Loss to Steelers could spoil Jags' playoff plans
A loss to the Steelers on Sunday could put a crimp in Jacksonville's playoff plans, John Clayton writes.
Despite being on the verge of an AFC wild-card berth with a 9-4 record, the Jaguars fear that a loss to the Steelers on Sunday could put their playoff run in jeopardy.
If the Jaguars do lose, the Browns could tie them for the No. 5 seed if they beat the Bills. To make matters worse, a loss to the Steelers would be great incentive for the Titans, who play in Kansas City on Sunday. If the Titans win out, they would hold the playoff tiebreaker over the Jaguars if Jacksonville finishes at 10-6 because of a better conference record. So the Jags must take care of business in Pittsburgh.
It won't be easy.
The Steelers match up well against the Jaguars. Jacksonville's strength is running the ball, but it's a given the Steelers will try to take away the run and force David Garrard to win the game through the air. Garrard has proven he is good enough to do that, but the Steelers' defense is a tough challenge. Despite getting shellacked by the Patriots in Week 14, the Steelers have the league's No. 1 defense statistically and rank second in pass yardage defense.
Heinz Field should neutralize one of the Jaguars' main offensive weapons. Josh Scobee is an accurate field goal kicker, but the tricky turf and swirling winds at Heinz destroy opposing kickers. Pittsburgh kicker Jeff Reed knows how to work in those conditions.
Of course, the Steelers feel their own pressure. They haven't shaken the Browns in the AFC North, and the Chargers are chasing them for the No. 3 seed.
Expect a physical game even though both defenses are ailing. The Steelers will miss defensive end Aaron Smith, who went on injured reserve this week. The Jaguars have lost defensive anchor Marcus Stroud to the injured reserve list, and linebacker Mike Peterson and defensive end Reggie Hayward won't play because of injuries.
Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio and defensive coordinator Mike Smith have done amazing work keeping the defense together despite adversity. Smith has risen in coordinator circles by being able to anticipate correctly on early downs and make the right calls.
But the pressure will be on Sunday. If the Jaguars lose, it could be "code red" in Jacksonville.
1. Buffalo at Cleveland: With the Bills at 7-6 and the Browns at 8-5, this has the feel of the NCAA basketball play-in game, but the stakes are much higher. Both teams are competing for the AFC's final wild-card spot, although the Browns have an outside chance of getting back into the AFC North race. For the Browns, this could be a celebration. Coach Romeo Crennel might have been fired if the Browns had faltered in their three AFC North home games in September. Instead, they won two of three and are on the brink of making the playoffs as the league's surprise team.
Bills coach Dick Jauron has done an equally amazing job. Despite being among the league leaders for missed games because of injuries, the Bills are in the hunt. Trent Edwards has solidified the quarterback position despite being a rookie. Marshawn Lynch is among the league's top rookies. But Jauron continues to fight obstacles. His offensive coordinator, Steve Fairchild, is set to leave at the end of the season to become Colorado State's head coach. Jauron must keep his team focused on its most important game of the season.
2. Chicago at Minnesota: Six weeks ago, Vikings coach Brad Childress wasn't the toast of the town. Except for the running of Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor, the offense was stuck in neutral. Tarvaris Jackson appeared to be over his head as starting quarterback. A hard-hitting defense seemed to be playing for naught. Now, the Vikings have a great chance to make the playoffs, and a victory over the Bears on Monday night can put them in the driver's seat.
Although he isn't asked to throw much, Jackson is developing into an efficient quarterback. Opponents can't stop the Vikings' running attack, and Minnesota's defense is becoming one of the most feared in football.
At 5-8, the Bears are thinking about next year and aregiving Kyle Orton a chance at quarterback.
3. N.Y. Jets at New England: The weather will be nasty for what could be the most anticipated blowout of the season. Shortly after 11 a.m., stadium maintenance workers began to remove parts of the tarp from the Gillette Stadium field. The temperature was in the low 30s with what Weather.com called a "wintry mix,'' which is a nice way of saying sleet and snow with a wicked mix of wind (17 m.p.h., gusting to 33 m.p.h.).
In their first meeting, of course, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was caught spying and lost a first-round pick and a big chuck of money. Since then, Belichick has gone unbeaten and is willing to run up the score whenever possible. It's not a matter of the Patriots winning this game. The question is how badly the Patriots will beat the Jets and how much they will be willing to run up the score. This is a payback game.
4. Detroit at San Diego: After a 6-2 start, the Lions are falling apart. They have lost five in a row. Hopes of a 10-win season ended in Week 14, and now the Lions face the possibility of a 10-loss season if they don't turn things around quickly. Players are frustrated. Quarterback Jon Kitna is beaten up. The offensive line continues to struggle. The defense can't stop anyone. And now they face a Chargers team coming off a great come-from-behind victory over the Titans on the road.
Chargers QB Philip Rivers is usually pretty sharp at home. The Chargers are gaining momentum and it's unlikely they will suffer a letdown at home. Though two of their best defensive players -- Shawne Merriman and Luis Castillo -- are injured, the Chargers expect to win, clinch the AFC West title and then begin getting ready for the playoffs.
5. Washington at N.Y. Giants: The Giants are one win from locking up a wild-card berth and certainly would love to share the moment with their fans. Give coach Tom Coughlin credit. If he gets the victory, it will mark the third straight season he has led the Giants to the playoffs.
The Redskins come to town refreshed after a tough two-week stretch in which they've dealt with the tragic death of safety Sean Taylor and the loss of quarterback Jason Campbell to a knee injury. Backup QB Todd Collins knows the offense, but he will be facing an aggressive defense that loves to blitz and bring pressure. Collins isn't as fleet of foot as Campbell and could have trouble against the rush.
6. Arizona at New Orleans: The loser of this game can probably forget about the playoffs. The winner probably doesn't have much of a chance, either. The Cardinals are coming off a 21-point loss in Seattle that frustrated them. Quarterback Kurt Warner struggled with five interceptions and the running game never got going.
The Saints weren't challenged on Monday night by the Falcons and simply want to finish the season strong. Aaron Stecker did a nice job running the ball even though he doesn't have the skills of Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister. He's a no-nonsense, workhorse-type of back, but the offense is geared around Drew Brees' arm.
7. Seattle at Carolina: Now that Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren accomplished his main goal of winning the NFC West, he can concentrate on the little things as he gets ready for the playoffs. He changed deep snappers because the timing of his kicking game was off due to bad snaps. He's trying to get better production out of his running offense, particularly struggling Shaun Alexander. Holmgren would like to finish the season with three more wins and has a chance to do that; Seattle is playing the Panthers, Ravens and Falcons in the final three weeks.
The Panthers are playing for pride -- and to save coach John Fox's job. If the Panthers lose, they will have a 1-6 record at home, which doesn't sit well with the fans.
8. Atlanta at Tampa Bay: The Falcons are trying to move forward after first-year coach Bobby Petrino left on Tuesday to take the Arkansas head coaching job and Michael Vick received a 23-month jail sentence on Monday. Although players may have welcomed Petrino's departure, it's going to be hard to give their best effort at the end of the season, although everyone's performance is being reviewed.
The Bucs must feel lucky. They have QB Jeff Garcia back after missing two games with a sore back. A victory will give them the NFC South title. They get the Falcons at the right time.
9. Tennessee at Kansas City: For weeks, the Titans had the edge in the race for the AFC's final wild-card spot, but now they are in trouble with a 7-6 record. They have fallen behind the Browns and need a break to stay in contention. They should be able defeat the Chiefs (4-9), even though Kansas City is a tough place to play.
Thanks to Albert Haynesworth, Kyle Vanden Bosch and others, along with a great scheme, the Titans have a fierce defensive line that will give trouble to a banged-up, struggling Chiefs offensive line. This could be a tough day for Chiefs quarterback Brodie Croyle.
10. Indianapolis at Oakland: The Raiders have the toughest closing schedule in football, playing three teams with a combined 28-11 record. The Colts are the toughest challenge of the three-game slate that includes the Jaguars and Chargers.
As much as the Raiders must worry about Peyton Manning, they must be more worried about running back Joseph Addai. The Raiders are giving up 150.4 yards a game on the ground, and they close against attacks featuring some of the best runners in the league. Though the NFL may be a passing league this season, the Raiders' downfall might be stopping the run, and they could easily finish 4-12.
John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. National columnist Gene Wojciechowski in Foxborough, Mass., contributed to this column.