|NFL Wild Card Playoff Odds: Jaguars at Steelers Spread, Picks & Public Bets|
|Written by Anthony Rome|
|Thursday, 03 January 2008 08:12|
Tough Road Ahead
Maybe no team in NFL history has gone through a more difficult path through the playoffs to win a Super Bowl than the Pittsburgh Steelers did two years ago.
The one they now face could easily top it.
With possibly the least momentum of any playoff team and missing their Pro Bowl running back, the Steelers host the only visiting team to win at Heinz Field all season when they meet the Jacksonville Jaguars on Saturday night.
Oddsmakers from Bodog have made Jacksonville –2.5 point spread favorites (View NFL Football odds) for Sunday’s game, the over/under has been set at 39.5 total points (Game Matchup). Current public betting information shows that 74% of bets for this game have been placed on Jacksonville –2.5 (View NFL Football bet percentages).
Even if Pittsburgh (10-6) can get by Jacksonville (11-5), which beat the Steelers 29-22 on Dec. 16, its road back to the Super Bowl could include road games against unbeaten New England and defending Super Bowl champion Indianapolis.
Before they can think about going on the road next week, the Steelers must knock off a Jaguars team which won six of seven before losing a meaningless regular-season finale. One of those victories included the trip to Heinz Field, preventing Pittsburgh from finishing with an 8-0 home record.
The Steelers even had Willie Parker for that game and he ran for 100 yards, but his season ended four days later when he broke his leg in a game at St. Louis. That leaves Pittsburgh without the NFL's fourth-leading rusher.
Parker has been replaced by Najeh Davenport, who came off the bench against the Rams to rush for 123 yards before being held to 27 last week on 12 carries in a 27-21 loss at Baltimore. Pittsburgh came out flat in that game, falling behind 17-0, despite entering with a chance to claim the AFC's No. 3 seed.
"A lot of things are of concern. What lies ahead is an enormous playoff game versus a great football team at our place," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "If there is any hesitation, they better quickly get over it because the ball is going to be kicked off here shortly."
The Steelers enter the postseason having lost three of four as their once vaunted defense has allowed averages of 28.5 points and 373.0 total yards - more than 15 points and 140 yards above their averages through 12 games. They have only five sacks over the last five games, but still enter with the NFL's top-ranked defense (266.4 ypg).
Pittsburgh never allowed more than 20 points against some very talented offenses during its title run two years ago. Before beating Seattle to win that Super Bowl, the Steelers won at Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Denver - the AFC's top three seeds - to become the second team to win three playoff games on the road.
That squad, though, entered the postseason having won four in a row while this group of banged-up Steelers limps into the playoffs. Parker and defensive end Aaron Smith (torn biceps) are out for the postseason, and third-stringer Trai Essex is Pittsburgh's only available left tackle due to injuries to Marvel Smith (back) and Max Starks (knee).
"Whoever hoists that Lombardi Trophy in a month or so will have had injury issues and will have found ways to overcome it," Tomlin said. "We don't dwell on that. It's as much a part of the game as blocking and tackling. The healthy guys play and the standard of expectation doesn't change."
The only real health issue for Jacksonville involves linebacker Mike Peterson, who remains sidelined by a broken right hand. Peterson also missed last month's game at Pittsburgh, but the Jaguars held the Steelers to 217 total yards and sacked Ben Roethlisberger five times.
The Jacksonville rushing attack had the biggest impact in that game on a day when snow, swirling winds and cold temperatures created a marshy field. Fred Taylor ran for 147 yards on 25 carries and the Jaguars' 224 rushing yards remain the most Pittsburgh has allowed since giving up 240 - also to Jacksonville - in 2000.
"I don't see Fred Taylor doing that to our defense twice in a row," Steelers receiver Hines Ward said.
Referred to as 'the Pittsburgh of the South' by an admiring Parker after last month's meeting, the Jaguars finished the regular season with the AFC's top rushing attack at 149.4 yards per game and 4.6 per carry.
Though he scored the game-winning touchdown versus the Steelers, Taylor recently complained about the substandard grass field in Pittsburgh, suggesting the team should spend $1 million on artificial turf.
"That field is terrible," said Taylor, who has five straight 100-yard games and is expected to replace Parker in the Pro Bowl. "That's a lawsuit pending. That's ridiculous."
However, there is no rain or snow in the forecast for this game, and the temperature could remain in the 40s throughout.
While most of the Steelers are very familiar with a playoff atmosphere, 23 of the Jaguars have never experienced it. The team's only postseason game since 2000 was a 28-3 wild-card loss at New England two years ago.
"We're glad we had a good season, but it's time to turn it up," Jags left tackle Khalif Barnes said. "It's not time for a one-and-done for us. We don't want to duplicate that '05 season and just be happy to get in and not be able to advance. We don't want to taste that again. We did that before."
One major difference this time is David Garrard will be the starting quarterback instead of Byron Leftwich, who was released in the offseason after Garrard won the job.
Garrard was 9-3 as the starter this season, throwing for 18 touchdowns with only three interceptions, and was the league's third-highest rated passer behind Tom Brady and Roethlisberger.
While Garrard is set for his first start in the playoffs, Roethlisberger already has a Super Bowl title on his resume and is coming off the best regular season of his four-year career.
Roethlisberger completed 65.3 percent of his passes for 3,154 yards with 32 TDs and 11 interceptions. He sat out the season finale to rest a sprained ankle, but should be back at full strength Saturday.
"I don't think we will just abandon the running game," he said. "I know we won't. We've thrown the ball when we need to and we've proven we can win the game when we have to throw it."
Roethlisberger had three TD passes against Jacksonville last month, but finished just 15-of-32 for 142 yards. The Jaguars have held the opposition below 150 passing yards in four straight games.
While Jacksonville has not won a playoff game on the road since its run to the AFC championship game 11 years ago, no team has won at Pittsburgh twice in one season in the Steelers' 75-year history.
"Guys are aware of the situation. The magnitude of the game is going to increase with every play," Jags cornerback Terry Cousin said. "Your focus level has to be so much better than it is in the regular season."
By: Staff Writers - Email Us
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