STEELERS (-7) over Jaguars (Over 41): The opening third of Pittsburghs season was prime early-season Steelers taking good teams seriously (the Vikings and Ravens), while sliding by the Browns on the road, stumbling in Chicago, then reaching their seasonal nadir vs. Jacksonville, when Ben Roethlisberger threw five picks, losing 30-9. With play time over, the Steelers stuffed the Chiefs (as always) in Arrowhead, and lost only to the Patriots the rest of the way.
All looks well and many of the nations seasoned Steelers observers are positioning themselves for a comfortable final result. Jacksonville has followed a similar bizarre path this season, rising from the scrap heap with their vastly improved defense to win 10 games and the AFC South title, but were wholly unimpressive in a narrow escape from the clutches of Tyrod Taylor and the Bills last week in as unartistic a performance as weve endured in years.
The Jaguars will now be taken with the utmost seriousness by Steelers Nation. Our prime concern was the same problem Pittsburgh set themselves up for in the 2007 season when Roethlisberger took Week 17 off, and with a 16-day idleness gap before the wild card, threw three picks and lost to David Garrard and the Jags as home dogs. Ben now has had 20 days between his last action and Sundays business. If the Steelers are right and ready to win at least one more for the late Dan Rooney, theyre more than capable.
Despite his relatively slow release, Jaguars QB Blake Bortles enjoys mobility advantages which could provoke grief for the home side, so long as Bortles doesnt go pick-prone. Doug Marrone has enjoyed a solid maiden voyage coaching this outfit and VP of football operations Tom Coughlin has sustained previously earned respect.
One potential Steelers distraction would be the midweek observation from key RB LeVeon Bell that he could be reluctant to accept the franchise tag from Pittsburgh for 2018. Running backs are as sensitive as any skill-player type, given the short longevity projections for so many, based on wear and tear. Wideout Antonio Brown (off torn calf muscle) participated in Saturdays walk-through and, barring a setback, expect hell see game action.
VIKINGS (-5) over Saints (Under 46 ): The seasonal Saints sweep of the Panthers was no surprise for those who have observed the league closely this season. Blessed with Drew Brees presence and a meaningful depth of skill people on offense, New Orleans exploited their advantage in weaponry before the home folks, though they had a difficult time putting the Panthers to bed after establishing a lengthy lead. Now they must travel a long way, against a side which has quickly established the dominant habit of stifling visitors who havent enjoyed the advantage of close observation of Minnesotas clever defensive act twice a year. Coach Mike Zimmer has been operating out of a lesser media center, but those familiar with his stifling stop unit are well aware of what havoc it wreaks.
Under Zimmer, U.S. Bank Stadium has not been a nice place to visit for ambitious visitors, and you certainly wouldnt want to live there. Only the Lions have escaped with a win. The likes of the Saints (in Week 1), Ravens and Rams all failed, which doesnt bode well for New Orleans prospects in this repeat engagement that, and the fact the Panthers were the only indisputably good outfit the Saints defeated on the road, all season.
Give the Saints fair marks for not getting blown out away from the Superdome but the Vikings are the NFC squad nobody wants to face, and with the black-and-gold looking to compete with considerably less than the full deck of starters with which they started the season, Sean Payton, Brees and Co. could be staring at a regression and it wouldnt take much of one to cause a three-hour misfire against the Purple Gang. Pat Elflein is expected back under center for Minnesota, though Saints guard Andrus Peat is just the latest major season-ending injury to strike these star-crossed visitors.
Last summer, the Vikings may not have planned to have Case Keenum starting at quarterback this season but given Saturdays activation of QB Sam Bradford, it seems logical to assume Bradford (rather than Teddy Bridgewater) will be first to take over, should Keenum get sidelined.
Last week: Sides: 2-2 (Chiefs, L; Falcons, W; Bills, W; Saints, L).Over/Unders: 4-0.
Follow Richard Witt on Twitter: @rich_witt1