JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Pittsburgh Steelers used to be the ultimate litmus test for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Now, they're just another in a series of struggling teams on the schedule.
It's a turn of events that seems to trouble the Jaguars (10-1) as much as it does the Steelers, one that has left a strange emptiness to the short week leading to tonight's meeting between the AFC Central rivals (8:15 p.m., ESPN).
"I don't know why they're having the kind of season they're having," said Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin, almost as if he were talking about an ailing relative. "That's a very proud, dignified franchise who is going through some growing pains. They've always been the team by which we judged our team. We've always used them as the benchmark."
This season, however, the Steelers haven't been anybody's gold standard.
They're 5-6, going through an awkward quarterback change that will have Mike Tomczak starting in place of Kordell Stewart. Stewart has become Slash again, a backup wide receiver with a $27 million contract.
Coach Bill Cowher's job future has become the source of daily speculation.
Meanwhile, mention of the playoffs, a yearly expectation in Pittsburgh, brings only empty comments about taking them one game at a time.
"All we're trying to do is get a win," running back Jerome Bettis said. "We can't really worry about the playoffs and all that, because it doesn't make a difference if you can't win a football game. We're just focusing on winning a football game."
Cowher concedes the atmosphere has been unusual.
"We've lost a lot of close football games and we're in a position that a lot of people around here have never been in before," he said. "The good thing about it is we're playing a game so quickly, we don't have a whole lot of time to sit and dwell on anything."
The Jaguars are trying to keep the reasons they should fear the Steelers foremost in their minds.
They have the NFL's fifth-ranked defense.
They're trying to avoid their first sweep by Jacksonville in the five-year history of the rivalry.
Tomczak was effective, throwing for 264 yards and two touchdowns, when he entered in relief of Stewart last week in a 27-20 loss to the Bengals.
"That's a wounded animal, so you know they'll have some fire," said Jaguars receiver Keenan McCardell. "We know we're going to have to play a complete game to beat Pittsburgh. Nothing has changed for us. It's still Pittsburgh. We can't fall asleep on anybody down the stretch."
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