2008 AFC Wildcard Game: Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Pittsburgh Steelers Preview and Pick

Jacksonville Jaguars (11-5) -2.5, 39.5 O/U at Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6) +2.5, 8.00pm EST Saturday
by The Crazy Snake of Predictem.com

Anyone who has been a regular reader over the season will know my pick and can cut straight to the chase. But I want to temper it with some warning and conservatism here because I am a value bettor and I am just not sure that there is any value in taking on the Steelers at home with a 2.5 point start on any given day. I had been a fan of Jacksonville even before their impressive push towards the post season, winning 6 of their last 8, with their only losses a close loss to division winning Indianapolis and a “dead-rubber” Quinn Gray led away loss to the Texans. They always had the makings of a team that could go places. The thing that finally tipped it for me was the dramatic improvement of David Garrard at quarterback. David has had a solid season, and though he spent several weeks on the sidelines through injury he still managed to amass an impressive dossier which included a completion percentage of 64%, 18 touchdowns to only 3 interceptions and an overall passer rating of 102.2.

Pittsburgh is in trouble. There is no denying it. Even if they win this game they are so banged up that it’s hard to see them going much further. But then maybe that’s where careers are made and lost and some of the Steelers’ back ups are going to get their chance to shine. In some cases it isn’t even their back ups that will line up Saturday. Trai Essex was their 3rd string left tackle, but is likely to start, although it’s entirely possible that Mike Tomlin will re-jig the offensive line and shift left guard, Alan Faneca to tackle and play their back up guard instead. Whatever the make up of the offensive line it’s little wonder it has had trouble protecting Ben Roethlisberger. Since “fast” Willie Parker went down that has become even more problematic because buying time through play action is far less likely to have the defense bite. Despite his strong running style, more in keeping with an older Steeler persona, Najeh Davenport just isn’t Willie Parker and his lateral mobility is virtually non-existent. Thus, teams will be able to reduce the number of coverage possibilities allowing more opportunities to rush Pittsburgh’s beleaguered quarterback.

Big Ben has had a marvelous season to date and has thoroughly deserved his pro bowl selection. But he is now going to have to do more than ever with the Pittsburgh make up as it is. He will have to be at his elusive best to avoid the Jacksonville pass rush. Adding to his protection problems will be the fact that Jacksonville is ranked 2nd against the rush and will very likely force Ben to the air more than he wants. He is used to throwing 15-25 times per game, but as things lie he will have to be more active and productive than ever before. This is inevitably a double-edged sword. On the one hand, he could have a great game and lead Pittsburgh to victory. Alternatively, he could have a nightmare and Jacksonville could easily blow this out. Whilst going to the air represents Pittsburgh’s best chance of success, it also represents the most likely route to failure.

Jacksonville dominated the week 15 match up with the Steelers on the ground. Though they only won by a small margin in the end, they dominated the clock and the game and it was only a late surge by the Steelers that got it close. Doubtless, the Steelers will want their shot at revenge. Fortunately, it should be a cold night in Pittsburgh and those are the conditions under which revenge is best served. It’s difficult to see Jacksonville going in to Pittsburgh with exactly the same game plan and it playing out the same way as their last meeting. The Pittsburgh D will have studied the attack extensively and will most likely have formulated a way to curtail its effectiveness. If Jacksonville is to win it will have to establish doubt in the minds of the Pittsburgh secondary and make effective use of play action. Despite injuries the Pittsburgh D is still potentially formidable and should never be taken lightly. Even though he has been less effective because of injury than in previous healthier years, Troy Polamalu is still one of the top safeties in football and has big play capability. Banged up or not, Pittsburgh is never a pushover, especially at Heinz Field.

Naturally, I am going with Jacksonville and will give up the 2.5 points on offer with most bookies. I like their form, their line up and their potentially for a more flexible approach than we are likely to see from the Steelers. They have more ways to win than the Steelers do and if they play a smart, no nonsense style they should win this game. They are currently the better side and will have their chance once again to prove it.

The Snake’s Bite: Back Jacksonville at the -2.5. Either Ben Roethlisberger will have a monster game and beat us off his own back or we can relax early and begin planning what to do with our profit. It’s hard to see Najeh Davenport creating enough of a distraction for Jacksonville to divert their attention from Ben for the whole night and that spells trouble. It could easily get ugly for Pittsburgh and Jacksonville knows how to put teams away.