The Jaguars have out-Steelered the Steelers at their own game.
Jacksonville runs to win rather than merely to set up the pass, controlling the line of scrimmage and playing almost error-free while allowing few big plays.
Jack Del Rio is the Jaguars' coach, but his game plans have Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher written all over them.
The Jaguars are 3-0 against the Steelers the last three seasons, winning twice in Pittsburgh. Their latest victory, a run-at-will 29-22 decision at snowy Heinz Field only three weeks ago, was driven by their 224 yards rushing, the most against Pittsburgh since 2000. Fred Taylor ran for 147 yards and Maurice Jones-Drew added 69 yards.
"They're the Pittsburgh Steelers South," Steelers tackle Willie Colon said.
Thus sets up the curious juxtaposition for Saturday night's AFC wild-card game, the first playoff showdown between the one-time AFC Central rivals.
For the Jaguars (11-5) to win, they probably must assume the Steelers' persona again, a southern team playing northern-style football in the January chill. For the Steelers (10-6) to win, they probably must play deep South football, putting the ball in quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's hands without worrying about down and distance or the two things that can go wrong on any pass.
Roethlisberger's playoff experience is the Steelers' one distinct advantage against a Jaguars team that has won seven in a row against the AFC North and six of eight overall. Roethlisberger is 5-1 in the playoffs, winning a Super Bowl two years ago, while Jacksonville's David Garrard has thrown all of eight playoff passes and has never started a postseason game.
"One mistake in the playoffs can kill you," Roethlisberger said, dropping a subtle hint to Garrard. "It might not kill you in the regular season, but it will in the postseason."
Otherwise, there's been a feeling of doom and gloom all week in Pittsburgh, and not only because of the dreary-as-usual early January weather.
Pittsburgh hasn't lost a playoff home game in the wild card or divisional round since 1992, yet this game has a different feel. The Steelers are underdogs, some not-so-confident fans are selling tickets at face value on eBay and the buzz that usually accompanies any home postseason game is lacking.
The Steelers even put a few tickets up for sale, something they almost never do publicly during the season, much less the playoffs.
There was some good news for them Friday &
strong safety Troy Polamalu, who has missed four of six games with knee swelling, practiced for the first time all week. He's listed as questionable.
"I knew he feels well, but we'll see," coach Mike Tomlin said.
However, the fourth-seeded Steelers have rarely been so beaten up for a playoff game. They'll be without running back Willie Parker, who ran for 100 yards against Jacksonville earlier, and that means Najeh Davenport &
who gained only 27 yards Sunday against Baltimore &
will start. Also out are offensive tackles Marvel Smith and Max Starks, defensive end Aaron Smith and safety Ryan Clark.
They're down to their No. — left tackle, Trai Essex, a major worry considering they have been outrushed 494-327 while losing three of four. While taking the Super Bowl two seasons ago, the Steelers won their final four heading into the postseason.
"That's a concern," Tomlin said of the confidence the Steelers may have lost during their recent slide. "A lot of things are of concern."
Still, Tomlin took umbrage when a Jacksonville reporter asked him if the Steelers' falloff was more the result of them not being the team they were earlier &
when they were 7-2 &
rather than their injuries.
"That's your opinion," Tomlin snapped.
Defensively, the Steelers gave up an average of 28.5 points and 373 yards in those last four games. That's not a good sign considering Taylor has five consecutive 100-yard games in a Jacksonville offense that has scored 24 or more points in each of its last 10 games.
"But I don't see Fred Taylor doing that to our defense twice," said Hines Ward, who, with fellow receiver Santonio Holmes, may see plenty of passes thrown his way by Roethlisberger.
No doubt the Jaguars took note of Ward's comment.
"I think Pittsburgh is always mad at us and we are always mad at them," Garrard said. "It's just that kind of game."
There's also this incentive for fifth-seeded Jacksonville: No opposing team in the Steelers' 75-season history has won twice in Pittsburgh in the same season, much less in successive games.
"I'm not worried about history," Jaguars defensive end Paul Spicer said. "I'm worried about right now."
The winner plays next Saturday at top-seeded New England (16-0), unless the Titans (10-6) win Sunday at San Diego (11-5). If that happens, Tennessee plays at New England and the Jaguars-Steelers winner travels to second-seeded Indianapolis (13-3) on Jan. 13.
Jaguars aiming for Steelers sweep