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The AFC playoff rematch will involve Peyton Manning this time.
He’s back. Peyton Manning will return to the NFL gridiron Sunday night at 8:20 p.m. EST on NBC, as the Denver Broncos host the Pittsburgh Steelers in a much-anticipated matchup that could set a regular-season ratings record. The four-time MVP quarterback has recovered from multiple neck surgeries and will try to lead Broncos back to the playoffs, where they ended the Steelers season a year ago. Pittsburgh will be extremely motivated to revenge that painful 29-23 overtime loss, while Denver will have to adjust to Manning on offense and new coordinator Jack Del Rio on defense.
When the Denver Broncos have the ball:
We all know what Manning can do when healthy, but it will be interesting to see how long it takes him to develop chemistry with receivers Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas. The good news for No. 18 is that he will have quality offensive line and running game for the first time in almost a decade. Veteran runner Willis McGahee should take some pressure off Manning while the passing game develops.
The Steelers defense ranked No. 1 in the NFL last season, giving up the fewest yards (271.8 per game) and points (14.2 per game) in the league. However the heralded Pittsburgh unit played its worst game of the season in the playoff loss to Denver, as intrepid coordinator Dick LeBeau faced rare criticism for his scheme in that game. It will be a different challenge against Manning, and the Steelers will be without the services of safety Ryan Clark (his sickle cell trait is a higher risk in Denver’s elevation) and linebacker James Harrison.
When the Pittsburgh Steelers have the ball:
Ben Roethlisberger will be the focal point of the Pittsburgh attack once again, and he has two 1,100-yard receivers in Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown. Big Ben will need better offensive line play after being sacked 40 times last year, but he also needs to get rid of the ball quicker. The Steelers run game is a question mark with top back Rashard Mendenhall still recovering from a knee injury, so expect to see both Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer tote the rock.
The Broncos defense will look for more consistency this season, and that will start by trying to force more turnovers. Denver only had 18 takeaways last year, compared to 28 for Del Rio’s old club in Jacksonville. The good news is that the Broncos can get to opposing quarterbacks, with pass rushers Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil combining for 21 of Denver’s 42 sacks in 2011.
The adjustment to new players and coordinators will be critical on Sunday night. Manning’s rhythm passing usually takes a couple of games to get going, and Del Rio brings a new voice to the Denver defense. The Steelers have a new offensive coordinator in Todd Haley, and the defense will miss Clark and Harrison. But in a low-scoring affair, we’ll take the Pittsburgh defense to rebound in Denver and lead the way to an emotional win.
Steelers 20 Broncos 17
---By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)