Steelers, Saints aim to f lip the scripts
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: