As the Pittsburgh Steelers begin their 2018 playoff journey in the NFL divisional round there is concern among the faithful that their first bend in the road will have a jagged little edge.
After all, the team they are facing, the Jacksonville Jaguars, were one of the few teams to defeat the Steelers this year, and the Blake Bortles lead unit did it with a smackdown score of 30-9.
But that, of course, was before Ben Roethlisberger awoke from his lengthy early season hibernation, and reclaimed his position among the elite quarterbacks of his era.
It was that sleepy bear who the Jaguars faced that served up a shocking five interceptions and had fans flocking to college football to start shopping for his successor.
Since that time, Big Ben has properly employed his impressive nuclear arsenal of a top five offensive line, and two of the best offensive weapons in the league in Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell.
What’s that you say? Brown may be ill, or still recovering, and may not be 100% or even play at all?
And, it could be well argued as well that while the Steelers offense is much improved since the Jaguars debacle, Pittsburgh’s young defense has been on a steady decline.
So who is going to win this? Let’s Spin it to dig a little deeper.
Keep Your Eyes On The Ball
The Steelers remain fully focused on getting revenge on the New England Patriots. But wait! Aren’t they playing the Jacksonville Jaguars this weekend? Oh…yeah. Those guys. Yes. That’s what we meant. We’re 100% focused on the Jaguars. That Jaguars quarterback…oh what’s his name…he’ll be tough. Just a moment, there’s another story about Tom Brady. He’s getting old? Really?
Let’s face it. The Jaguars game is the one the Steelers need to just get past to arrive at their destiny this year. There will be little celebration if the team beats Jacksonville. And that’s what makes this game so frightening. This could be a set-up for one of the biggest upsets in Steelers playoff history.
If the Steelers want to get a clear understanding of the team they are facing this weekend, they should dust off the Cowher Power reels of the 90’s. Bortles and a dominant defense? That could be the Steelers defense with a Mike Tomzak, Kordell Stewart or…Kent Graham at the helm. Those of us who suffered through that decade of almost being great know how to beat a team like the Jaguars. Remember what it felt like back then when the opposing team, be it the San Francisco 49ers or the Dallas Cowboys jumped out to an early lead? Yeah, it was over.
Ultimate Fighting Championship
The Jaguars will be like an Olympic wrestler playing a champion boxer in a UFC matchup. They’ll want to keep the game close so they can get the Steelers to the ground and in a chokehold in the fourth quarter. The Steelers approach should be simple. Punch ‘em in the nose right after the whistle sounds and make this a knockout in the first round. If the Steelers can jump out to a two touchdown lead they can start booking their travel plans to Boston. If the game is close in the fourth quarter, the jagged little edge goes to the Jaguars.
Will he? Won’t he? The answer to these two questions regarding All-World Antonio Brown is “Yes”. Should he? Probably not. The Steelers can’t take the Jaguars lightly, but they also can ill afford to make it to the AFC Championship or Super Bowl without the services of a 100% healthy Brown. Antonio is one firm foot plant from reinjuring his calf and being done for the year. JuJu Smith-Schuster has thrived in Antonio’s absence and Martavis Bryant can be the big man on campus as well. If the Steelers MUST use Brown it should be only as a “duck” to draw attention from the others.
Ringing Da Bell
Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in. I thought Le’Veon Bell had made amends with Steelers fans and had learned the value of being a Steelers legend for life. Good grief…Charlie Brown. You’re going to bring up next year’s contract situation right before the first playoff game? It’s almost as if some players just flat out refuse to be loved by Steelers Nation. What is clear is that we don’t mean that much to him. Or his team for that matter. A Miami Dolphins uniform? Or playing for the Washington Redskins? Or the Seattle Seahawks? Don’t matter. Home is where the money is. Sigh. Deep, deep sigh.
The Other Side Of The Tracks
The two toughest teams the Steelers will face aren’t in the AFC. No, the biggest challenge will be taking on an Atlanta Falcons team determined not to be the present day Buffalo Bills (who lost four Super Bowls in a row). Talk about a bad taste in their mouths after their disastrous collapse against the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Theirs is the true road to redemption. They are talented, and peaking when it matters. Then there is the great Drew Brees and the surging New Orleans Saints. Brees has a completion rate of 72 percent this year which is merely par for the course for his career. This year he has a prolific running attack and a decent defense to balance out his passing prowess. The Saints are probably the team the Steelers would least like to face.
Which brings us back to the Evil Empire. Will you be cheering on the Patriots this week? Strangely, for the first time ever, I just might. I can’t see the Steelers getting “whole” this year without beating the Patriots in New England. I realize the Steelers organization and fans want the home game for a variety of important reasons, many of them fiscal. But an AFC Championship game against the Tennessee Titans? Yeah. Something just not right about that.
Coach Mike Tomlin is heralding his decision to sit his starters in the last game of the season against the Cleveland Browns. A healthy Steelers team is a good thing, for sure. But for many reasons stated above, Pittsburgh needs to jump out to an early lead and that’s all on the broad shoulders of Big Ben. Will he do it? Did Tomlin make the right call in pushing the pause button of his streaking offense? It’s the storyline of the game.