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Steelers have all the playoff motivation they need right in front of them

At times during the regular season, there were reasons to question the Steelers’ motivation and preparation. But now Pittsburgh has a chance to settle the score in a must-win game versus a foe that embarrassed them in Week 5 at Heinz Field.

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ Week-5 defeat at the hands of the Jacksonville Jaguars likely ranks as the low point of an otherwise successful 2017 season. It was a game in which the Steelers’ offense appeared to play directly to the strength of the Jaguars’ defense, while Ben Roethlisberger had one of his worst performances as a pro, with five interceptions, two of which were pick-sixes. At the same time, the Black-and-gold defense allowed Jags’ running back Leonard Fournette to break loose for 181 yards, with about half of those yards coming on a 90-yard, game-clinching TD run late in the fourth quarter.

As they prepare for the rematch at Heinz Field on Sunday, that October 8th thrashing before their hometown fans at Heinz Field is foremost in the minds of every player and coach in the Steelers’ organization. The loss was a difficult pill to swallow, not only because of the 30-9 final score, but also because the Jaguars are one of several teams the Steelers played this season whose starting quarterbacks are somewhat less than stellar. In Week 5, the Jaguars won handily despite the fact that Blake Bortles passed for only 95 yards and zero TDs. Regardless of the merits of Jacksonville’s defense, that’s an offense that simply shouldn’t beat a team of Pittsburgh’s overall talent.

Given the added motivation of avenging their worst defeat of the season, there’s no doubt that the Steelers will be better prepared this time around. In their past three games, the Jaguars have played some of their worst football of the season. In Week 16, they lost to the lowly San Francisco 49ers by the score of 44-33. Then, on the final week of the regular season, they lost an error-filled game to the Tennessee Titans which might have been the most abysmal example of professional football—on the part of both teams—that we’ve seen in many years.

Topping off their dismal threesome, the Jags prevailed against a Buffalo Bills team with a largely impotent offense, despite scoring only 10 points of their own in the AFC Wild Card Game. Once again, Bortles was underwhelming, passing for a scant 87 yards and a quarterback rating of only 58.6. In fact, Bortles gained more yardage running out of the pocket against the Bills (88 yards) than he did throwing the ball.

Thus, the big stage is set for a Steelers team which, despite its impressive 13-3 season record, has dominated only in a handful of games this season. Sunday’s matchup at Heinz Field presents a golden opportunity for the Black-and-gold to prove that their October debacle was nothing more than an anomaly—one of those games that invariably occurs from time to time, but certainly not indicative of the team’s true capabilities.

Given Jacksonville’s recent, mediocre performances in crucial games—plus the consistently below-the-line play of their quarterback—Sunday’s playoff matchup also presents an opportunity for the Steelers to remove any lingering doubts that they’re a team apart from the dismal pack of AFC contenders who made watching the Wild Card games a mostly forgettable experience.

There comes a time in every NFL season when a team faces its moment of truth—a time to discover whether performance can meet expectations. Through the ups and downs of the 2017 regular season, Steelers Nation has held steadfastly to the conviction that this team we’ve counted on since training camp would ultimately emerge to seize the day.

The first of those crucial days arrives on Sunday in the friendly confines of Heinz Field. The Jaguars are betting they can pull off two upsets in the Steel City within the course of a single season. But their odds of success in this quest seem particularly long because—this time—they’ll face a Steelers team well prepared both physically and mentally to meet the challenge ahead.