By this time in the year, we know what we do well, as well as those areas in which we struggle. Same goes for the Jaguars. We know we must protect Big Ben as well as possible, even with reserves forced into the lineup. We know we need to protect against the big play in special teams, and the need to be productive on third downs and in the red zone. At the start of the year, I would have included protect the football, but Roethlisberger has done such a fine job with his decision making this year that I haven't worried about that facet of the game for quite some time now.
So, although the Jaguars present some serious matchup problems for us, here are 5 reasons I believe the Steelers will win this Saturday night:
1) Ben Roethlisberger:
Outside of Manning and Brady, I'm not sure anybody's playing QB as well as Roethlisberger, including Tony Romo and Brett Favre. 32 TDs and only 11 INTS. Are you kidding me? Behind that offensive line? Very, very impressive stuff, and the thing that makes him so exciting to watch and root for is he can almost single-handedly sustain drives for his football team. Even if the protection isn't up to snuff, Roethlisberger still has the capability to break contain and find any of his three primary targets (Heath, Hines, Santonio). If you harken back to the first Jacksonville game, you'll remember that the protection was actually not that bad despite the 5 sacks allowed. All 5 were a result of Marvel Smith playing the worst game of his career due to a bad back. If Essex and Colon can play even B- football, and Simmons, Mahan and Faneca play well, I have faith Roethlisberger will be able to get the job done.
2) Experience Counts:
Experience isn't everything - simply having done or not done something before doesn't guarantee a thing, but the reality is our roster is far more playoff tested than is Jacknsonville's. This isn't the first rodeo for guys like Roeth, Faneca, Hines, Heath, Foote, Hampton, etc. Sure there are guys on the Jaguars who have been to the playoffs before, but none have won 3 consecutive games on the road like our players have. Let's see how David Garrard does if we are able to score first and get the rowdy folks at Heinz Field involved. Holding onto a lead with a subdued crowd is one thing. Making plays when you have to in a playoff environment is another. Many of our leaders have done so. Most of Jacksonville's has not.
3) Home Field Advantage:
As was proved during our 2005 run, home field advantage only means so much. However, as was pointed out by a commentor in a previous thread, no team has beaten Pittsburgh twice at home in the same year since ___? Not sure, but either forever, or at least in a really long time. For as inconsistent as we've been the second half of the season, most of our problems have come on the road. We haven't played brilliantly each contest at Heinz, but we nevertheless finished the season 7-1 at home. As the #4 seed, we'd only get a 2nd home game in the AFC Championship game, and that would take a TN win over both SD and NE. In other words, not going to happen. This is our last chance to play in front of the home-town faithful most likely. Let's take advantage in what will likely be Alan Faneca's last home game as a Steeler.
4) The Weather:
Perhaps a stretch here, but I think the conditions should be more in our favor than they were last time around. Last time we played it was windy, wet and cold at Heinz - perfect conditions for Jacksonville to run it down our throats while limiting the effectiveness of our passing game. This time, the forecast for tomorrow night appears relatively calm. Winds should be minimal, snow is definitely not in the forecast, and there's only a decent chance for rain early Saturday evening during the contest. We're doomed if it's a sloppy slugfest that Roethlisberger struggles to find a rhythm in. Doesn't look like that will be the case.
5) It's Jacknsoville in a big game:
Each year is a new year, but let's face it, this Jacksonville team has struggled in recent memory to win big games near the end of the season or in the playoffs. They've only reached the postseason once in the past 7 years (2005 lost to NE in WC Round), but they've had opportunities to snag a spot in other years and have failed. In 2004 and 2006, Jacksonville came up short despite being positioned to grab a playoff berth in both seasons. Kudos to the GM of Jacknsonville for architecting a team capable of long-term consistency, but I still am not sold on their ability to win big games when it truly counts. Much of that futility came during the Byron Leftwich era though. Garrard has a chance to turn the page on that chapter of Jags' history with a big game this Saturday night.