Steel­ers, Saints aim to f lip the scripts

The Buffalo News - - NFL - By Milt Northrop 2-2 straight up; 1-3 ver­sus spread. 153-86 straight up; 113-112-14 ver­sus spread (not in­clud­ing Satur­day’s games).

Jacksonville routed the Steel­ers in Pitts­burgh on Oct. 8. The Vik­ings won by a handy 10 points over the New Orleans Saints on open­ing week­end.

Were those true pre­views of what to ex­pect in the same pair­ings in the same venues for to­day’s NFL Di­vi­sional Round play­off games?

His­tory says that losers by more than 20 points in a reg­u­lar-sea­son game are 0-6 against the same op­po­nent in the post­sea­son, so the Steel­ers’ chances of ex­act­ing re­venge for an em­bar­rass­ing reg­u­lar de­feat at the hands of the Jaguars would seem slim.

A closer look at the how Jacksonville’s 30-9 vic­tory tran­spired in­di­cates it will be much different this time. First of all, it was a more even game that the fi­nal score in­di­cated. Pitts­burgh owned a 9-7 lead mid­way through the third quar­ter and out­gained Jacksonville 371-313 in the game.

Jacksonville will win in a run­away again, if Ben Roeth­lis­berger of the Steel­ers throw five in­ter­cep­tions in­clud­ing two pick-sixes in a span of about 2½ min­utes. And if Jaguars’ run­ning back Leonard Four­nette gets loose for an­other 90-yard touch­down run in the last two min­utes. Four­nette’s garbage time run was the long­est from scrim­mage in the NFL this sea­son and en­abled him to post his sea­son-best 181-yard rush­ing per­for­mance. Aside from that Four­nette av­er­aged less than four yards a carry against the Steel­ers.

In the Vik­ings’ win over the Saints, Min­nesota quar­ter­back Sam Brad­ford passed for 346 yards and three touch­downs. That turned out to be the last game Brad­ford started this sea­son. His in­jury turned the job over to backup Case Keenum, who di­rected 12 Vik­ings’ vic­to­ries. New Orleans gave up 470 to­tal yards to the Vik­ings that day.

Will those two out­comes be re­peated to­day when the stakes are higher?

Jaguars (11-6) at Steel­ers (13-3) TV: The line: The scoop on the Jaguars: three points in last week’s play­off was im­pres­sive, but the Jags were out­gained by Buf­falo ... The big ques­tion with Jacksonville is QB Blake Bor­tles, who did not rise to the oc­ca­sion with his pass­ing last week. Bor­tles has blown hot and cold all sea­son. He passed for 21 TDs, but threw 13 in­ter­cep­tions in the reg­u­lar sea­son. He did have as many 300-yard pass­ing games (four) as Roeth­lis­berger and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and one more than Drew Brees. Only Brady, Alex Smith and Jared Goff had more . ... Four­nette seemed a lit­tle worn down from car­ry­ing a heavy load in the Jacksonville run­ning game. He had 304 touches in the reg­u­lar sea­son. Three of his five 100-yard rush­ing games came in Septem­ber and Oc­to­ber and he missed three games with in­juries the sec­ond half of the sched­ule . ... The de­fense di­rected by Todd Wash is what’s be­hind the Jaguars’ suc­cess. Ex-Bills as­sis­tant and in­terim head coach Perry Fewell coaches an ex­cel­lent sec­ondary. Jacksonville was sec­ond in the league in to­tal de­fense and led in pass de­fense and was sec­ond with 55 sacks.

The scoop on the Steel­ers: The Jacksonville game was a night­mare for Roeth­lis­berger but the next week he re­cov­ered nicely and led Pitts­burgh to a huge win over the red-hot Chiefs in Kansas City. He fin­ished the sea­son with 4,251 pass­ing yards, 28 touch­downs, 14 in­ter­cep­tions and a 93.4 rat­ing. An­to­nio Brown, as­sum­ing he plays af­ter he missed the last two reg­u­lar sea­son games with a calf in­jury and missed prac­tice Fri­day with ill­ness, led the league with 1,533 re­ceiv­ing yards on 101 catches. Rookie Ju Ju Smith-Schus­ter had 917 re­ceiv­ing yards . . . The Steel­ers bal­ance their big-play pass­ing game with the hard-nosed run­ning of Le’Veon Bell, who ran for 1,291 yards, third in the league, and nine touch­downs . ... The de­fense im­proved as the sea­son went along and ranked fifth over­all. DE Cameron Hey­ward had a team-high 13 sacks and rookie LB T.J. Watt had five sacks and an in­ter­cep­tion. Eight Steel­ers made the Pro Bowl but only one on de­fense – in­jured line­backer Ryan Shazier. … Field goals by kicker Chris Boswell were the dif­fer­ence in four Pitts­burgh vic­to­ries.

Out­look: Get ready to rum­ble. This should be an old-fash­ioned de­fen­sive strug­gle be­tween the trashtalk­ing Jaguars and the Steel­ers and the Ter­ri­ble Towel. Pitts­burgh and Boswell, 23-20.

Saints (12-5) at Vik­ings (13-3)

TV: The line: The scoop on the Saints: Nota lot was ex­pected of New Orleans go­ing into the sea­son but the Saints won a di­vi­sion over the last two NFC cham­pi­ons and im­proved de­fen­sively from 27th to 17th while stay­ing in the top two on of­fense ... Coach Sean Pay­ton’s team be­came more dan­ger­ous with the ad­di­tion or rookie RB Alvin Ka­mara, who had 1,554 scrim­mage yards ... Lead­ing re­ceiver Michael Thomas had 104 re­cep­tions ... Rookie CB Marshon Lat­ti­more, who had five in­ter­cep­tions, was a big ad­di­tion to the de­fense. DE Cameron Jor­dan had ca­reer year with 13 sacks . ... And then there is Brees. Counted on less than usual, he still passed for 4,334 yards and 23 touch­downs.

The scoop on the Vik­ings: The big story of the Min­nesota sea­son was the play of Keenum, who had been cast off by three other teams. Keenum passed for 3,547 yards,, 22 touch­downs and a 98.3 rat­ing. He threw only seven in­ter­cep­tions. … The Vikes have re­ceiv­ing weapons, too, in Adam Thie­len (91 re­cep­tions/14yard av­er­age), Ste­fon Diggs and TE Kyle Ru­dolph. Min­nesota lost rookie stand­out Dalvin Cook early with a knee in­jury but car­ried on with ex-Raider Latavius Mur­ray (842 yards) and Jer­ick McKin­non, who is also a re­ceiv­ing threat . ... De­fense is where the Vik­ings re­ally stand out. They led the league with yield of 275.9 a game.

Out­look: Keenum still has his doubters, but the Vik­ings have a solid ros­ter be­cause they draft so well. Min­nesota, 24-17.

Last week’s re­sults: Sea­son’s record:

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