Who's No. 3?

The Pittsburgh Steelers host the Jacksonville Jaguars at 1 p.m. this afternoon and both 9-4 teams have a chance to clinch a playoff berth.

PITTSBURGH – Since the early weeks of the season, it's been apparent that New England and Indianapolis make up the top tier of the best conference in football.

Today, the Pittsburgh Steelers (9-4) and Jacksonville Jaguars (9-4) play for the honor of becoming the AFC's clear-cut No. 3 team at Heinz Field (1 p.m.).

The teams are similar in style. In fact, the Jaguars came into the league trying to copy the Steelers, who were the class of the old AFC Central Division. The Jaguars have done a pretty good job of it, too, considering they hold a 10-8 series advantage.

The Jaguars beat the Steelers the last two years by turning their physical ideal into reality with a fearsome interior defense and a power running game. Those are the staples they bring to Heinz Field today.

"Their front seven sets the tone and I think everything plays off of them," said Steelers guard Alan Faneca. "Their big guys on the defensive line clog up the holes and mush up the running game a little bit."

But one of those "big guys" is out. Marcus Stroud, a monstrous defensive tackle, was placed on injured reserve this week with an ankle injury.

"He's definitely going to be missed, but they do a lot of rotating with their guys so they could have guys with experience," Faneca said. "Grady's there. He fits that mold with the rest of them – big guys who play physical."

That would be Grady Jackson, who was picked up by the Jaguars earlier in the season after the Atlanta Falcons cut the 11-year vet. Jackson is listed at 345 pounds, but -- like Stroud's listed weight of 310 -- the reality is much heavier.

The Steelers will also be without one of their key run-stoppers, too. Aaron Smith was placed on injured reserve this week with a torn right biceps muscle. He'll be replaced by veterans Travis Kirschke and Nick Eason, with back-up nose tackle Chris Hoke also expected to receive more playing time. The loss of Smith means the loss of a Pro Bowler for the rest of the season.

"He's amazing, just amazing out there," said Troy Polamalu. "He's not only a great football player but a team leader who we'll miss out there. It's a tough position to fill on this team."

Polamalu will be back at his strong safety position for the Steelers, who need a win to clinch a playoff berth. Even if they lose, the Steelers could make the playoffs with losses by both Buffalo and Tennessee.

The Steelers would clinch the division title with a win and a Cleveland loss. And a win would also erase the bitter taste in their mouths from last week's loss to the New England Patriots, which put the Steelers at 2-2 in the last four games.

"It's a big game, not just because it's at home and not just because we can clinch a playoff spot," said Ben Roethlisberger. "Jacksonville is a lot like us. They're physical. It's a challenge for us. Every time we've played them it's been really close. I would expect it to be very similar this week."

Just ahead of the Steelers' third-ranked run offense are the No. 2 Jaguars. They have a veteran offensive line and a pair of explosive running backs in Fred Taylor (944 yards, 4.9 average) and Maurice Jones-Drew (655, 4.5).

The Jaguars' passing game (20th) also ranks ahead of the Steelers' (24th) with first-year starter David Garrard having thrown only one interception this season. His leading receivers are Reggie Williams (31 catches, 17.4 avg.), Dennis Northcutt (39, 12.9), Ernest Wilford (35, 11.9) and tight end Mercedes Lewis (35, 10.1).

The Jaguars' special teams are a threat with the squat, 5-foot-7 Jones-Drew as dangerous as anyone in the league. The Jaguars' punter, Adam Podlesh (36.8 net), was drafted in the fourth round last April, just ahead of the Steelers' Dan Sepulveda (37.6 net).

The teams are so similar in composition and style, it might be difficult to forget they were in the same division from the Jaguars' inception in 1995 until the 2001 season.

"I think we're still in the same division, aren't we?" Faneca asked. "Yeah, we always end up playing them, so there's a lot of familiarity there for us and for them."

And for their place in the AFC pecking order.


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