Gridiron Experts Staff Wild Card Preview
Jacksonville Jaguars at Pittsburgh Steelers -7.5 | O/U 40.5
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Michael Hauff – The Jacksonville Jaguars will continue to bank on the mantra that defense wins championships as they head to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers. That’s not all they are banking on as they will also be looking to replicate their week 5 performance at Heinz Field. It was in that week 5 contest that Ben Roethlisberger would be intercepted five times on the way to 30-9 Jaguars rout. It would be just one of two home games that the Steelers would lose in 2017. As far as the Steelers go, this week will mark the return of Antonio Brown who previously injured his calf in a matchup against the Patriots. No matter if he is 100% percent or not, he will have his hands full against Jalen Ramsey. For me, the Jaguars defense is something reminiscent of the Ravens in 2000 and the Buccaneers of 2002. Not only am I predicting that the Jaguars win this game, it will be the last game of Ben Roethlisberger’s NFL career. Pick: Jaguars
Graham Hackney – The only way Jacksonville wins is if their defense plays like they are capable of winning the Super Bowl. Fortunately for the Jaguars, this is exactly what they have been doing for most of the season. There have been recent cracks; both teams will be reviewing how the Jimmy Garoppolo inspired 49ers had so much success late in the season. Blake Bortles is a clear concern for the Jags, one which they overcame, just, against the Bills, but they will need to score a lot more than 10 points to beat the Steelers.
With Antonio Brown seemingly back to full fitness and Roethlisberger on form, I fully expect the Steelers to have enough to take this game away from Jacksonville. They may not achieve this early in the game, but providing their defense keeps giving them opportunities then they will score enough points for the Jaguars to need to unleash Bortles’ arm – and then anything can happen. The Steelers are going to the AFC championship game, again, and will face the Patriots….again. Pick: Steelers
Brad Castronovo – I think the Jaguars’ defense is fantastic… generational… electric, even. On the other hand, this is most certainly not a playoff-caliber offense. To make matters worse, the Steelers have one of the most consistent defenses in the game right now, even considering the loss of Ryan Shazier. The Steelers will likely do all they can to shut down Leonard Fournette and force Blake Bortles to beat them. If they do that, I love their chances. The combination of AJ Bouye and Jalen Ramsey on the outside could surely give Big Ben and Co. fits, but I think there’s just too much talent for the Jaguars to handle here. Yes, I know they knocked off Pittsburgh in Week 5…. but that’s before Ben & the offense truly hit their stride, averaging almost 30ppg since. Now, with an effective Le’Veon Bell, a healthy Antonio Brown, and a breakout threat in JuJu Smith-Schuster, the Steelers’ offense is much different, and I’d be shocked if Ben threw 5 picks again (ever). I think the Steelers’ defense forces multiple turnovers in this one, contains Leonard Fournette (unlike Week 5), and wins by multiple TD. Steelers 31, Jags 17. Pick: Steelers
Tanner Bollers –I love to cheer for an underdog as much as anyone but even I’m not expecting Jacksonville to come back into Heinz Field and repeat the 30-9 beat down they gave the Steelers in week 5. Week 5 was an anomaly, and it would be naive to expect that to happen again. As good as Jags defense has played this year, I think there’s a better chance that Big Ben throws 5 touchdowns instead of 5 picks this time around. Additionally, the Steelers will be hungry to get some payback for the embarrassing turnout last time these teams met. However, the main factor that I think pushes this game in Pittsburg’s favor is the return of Antonio Brown. All signs point in favor of him returning to play in this matchup. He’ll be rested, and hopefully healthy, and should be in line for a big game. On the flip side of this coin, I applaud Blake Bortles for the resiliency and mental toughness he’s displayed this season. Although, I just don’t see the Jags winning with the way Bortles has struggled recently. He’s only thrown for 245 yards 1 TD and 2 INT over his last two games combined. That stat line won’t keep pace with the Steelers offense in the first half of this Divisional Round game. I believe all systems are go for Pittsburg rolling the Jags 31-14. Pick: Steelers
Anthony Cervino – When the Jacksonville Jaguars travel to Heinz Field to face the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs, they’ll be a 7.5 point underdog, which I believe is ludicrous. Now, I’m not saying that the Steelers shouldn’t be favored, but 7.5 points is a bit inflated. Why? For Ben Roethlisberger, he holds a 13-7 playoff record while going 5-5 in his last 10 and 3-5 in his last eight. Plus, at the age of 35, he’s clearly not the same playmaker that he was in years past and is rumored to be on the brink of retirement. Facing the No. 2 ranked Jaguars defense in points (268) and yards allowed (4,578), who dominated Pittsburgh back in Week 5 — they smashed the Steelers 30-9 while holding Roethlisberger to a 312-0-5 stat line with a respectable 60 percent completion percentage — I fully believe the veteran passer will struggle as he had in recent memory against Jacksonville.
In fact, in their last two meetings dating back to 2017, the three major components of the Killer Bs have been contained by the Jaguars — Roethlisberger was held to a combined 585-1-5 QB stat line, Antonio Brown was held to a 15-241-0 line and Le’Veon Bell was held to a 15-82-0 line as a receiver and a 30-129-0 line as a rusher. The biggest take from that is the fact that they combine for one touchdown.
On the Jacksonville end, they must rely on their dominant defense and sound running game led by rookie standout Leonard Fournette to carry them to the AFC Championship game over an inconsistent Blake Bortles-led passing game. And it’s not that I don’t believe in Bortles — I’m one of the few who does to an extent — but he is what he is. However, there was a stint in December in which he was one of the best quarterbacks in the league, throwing for 1,285 yards, nine touchdowns and three interceptions and leading the team to a 3-1 record from Weeks 13-to-16. And although he laid an egg in last week’s Wild Card win over the Bills as a passer — he completed 12-of-23 passes for 87 yards — he made plays with his legs, rushing for 88 yards on 10 carries, including a key first down at the tail end of the fourth quarter to extend the drive and keep the clock moving.
In a game that I believe the Jaguars will ultimately win, I’m also expecting Fournette to once again shine as he did back in the before mentioned Week 5 win. The rookie steamrolled the Steelers’ 10th ranked run defense, rushing for 181 yards and a pair of scores on 28 carries. While I’m not expecting him to go off like that again, he should see a heavy workload, which would wear down Pittsburgh’s defense while keeping their dangerous offense on the sidelines. Jaguars win 27-16. Pick: Jaguars
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