With all due respect to the anybody-could-win NFC and the Patriot Machine, the most intriguing matchup this weekend is Jaguars-Steelers. Jacksonville could prove its first-class status by defeating an AFC blue blood, while Pittsburgh is still considered the team most likely to throw the playoffs into true mayhem by upsetting New England next week . . . if Ben Roethlisberger & Co. can get there. To get prepared for Sunday afternoon, we went back and watched the entire Week 5 matchup between these two teams, a stunning 30-9 road victory for the Jaguars in which they picked off Roethlisberger five times and got him to utter the words, "I might not have it anymore."
WHAT WILL BE DIFFERENT: The Steelers will be up one significant piece of the puzzle on offense, but down an even more critical player on D. Back in October, right tackle Marcus Gilbert missed the game with a hamstring injury, so he could only stand and watch as backup Chris Hubbard was beaten by Jacksonville rushers Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue, and Dante Fowler. After Hubbard's early struggles, Le'Veon Bell was forced to spend much of the first half lined up behind the right tackle, ready to block oncoming blitzers. That limited the dynamo's contribution as a route-runner. His 4.6 yards per reception was the lowest among games in which he caught more than five balls this year—and the third-lowest in such games during his career. Look for him to be better utilized Sunday with Gilbert back.
Even with Ryan Shazier, Pittsburgh gave up 231 rushing yards in Week 5 as the Jaguars called 18straight runs to kill time in the fourth quarter. Without Shazier, who returned to practice Wednesday in a wheelchair, the Steelers have turned to Sean Spence, who ranks dead last (92nd) in run defense among linebackers by Pro Football Focus. If Pittsburgh can't stop the run, there will be a lot less pressure on Blake Bortles.
TWO REMATCHES TO WATCH: It's hard to forget the wave—that moment when Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette outwardly welcomed an oncoming collision with Steelers safety sledgehammer Mike Mitchell (a collision both seemed to consider a win afterwards)—but Fournette and Mitchell actually found each other a half-dozen different times in their first matchup too. Buckle your chinstrap before those thudders clash again.
On the other side, it's hard to take your eyes away from dancing partners Antonio Brown and Jalen Ramsey. Brown had the upper hand in round one, tallying 157 yards against Ramsey and fellow Pro Bowl corner A.J. Bouye, but those two also made athletic plays to keep him from gaining more. Steelers teammates say Brown looks like his old self after missing a month with a torn left calf, which is great news for fans of all-time WR-DB showdowns.
. . . AND ABOUT THOSE FIVE INTERCEPTIONS: Were I offensive coordinator Todd Haley, I wouldn't be too worried. Really. As Andy Benoit laid out back in October, both pick-sixes resulted from tipped balls, JuJu Smith-Schuster slipped on another interception, and INT No. 5 came on an aggressive throw in the final minutes. Roethlisberger has thrown just seven interceptions in the 10 weeks since the game, compared to 22 touchdowns, looking more like the QB that had gone over 2,000 pass attempts without an interception returned for a touchdown before the Jaguars came to town.
But another Week 5 stat should concern Steelers fans—the team went 0-for-3 in scoring touchdowns in the red zone. During each trip, Pittsburgh could not get Antonio Brown—or anybody—open in the end zone, and Bell, the league's leading red-zone rusher, finished with a season low one yard-per-carry in that area. The Steelers ended the year 22nd in red-zone efficiency, while the Jaguars defense was second. That has been the key for the unit, which also ranked in the top six in preventing big plays against both the pass and the run. No free yards and no easy touchdowns. That recipe helped Jacksonville upset Pittsburgh once. It could do so again.
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NOW ON THE MMQB: Peter King catches you up on the coaching carousel ... Charles P. Pierce explains what can and cannot beat the Patriots ... Jonathan Jones finds out what a home Super Bowl would really be like for the Vikings ... and more.
LATER TODAY: Albert Breer talks coaches and playoffs ... Kalyn Kahler speaks with beneficiaries of the Bills fans' Andy Dalton-motivated donations ... Michael Beller provides way too early 2018 fantasy rankings ... and more. Stay tuned.
WHAT YOU MAY HAVE MISSED:Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs have powered the Vikings, no matter who is throwing them the ball ... The Steelers are rallying aroundRyan Shazier ... Pocket passers rule the playoffs for a reason ... and more.
1. ESPN's David Newton reported that Norv Turner was finalizing a deal Wednesday to become the Panthers' next offensive coordinator. Turner, 65, was previously Minnesota's OC until he resigned in November of 2016.
2. "Browns fans should feel good," says Cleveland.com after John Dorsey added Eliot Wolf, son of Ron, to the Browns' management staff. In other front office news, Houston has picked a GM to fill in for Rick Smith: Brian Gaine.
4. Given a look at the upcoming Facebook documentary series on Tom Brady, Mark Leibovich writes it's "pure candy for football geeks, celebrity lifestyle voyeurs and pretty much any N.F.L. enthusiast curious about one of sports’ more enigmatic superstars."
5. Pod rec time: Vernon Shazierexplained how "eating my own stew" has helped him and his family since his son, Ryan Shazier, lost feeling in his legs on Monday Night Football. "It's a daily struggle," Vernon says. "We wake up and we just say, Let's just ask God to give us help to make it through this day."
6. A few second-order coaching moves: Eric Bieniemy is hoping to take advantage of his promotion to fill Matt Nagy's shoes as Chiefs offensive coordinator, and Don Martindale might be the right fit for a Ravens DC job that has lost its luster. Meanwhile, it seems like the Bears might be able to retainVic Fangio after all.
7. Kenny Britt is the latest Patriots receiver hoping to revitalize his career in New England. Across the field from him will be Titans corner Logan Ryan, who spent four years lining up against Tom Brady in practice.
8. The other rematch this week pits the Vikings and Saints against each other. The last time they played, in Week 1, three-quarters of the teams' backfields were different, but one of the biggest changes might be what's happened to rookie corner Marshon Lattimore and his New Orleans defense.
10. Last but far from least, a feature on Aaron Maybin and his fight for Baltimore schools that extends well beyond one viral moment.
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You know the saying: you either win in the playoffs, or you watch from home. What they don't say is that you could be watching curling.
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