Jacksonville @ Pittsburgh (+2.5) - Saturday, 8:00 pm EST on NBC
Welcome to January. (From here.)
Game 2 tonight will be in the wind and rain (possibly) of Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. Weather.com says 44 degrees and 50% chance of precipitation at game time. (Just as an aside, it also says 46 degrees and 100% for Seattle.) So what does a cold, rainy game mean for these two teams? Nothing we didn't already expect.
Jacksonville is going to run the ball. And when they're done doing that, they're going to put Jones-Drew in and run some more. And after that, Fred Taylor gets another few carries. And after all that, Gerrard will drop back to pass... and then scramble for yet another rush. They were 2nd in the NFL with 149.4 yards per game, behind only MIN. I would be surprised if JAX throws more than 20-25 times unless they fall behind very, very early. They finished the year at a very mediocre 218.4 yards per game passing. Jack Del Rio is an old school coach with an old school team (which is modeled on all the old Steeler teams) that run and play tough at the line. No gimmicks, no surprises. Line up and mash the ball. Perfect January-in-Pittsburgh game plan.
Pittsburgh is finally getting healthy, with the major exception of Fast Willie Parker. His abscence is probably the biggest factor in the game. This season, they were 3rd in rushing at 135.5 yards per game, just behind JAX. I still expect PIT to mash the ball for the most part, but I think Big Ben will have to throw the ball a lot more than Tomlin might like. They finished just behind JAX (again) at 213.6 yards passing per game.
Defense is where the two separate themselves. PIT was outstanding against the run, allowing 3rd best in the NFL 89.9 yards a game rushing, where JAX was 11th at 100.3. In the passing game, PIT was an outstanding 3rd at 176.5 yards per game and JAX was 15th at 213.5 yards per game. PIT gave up 16.8 points per game, JAX gave up 19.0. They both get to the QB (37.0 sacks for JAX, 36.0 for PIT) and both win the turnover battle, according to SP's wicked awesome chart (hat tip: Redskinette), JAX at +9 and PIT at +3.
Both seem just about the same on special teams. JAX has given up 2 KO returns for a TD, PIT 1 while JAX gets 10.1 yards per punt return, PIT 3rd worst at 6.1. Neither team has had a punt blocked, but JAX only gets 14 of 54 punts inside the 20, while PIT gets 28 of 68 so field position might play a key.
What it comes down to for me is that JAX healthy and playing well. PIT has been struggling lately, and their defense has looked average. The return of Polamolu helps because he is the piece that makes or breaks that defense. But JAX's running game is going to be too much, especially in the weather. No Parker really, REALLY hurts PIT's chances. I'd say homefield would help PIT, but JAX went in there and destroyed PIT a few weeks ago, so the advantage is minimal.
I am concerned with Gerrard making his 1st playoff start tonight. Big Ben has proven himself in January, so I expect him to make some big plays. The thing with Gerrard is he doesn't make any mistakes (QB rating of 102.2, good for 3rd behind Big Ben and Brady, with only 3 INTs and 2 fumbles lost) so if he continues that tonight, they should do fine.
The Week 15 score of 29-22 was a bigger win than the score would suggest, with 15 of PIT's points coming in the 4th quarter. I have faith in Ben (QB), Del Rio (Coach), JAX running game, and PIT's defense. I think this would be a different game if Parker was healthy (I keep going back to that) so I gotta take JACKSONVILLE and the points. I think it'll be close, but JAX just seems too tough for the Parkerless Steelers to beat right now.
The rest of the games are as follows (again, lines from Friday's Yahoo! Sports lines):
Sunday, 1:00 pm EST on FOX - NYG @ TB (-3)
Sunday, 4:30 pm on CBS - TEN @ SD (-9.5)
Let me know what's wrong and what I missed. Sincethebeginning, what does DVOA say here? (You and SP are much better at those stats.) What do y'all think, PIT or JAX?
I'll try to get a post up on the Sunday games. I'm a fan of trilogies.