittsburgh
Jacksonville, meanwhile, has the defensive talent to make this a tough game, even if Bortles and the offense don’t come through. The Jaguars will look to make this divisional matchup ugly and force Roethlisberger into more mistakes.
But the truth is that they’re probably going to need a defensive touchdown and a total Steelers meltdown to win. Look for this one to be close, but also for Pittsburgh to move on.
Final Score Prediction: Steelers 23, Jaguars 17 – Jacksonville covers -7 spread