As late Saturday night turned into Sunday morning, James Harrison stood at his locker inside the New England Patriots locker room and made an audacious series of claims. Harrison said he will not watch the Pittsburgh Steelers, the team he began this season with and departed from amid great hostility, play the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday. “I don’t even know when they play,” Harrison said.
That would be one thing. Harrison continued. He not only said he would be watching Cartoon Network rather than the game that would determine the Patriots’ AFC championship game opponent. He also declared he would not even know who won the game until Monday, when he arrives at Gillette Stadium for work.
“I don’t pay attention to sports,” Harrison said. “If my kid is not playing, I’m not watching. If it’s not film studying, I’m not watching. This is my job. I like to get away from my job.”
Harrison’s inattention to his old team will make him an outlier in the football universe. Since the summer, the prospect of a Patriots-Steelers rematch in the AFC title game has enticed. The anticipation for a possible matchup only increased in the fall, as New England and Pittsburgh emerged as the clear-cut cream of the AFC. It reached fevered levels in winter, when the Patriots and Steelers played the game of the regular season, a 27-24 Patriots victory that came down to a reversed touchdown and a shocking interception in the end zone.
The Patriots fulfilled their half of the equation Saturday with the 35-14 beatdown of the Tennessee Titans. The Steelers are up Sunday, playing at home against the Jaguars, the upstart winners of the AFC South, who have a ferocious defense that frequently must not only support, but overcome, the play of its quarterback, Blake Bortles.
Most any neutral NFL fan is rooting against an upset so the football world can feast on another helping of Pats-Steelers with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. The Patriots, of course, would not tip their hands. But if they are being honest, they would come to a contrarian conclusion: The Jaguars, not the Steelers, pose a larger challenge to them.
The presence of Bortles and the Steelers’ track record makes the statement seem crazy on its face. But what would worry the Patriots about the Steelers? The Patriots know they can beat the Steelers, because they always do. Ben Roethlisberger has lost his last four games against New England, playoffs included, and hasn’t beaten the Patriots since 2011.
It’s true that the Steelers have been handicapped in their past two losses to the Patriots, losing Le’Veon Bell early in last year’s AFC title game and Antonio Brown during this season’s meeting. The Steelers also outplayed New England until the zany sequence at the end of their regular-season game. Still, the Steelers coming into New England is a movie we have seen before, and we know how it ends.
The Jaguars, even acknowledging Bortles, are a more dangerous threat to New England. There is no reliable blueprint to beat Tom Brady, but the best bet is to pressure him with a sudden rush up the middle and lock down receivers on the outside. It’s what Miami did in a Week 14 upset. The Jaguars play like Miami, just with better personnel.
Their interior rush, led by defensive player of the year candidate Calais Campbell, is perhaps the best in football. Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye will allow scant separation on outside receivers. Jacksonville’s linebackers, especially Myles Jack, are fast enough to give Dion Lewis and James White resistance in catching passes out of the backfield.
The Jaguars would be severe underdogs against New England, of course, and against most teams, Pittsburgh would be the tougher matchup. But the Jaguars’ strengths align perfectly with the best way to give yourself a chance to beat New England. Even acknowledging the implausibility of Bortles winning in New England, Jacksonville would have a better shot to scare the Patriots.
While New England didn’t play Jacksonville during the season, they do have history with the Jags. The Patriots and Jaguars practiced together for three days during training camp, before the Jaguars turned from a laughingstock to a division winner. In hindsight, Patriots players say they are not surprised.
“The cool thing about this game is, we practiced against Jacksonville,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said. “It’s two teams we’re kind of familiar with. No matter what, we’ll prepared and ready to go. We thought [the Jaguars] were a good team. We battled, hard practices together. So I’m not surprised they’re a good football team.”
“They’re so talented,” Patriots special teams captain Matt Slater said. “They’ve got a young, talented team with some really gifted football players. They’re trying to do things the right way it seems like, with their leadership and their coaching. So we’re not surprised at all that they’re still in this thing.”
If the Steelers avoid an upset Sunday, the hype surrounding Pats-Steelers will be turned up by the presence of Harrison. All season, Harrison seethed about his limited role and agitated for his release, reportedly going so far as to fall asleep in positional meetings. When the Steelers released him, former teammates savaged him, with Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey saying Harrison “erased his legacy.”
Playing Pittsburgh would mean “no more, no less than it would to play anybody else,” Harrison said. “They can say what they want to. That’s their opinion.”
Harrison, if he is to be believed, will find out if he’ll play Pittsburgh on Monday. Everybody else will be hanging on during the game.
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