Cleat Geeks

How Jacksonville @ Pittsburgh Foreshadows the Future of the AFC

The NFL’s greatest defensive powerhouse in the Jacksonville Jaguars will make their return to Heinz Field on Sunday afternoon to go face to face with the most decorated NFL franchise in the Super Bowl era. The Pittsburgh Steelers look to do a little bit better job of defending their home turf than the last time they hosted the cats. In a forgettable week 5 match-up, the not-so Steel Curtain defense allowed rookie Leonard Fournette to scamper for 181 yards and 2 touchdowns en route to a humiliating 30-9 loss. On the flip side of the ball, Ben Roethlisberger threw a handful of interceptions while Leveon Bell was limited to just 47 yards on the ground. The game was so bad, Roethlisberger tossed out the idea of retirement in the post game presser. Pittsburgh has since rebounded tremendously closing out the season with 10 wins in 11 games. The Jaguars meanwhile finished as the 3 seed in the AFC, and they have already put together a playoff win. With both teams riding success into this week’s rematch, how might this game shape the future of the AFC?Image result for afc

Should Jacksonville complete their season sweep in the Burgh, the future of the Steelers organization is difficult to read. As far as Big Ben goes, his career very well may be over. In his 13 completed seasons (he’s in the middle of his 14th), Roethlisberger has outlived New England in the playoffs only three times (2006, 2009, 2011). With Peyton Manning retiring after Super Bowl 50, the path seemed to have been paved for consecutive Brady-Big Ben AFC title match-ups over the next 3-5 years. That path coming to a dead end in year 2 might be the writing on the wall for Ben. An additional presence like the Jaguars in the AFC title hunt could chase Ben off the field and onto the couch. But the uncertainty doesn’t stop with Roethlisberger; Leveon Bell is the biggest wild card in this deck. There is absolutely no telling what is to come next for Bell if the Steelers fold their 13-3 record in their first postseason game. Earlier this week there have been reports that he will contemplate sitting out of the NFL next season or even officially retiring if the Steelers place the franchise tag on him this upcoming off-season. Bell has expressed his distaste for the franchise in a number of different fashions, and a premature exit at the hands of the historically awful Jaguars might just be the last straw for Bell. The fog that would surround 7 and 26 could lead to a colossal collapse of one of the most prestigious organizations in the National Football League.

Who might benefit from this collapse? The teams that would most greatly appreciate a Steelers downfall would be the Jaguars, Chiefs, Raiders, and Ravens. Between the drama that would surface in Pittsburgh and the drama that is surfacing in New England, the availability of a first round playoff bye would expand tremendously. The Jaguars seem to be the next big thing in the AFC, and the Chiefs have proven to be play-off contenders over the previous few seasons. Like Jacksonville, Oakland is one of the most talented young rosters in the conference. Their record wasn’t too hot this season, but their division isn’t very young. In a few years the Raiders could return to their 2016 dominance. In regards to the AFC North, the Bengals and the Browns are dealing with repetitive struggles, so it would appear that the Baltimore Ravens could take over the division with little competition.

Should Pittsburgh come out on top Sunday, the Blake Bortles experiment is absolutely finished. Jacksonville’s defense is highlighted by a quartet of All-Pros and is talented enough to win a Super Bowl given an offense that performs at a level that is at least decent. If Bortles proves that he can’t play at an at least decent level of play-off football, his starting days will have expired. This roster is too talented for the front office to monkey around with Blake’s inefficiencies. A loss to the Steelers would urge VP of football operations Tom Coughlin to cut the cords on Blake and advance in a different direction. There are plenty of better quarterbacks in the NFL who would love to live in Florida and play with the best defense in the league behind them. One quarterback in particular is a free agent this upcoming off-season and goes by the name of Kirk Cousins. Football fans dream about Eli Manning finishing his career on a good Jaguars team, but Cousins is much younger than Manning and has a far higher ceiling. This positional upgrade could lead the Jaguars to become a consistent AFC championship contender and even bring the Lombardi trophy to place it has never resided before.

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Who might benefit from a Steelers victory? The answer could turn out to be Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben is already a first-ballot Hall of Famer with a pair of Super Bowl rings and a top 10 rank among the most passing yards/touchdowns in NFL history. If the Steelers win Super Bowl LII, Ben Roethlisberger will join the exclusive list of Tom Brady, Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, and Troy Aikman as the only quarterbacks with 3+ rings. Joining that list would then elevate Roethlisberger into the conversation of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game. There is more work to be done after Sunday for that to happen, but defeating the Jags would be a big step in the right direction.

The AFC playoff picture moving into the next couple seasons wouldn’t change much with a Steelers win. An appearance in the AFC title game may be able to keep Roethlisberger and Bell around an extra year or two, but those ties are wearing thin regardless. Whenever number 7 retires, Pittsburgh is going to experience a brief identity crisis. This window will allow a new AFC North team to make some noise in the playoffs. The longer Roethlisberger’s career lasts, the more time that Cleveland and Cincinnati have to stock up on talent and try to collect some momentum from season to season. Outside of the North, the Jaguars would still be the likely heir to the first round bye. They are full of young talent and are a franchise built for the next 5-10 years. Any playoff experience is good experience for these guys no matter the final score. Winning Sunday’s match-up is imperative for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and I’m going to predict that they understand the circumstances and let it all hang out. Give me the Steelers by a touchdown.

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