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DP - Jaguars at Steelers
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Jacksonville Jaguars at Pittsburgh Steelers, 1:05 ET, CBS

These division winners will square off for the second time in just over three months, which is a bonus since it gives us an opportunity to examine whether what transpired the first time around was a fluke.

Was Ben Roethlisberger’s five-interception game simply a bad day in a storied career or potentially the beginning of the end? Did that game signal the rise of a young defense that looks elite and has already set one NFL record with seven touchdowns, or will they fail in their first road challenge against a veteran offense?

Jacksonville scored two of those seven defensive TDs on Oct. 8 and also racked up 231 rushing yards in its most impressive victory of the season, a 30-9 rout at Heinz Field after which a frustrated Roethlisberger commented that retirement might be around the corner.


Leonard Fournette broke off a 90-yard run with the game decided to add to the carnage, as Blake Bortles didn’t have to do much.

That again will be the key to victory for the upset-minded Jags, who arrive in Pittsburgh in the same situation that they were in back in Week 5 from a spread standpoint, getting 7.5 points.

“This is the least exciting game from an action standpoint,” said spokesman Scott Cooley. “These are nearly the same odds we set during the regular season, and they were pretty tight then, and now. We've got a few sharps on each side of the spread, and the squares are actually fairly split as well, although there is slightly more public money on Pittsburgh.

“Currently, the money handle favors the Steelers 60-40. I don't think we'll see this total get to 42 as it feels like the pros are waiting to play the under in hopes of a better number.”

As of Saturday, the total is at 41 at most shops and many have taken back the additional half-point, offering Pittsburgh at -7.

Steelers safety Mike Mitchell provided bulletin board material by already commenting on a potential matchup with New England, which suggests the team may be looking past this game, but it would be awfully foolish to do that given what went down in the previous meeting.

Say what you will about the difference between a home playoff game and a regular-season affair, but there are a lot of reasons to be concerned if you’re Pittsburgh, starting with the fact that elite linebacker Ryan Shazier was present for that game and won’t be for this one. The Steelers couldn’t stop the Jacksonville ground game even with their fastest linebacker, so there could be plays to be made in the middle of the field.

Jacksonville’s biggest concern lies with the player who touches the ball on every snap, Bortles, who was largely dreadful in the Wild Card weekend win over Buffalo. He was out of sync with his passes and did the bulk of his damage with his legs instead of his arm, actually running for more yards (88) than he passed for (87) in his first career postseason start.

Roethlisberger has made 20 playoff starts over his career and obviously gives the Steelers a huge edge at the quarterback spot, but he’s got to fare better and avoid a pass rush that ranked second in the NFL with 55 sacks, one behind Pittsburgh.

Bortles actually threw the fewest number of interceptions in his career (13) and took his fewest sacks (24) while not turning it over in the red zone. His 60.2 clip on completions was also a personal best, but the Jaguars would prefer to keep it simple and allow the running game to do the bulk of the work.

Pittsburgh will likely also prefer to utilize its ground game to avoid having to challenge the best set of corners in the league, Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, who will be tasked with containing an excellent receiving corps featuring All-Pro Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and rookie Juju Smith-Schuster. Brown was sent home from practice due to an illness on Friday but looked good in practice all week after nursing a calf injury.

On the injury front, both teams come in relatively healthy considering the fact we’re in mid-January. Although Shazier is obviously out, still recovering from a horrific back injury, the Steelers will have corner Artie Burns (knee) and Stephon Tuitt (elbow) each practiced in full, so the bulk of their defense will be in play here.

Jacksonville also had health issues on the defensive side of the ball as Ramsey (achilles), Paul Posluzny (abdomen) and Telvin Smith (ankle) all took days off to try and heal up, but all will be in the lineup against the Steelers. Pittsburgh settled for field goals on all three red-zone drives and will need to make better use of its opportunities while balancing out the risk of testing the Jags defense.

In a game that will likely be decided by whatever the game’s biggest mistake winds up being, weather will also be a factor. Snow and temperatures in the teens were part of the equation on Saturday night, but it’s expected to be sunny on Sunday afternoon. In this case, don’t equate that with warmth since the game time temperature is expected to be roughly 10-14 degrees.

Follow Tony Mejia on Twitter at @TonyMejiaNBA

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