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AFC Divisional Round Preview and Prediction: Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Denver Broncos

Peyton Manning

Peyton Manning

It is becoming increasingly difficult to determine if Sunday evening’s AFC Divisional playoff matchup between the Pittsburgh Steelers (11-6) and Denver Broncos (12-4) is a football game or hospital drama.

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Much like the Broncos on Dec. 20 were when they were without four players, most notably quarterback Peyton Manning, unable to play due to injury; the Steelers suffered serious injuries to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown in their 18-16 wild-card victory at Cincinnati last week. Roethlisberger sprained his throwing shoulder and revealed this week he also has torn ligaments while Brown sustained a concussion and was ruled out by the team early Friday morning.

To add insult to those injuries, the Steelers also will be without their leading rusher DeAngelo Williams, who is still not ready to return from the foot and/or ankle injury he suffered two weeks ago against Cleveland. This will mark the first time in NFL history that team will play a playoff game without its leading rusher and receiver from that season, according to Elias. Not the kind of history Pittsburgh fans were hoping their team would make.

Takes away from the drama of the AFC’s best offense (Pittsburgh) taking on the NFL’s top defense (Denver), doesn’t it? A playoff game is always important, but this game truly holds the legacy of the franchises in the balance.

It’s well known the Steelers have the most Super Bowl victories in history (6). This season they also became the most prolific playoff participant since the AFL-NFL merger with their 28th appearance, and if they can reach the Super Bowl, it will be for the NFL-record ninth time.

Denver has played on Super Sunday seven times. If the Broncos earn a trip to Santa Clara, Calif., they will tie Pittsburgh, Dallas and New England as the Super Bowl’s most prolific attendees.

Individually, the only thing that has prevented Manning from receiving more “Greatest Quarterback of All-Time” recognition has been his performance in big games (Tracy Porter INT in Super Bowl XLIV , 11-13 career playoff record, 0-4 against Florida in college). But if the Broncos win the Super Bowl behind Manning, he’d be 14-13 in the playoffs and have two rings, eliminating most of this criticism.

Furthermore, this will be the eighth meeting between the two teams in the playoffs, which ties Bears-Giants and Cowboys-Rams as the most common playoff matchup. The Broncos lead the all-time postseason series, 4-3, where the meek (Eric Williams, Tim Tebow, Merril Hoge) have often become the hero.

AFC Divisonal Round: Pittsburgh at Denver

Kickoff: 4:40 p.m. ET (Sunday)

TV: CBS

Spread: Broncos -7

Three Things to Watch

1. The quarterbacks are Manning and Roethlisberger. Why don’t these teams want to throw?

In the Steelers’ case, it’s because nobody knows how well Roethlisberger can pass. After being temporarily knocked out of the game by Vontaze Burfict last Saturday, Roethlisberger returned to lead the Steelers to victory in Pittsburgh’s final drive, but struggled throwing the ball downfield.

At one point, facing 3rd-and-7 at their own 37-yard line with just 32 seconds remaining, the Steelers decided to run a draw play with third-string running back Fitzgerald Toussaint.

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Head coach Mike Tomlin said on Tuesday the Steelers were open to everything, including activating third-string quarterback Michael Vick. Don’t look for Roethlisberger to start unless he legitimately can throw the ball downfield for an entire game. A quarterback of his stature is not relieved unless he is injured.

While it doesn’t bode well for the Steelers if backup Landry Jones starts, the Steelers were able to overcome a 17-point deficit against the Broncos less than a month ago when they changed their defense from zone coverage to man, confusing quarterback Brock Osweiler and shutting out Denver in the second half. If Jones starts, the possibility of confusing the Denver defense with multiple quarterbacks arises, although the passing game will be missing its primary target in Antonio Brown.

Manning, 39, faces many of the same arm strength questions Roethlisberger does. Manning earned praise for his relief performance against San Diego in the season finale, yet completed just five of his nine attempts for 69 yards, leading to speculation if Manning has really reclaimed his throne or if Osweiler’s sprained MCL is the real reason for the switch.

After all, Manning was the quarterback most likely to throw an interception in 2015, hurling 17 of them in fewer than 200 attempts against just nine touchdown passes.

2. The running games

Because of the questionable status of the quarterbacks, both teams may try to play a possession game.

Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson combined to rush for 1,583 yards this season, but the running game failed to shine Dec. 20 against the Steelers, unable to protect a 17-point lead in a 34-27 loss with no player rushing for more than 48 yards.

Despite playing with third-stringers Toussaint and Jordan Todman, the Steelers surprisingly gained 169 yards on the ground against Cincinnati, the highest total of any of the eight teams playing on Wild Card Weekend.

With Williams set to miss another game, look for Todman to get on the field on running downs but Toussaint when the situation calls for a pass. Todman averaged nearly six yards on his 11 carries last week, and while Toussaint wasn’t as impressive, he’s considered the better blocker and caught four passes.

The key player to watch may be Broncos inside linebacker Brandon Marshall, who famously intercepted Roethlisberger to give Denver hope late in the 34-27 loss to the Steelers. The Steelers’ offensive line was effective in taking out linebackers against Cincinnati, and if Marshall can’t get to the ball carrier on Sunday another unlikely player, in this case a backup running back, could prove to be the star as has happened so often when these teams meet in the playoffs.

3. The pass rush

Denver led the NFL with 52 sacks this season. Pittsburgh had 48 to place third.

Clearly both teams will blitz often. Luckily for Manning and Roethlisberger they have two of the quickest releases in the NFL. However, they also finished second and third in total interceptions thrown this season.

Don’t look for much deep passing, especially with Brown not playing.

Final Analysis

The Steelers are banged up and a shell of themselves on offense. The Broncos are rested. For Pittsburgh to win, Peyton Manning will have to struggle. Are you really going to bet against Manning playing for his legacy against the 30th-ranked pass defense in the NFL?

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Prediction: Broncos 23, Steelers 16

— Written by Marky Billson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. An experienced beat reporter and sports writer, Billson began contributing to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2000. He has covered the Steelers, Pitt Panthers, MLB and more during his career. Follow him on Twitter @MarkyBillson.