By: Oscar Rzodkiewicz, @ORzodkiewicz on Twitter
The public likes Pittsburgh in its postseason matchup Sunday, but everybody may be getting ahead of themselves.
The Pittsburgh Steelers sit as a 7-point favorite against the Jacksonville Jaguars for their AFC Divisional Round game this weekend, and with rest, home-field advantage, and talent on their side, betting on the Steelers seems like a low-risk move compared to other contests of the NFL weekend. However, as unnecessary comments from Steelers’ players continue to surface, Pittsburgh fans could be looking at a rougher Monday morning than anticipated.
It was only a few short months ago when the Jaguars traveled to Pittsburgh in Week 5 of the regular season and laid a beat-down to the tune of 30-9 on a rattled Steelers team at Heinz Field. Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger infamously threw five INT–over one-third of his season-total 14 picks–and zero TD as criticisms began to fly in the face of Pittsburgh’s offense.
Jacksonville’s defense has quickly become nothing to sneeze at, ranking second in points allowed (16.75 per game), yards allowed (286.1 per game), and turnovers created during the regular season behind breakout seasons by young stars like DB Jalen Ramsey and LB Myles Jack, as well as offseason signings like DE Calais Campbell and S Barry Church.
The Steelers’ offense has clearly rebounded since their loss at home to the Jaguars, finishing the season 10-1 and securing the second seed in the AFC playoff picture. After that loss, Roethlisberger threw for 22 TD and 7 INT on over 65% completion to close out the year, while RB Le’Veon Bell tallied 1,431 total yards and 6 TD in his final 10 games of the season.
The high praise behind Pittsburgh’s justified offensive attack has led to an obvious confidence from the Steelers internally and from the fans, leading many to already be looking ahead at a potential AFC Conference Championship contest against the New England Patriots.
No sane player would say it outright, but the sense that some members of the Steelers’ locker room feel dismissive of the Jaguars looms. Steelers’ S Mike Mitchell said in an interview with SI’s Greg Bishop published earlier this week, “We’re going to play [the Patriots] again. We can play them in hell, we can play them in Haiti, we can play them in New England…We’re gonna win.”
Mitchell seldom shies away from the podium and boasts a reputation as an outspoken voice for the Steelers. Mitchell’s attitude may just be an extension of his confidence for the team, and it’s not fair to say that Mitchell is overlooking Sunday’s game.
However, in a realm far outside the boundaries of the football field came Bell’s bizarre musings of his contract situation for next season. Bell told ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler that he is prepared to sit out or even retire if he is franchise tagged again next season. Bell said, “I know what I do and I know what I bring to the table. I’m not going out here getting the ball 400 times if I’m not getting what I feel I’m valued at.”
Contract issues with Bell are not new for the Pittsburgh Steelers, as Bell but the timing of these comments is troubling. Admittedly, Bell walked back some of his assertions by taking to Twitter, saying, “I’m trying to win a super bowl…I can care less about what happens after this season.”
I’m trying to win a super bowl…I can care less about what happens after this season…my biggest thing I’m focused on is this team I’m on right now, playing for/with my brothers, & bringing back a 7th ring! what happens next year is irrelevant to my goals
— Le’Veon Bell (@L_Bell26) January 11, 2018
Regardless of the validity of Bell’s comments, three days before a playoff game seems like a less than ideal time to share thoughts over contract extensions and value.
The Jaguars don’t exactly seem to care about the Steelers’ possible lack of focus. In an interview on Thursday, Jacksonville’s Ramsey was asked if talk of a Patriots-Steelers rematch felt dismissive of the Jaguars, responding, “when do they play?”
At the end of the day, the only important factor of the AFC Divisional Round matchup between Pittsburgh and Jacksonville is the final score, but questionable remarks from players and an ostentatious vibe from Pittsburgh’s fan base could lead to some 20/20 hindsight. The Jaguars proved earlier this season that they will not roll over to public perception, and if the Steelers get too comfortable like it seems they could be, Jacksonville will not wait to take advantage of the opportunity.