Jaguars vs. Steelers: AFC Divisional Round Preview

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The Backstory


For months, football fans and analysts alike have confidently pointed to the AFC title game as a predetermined showdown between the Steelers and Patriots.

In this scenario, the Titans -- facing New England on Saturday -- and the Jaguars -- playing Pittsburgh on Sunday -- are nothing more than gridiron afterthoughts. Milquetoast names on a dance card and not worthy of the high-society invite.

Unfair?

Absolutely. At least when it comes to the Jacksonville Jaguars, who roll into Heinz Field with one of the century's beastliest defenses. Second in points allowed and better than anyone against the pass, this unit has the potential to make things challenging for the Steelers.

Pittsburgh counters with a juicy, third-ranked air attack that returns a healthy Antonio Brown to the lineup for the first time since before Christmas.

Too much has been made about Ben Roethlisberger's five-pick meltdown in Week 5, when Jacksonville rode into Pittsburgh and dropped a 30-9 death-hammer. That game is ancient history -- "We've evolved since then," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said -- and he's right. Still, this Jaguars defense has the personnel to give Pittsburgh's offense fits behind a star-studded cast headlined by havoc-wreaking MVP candidate Calais Campbell and a pair of star cornerbacks in Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye.

We can't take another step without mentioning Blake Bortles, the Jaguars passer who looked downright hideous throwing the ball in a white-knuckle 10-3 playoff win over the Bills last weekend -- an ugly/beautiful game shipped to us from 1937.

In that grind-it-out tilt, Bortles became just the third starting signal-caller to win a playoff contest with more rushing (88) than passing yards (87), joining Michael Vick and Bob Griese along the way.

Bortles made plays with his feet against Buffalo, but killed the team through the air. He must clean up his act and hope for a monster performance from rookie running back Leonard Fournette, who thrashed the Steelers for 181 yards and two scores back in October.

Fournette, though, has been held to under 70 yards in five of his last six appearances, leading to losses in three of those outings. The ground game must buzz to life for any shot to upset a talented, driven Steelers team playing to honor their injured teammate, Ryan Shazier.

Pittsburgh was caught by surprise in Week 5. That won't happen again on Sunday.

Under Pressure


Le'Veon Bell, Steelers RB: Bell's 5.5 yards per carry in the postseason rank fourth-highest in NFL history. Pittsburgh's ultra-productive workhorse hasn't posted fewer than 80 yards from scrimmage since the regular-season opener, but Bell has been held under 100 yards rushing all but once since Week 7. At the same time, he beat out Alvin Kamara (81) and Christian McCaffrey (80) with a league-leading and franchise-record 85 catches this season. Bell is a special talent, but his yards per carry have tumbled from 4.6 over his first six games to 3.2 over his last eight. During that span his total scrimmage yards have fallen from 122.0 over his first six outings to 86.0 ever since. Against a Jaguars team that held Bell to 47 yards rushing in Week 5, it's time for a dose of revenge.

Blake Bortles, Jaguars QB: This is a predictable entry, as Bortles operates under a burning spotlight weekly for a team often forced to play around their quarterback. It's not hard to imagine Pittsburgh's opportunistic defense coaxing Bortles into a handful of mind-numbing errors. To prevent that, Jacksonville must avoid falling into an early hole. When the run game produces, Bortles has been a different player. That's especially true on snaps resulting in play-action passes, where he posted the eighth-highest quarterback rating (107.5) league-wide this season, per Pro Football Focus. Only nine teams allowed a higher passer rating against play action than Pittsburgh's 107.9, giving Bortles a minor ray of hope. Rattle him early, though, and this could be a wipeout.

Matchup to Watch


Prepare yourself for one of weekend's premier strength-on-strength matchups when the NFL's top receiving tandem of Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster square off against the league's finest cornerback duo in Ramsey and Bouye. To the surprise of nobody, Pro Football Focus ranked Brown as the league's best player at his position, with Smith-Schuster (No. 22) and Martavis Bryant (No. 64) rounding out the pecking order. Ramsey -- clocking in as the league's second-ranked cover man -- and Bouye (No. 6) are joined by Aaron Colvin (No. 57), who could see plenty of time against Smith-Schuster in the slot. Back in Week 5, Brown piled up 91 yards off four grabs against Ramsey, but also saw a pair of targets in his direction wind up as picks. Smith-Schuster, meanwhile, managed just one catch for 18 yards off seven targets against Bouye. Smith-Schuster has grown into a breakout star, though, giving Pittsburgh a pair of pass-catchers who can riddle a secondary. With Bryant also heating up, this amounts to biggest test yet for Jacksonville's fascinating young secondary. Back to JuJu for a minute:

Pittsburgh's offensive line vs. Jacksonville's pass rush: The Steelers house an underrated front five, but the Jaguars have successfully hassled quarterbacks all season. Ranking second in sacks (55) and interceptions (21), third in forced fumbles (17) and first in defensive scores (7), the Jaguars come at you with a loaded roster that starts with their ferocious defensive line. Campbell finished second league-wide with 14.5 sacks, while the underrated Yannick Ngakoue wasn't far behind with 12.5 takedowns of his own. Dante Fowler and Malik Jackson added another 16 between them, enough to keep offensive linemen awake and shaking in their beds at night. This group dominated Buffalo last week and made life a living, breathing hell for signal-caller Tyrod Taylor. They have the ability to do it again.

Prediction


Outside of a suspicious meltdown in San Francisco, Jacksonville's defense has performed ferociously all year. They can hang with anyone. How long can they temper Pittsburgh, though, while waiting for Bortles and the offense to produce something -- anything -- to make this a game? A defensive touchdown and some general weirdness would help Jacksonville, but I don't see the Steelers falling twice at home to the same team.

Pittsburgh Steelers 20, Jacksonville Jaguars 17

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