I watched the Steelers and Jaguars get it on last night in a classic NFL throw down. It was the most intensely physical game I’ve seen this year. The outcome was not surprising. These two teams have battled for the better part of a decade. The games are always physical. The Jaguars won because they were better last night. Period.
The Steelers lost because they were unable to move the ball and demonstrate offensive continuity. The Jaguars defense had as much to do with that as the return of QB Ben Roethlisberger. The national media believes they may be witnessing something significant with respect to the demise of the Steelers. What is significant, however, is the rise of the Jaguars. I have been disappointed in the past by the Jags. I picked them to beat the Patriots in the playoffs last year. The Jags, however, did what the Steelers did last night. David Garrard had led the Jags to a number of late season wins and into the playoffs following an injury to Byron Leftwich. As the big game approached against the Pats, Jack Del Rio elected to go with Leftwich. He has a huge arm and the coach felt his starter game him the best chance to win. Cowher did the same thing last night in choosing to Roethlisberger.
There is one other dimension. As much as it may hurt to get shut out and lose a conference game, it is far more important that the Steelers win a DIVISION game against the Bengals in Pittsburgh. It is important that Roethlisberger get back into the mix as soon as possible. This year, the Steelers will be sure to get every team’s best game of the year. Exhibit A: the Miami Dolphins. The Steelers, having played at Jacksonville, will also go to San Diego (they won there last year); to Atlanta (they tied in Pittsburgh a few years back) and to Carolina (by which time, Steve Smith will probably have returned to a hungry, desperate team). The Steelers conclude their season at Carolina, home against the Ravens and on the road in Cincinnati.
That’s how big NEXT WEEK’s game is…that’s the context for starting Roethlisberger this week. Last year, the same level of hype was thrust upon the Indianapolis Colts after they beat the Steelers…it was Roethlisberger’s first game back from injuries originally suffered weeks before in San Diego. The Steelers lost, but left a blueprint for defending Manning and company in the second half. I will remember Jacksonville’s inability to punch the ball into the endzone last night as much as anything. I expect to see them again in December or January – and I expect the outcome to be different.