Mark Madden: Steelers-Jags are more closely matched than Steelers Nation thinks
The Steelers-Jacksonville playoff game has great sidebars.
• “Ben Roethlisberger won't throw five interceptions again!” OK. But what if Roethlisberger throws two?
• “Blake Bortles can't beat the Steelers in a playoff game!” OK. But he beat them in Week 5, and Tim Tebow beat the Steelers in a playoff game in 2012.
• The Steelers have the NFL's best receiver, Antonio Brown. Jacksonville has the NFL's best cornerback tandem, Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye.
• Jaguars rookie running back Leonard Fournette rushed for 181 yards in Week 5. That was with Ryan Shazier in the Steelers' lineup.
• Shazier has been replaced in the lineup by Sean Spence. When Shazier got hurt, Spence came off the unemployment line and jumped over Tyler Matakevich and L.J. Fort on the depth chart. (Huh?)
• The Steelers led the NFL in sacks with 56. But Jacksonville was second with 55, which barely has been mentioned in Pittsburgh.
That's because we have a myopic perspective. The Steelers are favored by 7 points, and Yinzer Nation thinks this game is in the bag.
It is. But not in the bag like the 1994 AFC championship game when the Steelers were favored by double digits vs. San Diego.
Anybody remember who won that game?
Now that Tebow and Alfred Pupunu have both been invoked, recognize that this Steelers-Jaguars game is a simple proposition.
If Ramsey and Bouye (playing mostly man, but with some safety help) contain Brown, the Jaguars can compete. The Steelers' complementary receiving weapons are merely that, and Le'Veon Bell matching Fournette run-for-run syncs up with Jacksonville's preferred (slower) pace.
That might be difficult for Fournette, who seems to have hit a wall in his first pro campaign. He's averaging just 3.2 yards per carry over his last eight games and had only 57 yards on 21 carries in Jacksonville's 10-3 playoff win over Buffalo last Saturday.
If Brown gets free — no easy task — and Roethlisberger throws to him and not them, the Steelers' other options will open up, and Bell might provide the coup de grace by grinding clock once the Steelers lead.
But if the Steelers don't lead ...
That's the nightmare, of course. Jacksonville grinds out a nine-minute drive, takes a second-half edge and all the air gets sucked out of Heinz Field. As Bouye said, “We just ask to get up by seven. Once we're up by seven, we know what we're capable of.”
When the Steelers lost in Week 5, it wasn't solely because Roethlisberger threw five picks. It was mostly because the Steelers were zero-for-three in the red zone and led 9-7 in the third quarter when they could have been ahead by much more.
But that game has little impact on this one, except perhaps to give Jacksonville some confidence and the Steelers fair warning.
Jacksonville has a great defense. But the Steelers have more legit weapons than any team in the NFL.
The trickledown of that might be a big game by a dark horse. Keep your eye on tight end Vance McDonald, because Jacksonville won't. Roethlisberger has developed big trust in McDonald. That might bear fruit.
The Steelers win. But the path to victory will be excruciating.
Disclaimer: Brown is listed as questionable because of the flu, a calf injury, or both. If he can't play or wields just a fraction of his considerable powers, Jacksonville wins.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).