At the beginning of the season, Sunday's Denver (10-3) at Pittsburgh (8-5) game looked like a classic matchup. With the game now upon us, there's no doubt it lives up to its preseason billing.
Pittsburgh's second-ranked offense against Denver's top-ranked defense. A game that defines which team is a dark horse contender in the playoffs. Two franchises that have historically dominated the AFC. Okay, maybe this won't be Peyton Manning's last regular season road game, but that's petty.
If the Steelers lose, they will have a tough time getting into the playoffs. At the start of the week Pittsburgh trailed both Kansas City and the New York Jets in tiebreakers, with all three 8-5 teams bidding for two wild card berths.
Yes, there is always the chance the Steelers could win out and 10-3 Cincinnati could completely collapse with AJ McCarron behind center and fail to claim the AFC North title, but conventional wisdom believes no matter what the Bengals do next week against Denver, a quarterback that won a national championship at Alabama will be able to defeat San Francisco and Baltimore and clinch the division.
The Chiefs' schedule also is soft from here on out so realistically, Pittsburgh's hopes for a playoff berth rely on winning out, as tie breakers could eventually give the Steelers an advantage against the Jets.
Denver also has much to play for. If the Broncos win out and New England loses any of its remaining games (Tennessee, New York Jets and Miami), the Broncos will have home-field advantage in the postseason. But beating Pittsburgh isn't vital to a first-round bye, as Denver could still gain one with a victory next week against Cincinnati or against San Diego in the regular season finale.
Denver at Pittsburgh
Kickoff: 4:25 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Spread: Steelers -6
Three Things to Watch
1. Brock Osweiler vs. Steelers' pass defense
There is an old adage that a team cannot win the Super Bowl unless it possesses a quality pass defense. If this is the case then the Steelers are doomed, as they rank 31st in the NFL against the pass.
But is the defense that bad, or is this ranking a result of their style of play? The Steelers' 38 sacks rank fifth, thanks to the gambling style of blitzing first-year defensive coordinator Keith Butler employs.
Strong safety Will Allen leads all NFL defensive backs with three sacks, and last week cornerback William Gay's interception for a touchdown came when he jumped the route on a swing pass. Yes, Gay read the play perfectly, but if he had missed, the pass could have gone for big yards the other way, such as when Cincinnati's A.J. Green was wide open and caught a 66-yard touchdown in the Bengals' 33-20 loss to Pittsburgh.
Now enter the struggling Osweiler, who has not produced a touchdown in his last 23 drives leading the Broncos' offense. Additionally, since taking over for Peyton Manning, Osweiler has been sacked 17 times in 18 quarters, whereas Manning went down just 15 times before a foot injury sidelined him in Week 11.
If any team had a license to blitz in a game, it would seem to be the Steelers. Butler was even quoted as saying he didn't believe Osweiler always knew where to throw the ball.
2. For that matter, Ben Roethlisberger against the Denver pass defense
No quarterback has thrown for 300 yards against the Broncos this season. Roethlisberger is averaging 332 yards through the air per game.
The Broncos have not allowed any team to score 30 points on them this season. The Steelers have scored more than 30 in five straight games.
Something's got to give.
This may be a test of just how good the Steelers' wide receivers really are. When the Broncos held Aaron Rodgers to 77 yards passing in Week 8, they did so by so effectively taking his first read out of the play and then bringing pressure with the NFL's best pass rush, which has collected 44 sacks. So look for quick slants and screens, though the hamstring injury to starting free safety Darian Stewart could give the Steelers the chance to throw deep, something the Packers weren't able to exploit.
3. The running backs
Speaking of screens, if DeAngelo Williams averages just two receptions over the Steelers' final three games (something he has done in five of the six games since since taking over for the injured Le'Veon Bell), he will tie his career high for catches in a season. Not bad for a 32-year-old player who was supposed to be a complementary piece, not the main ball carrier.
But this reveals is how Williams could be a factor in this game. When Seattle's Richard Sherman effectively took Antonio Brown out of the Steelers' offense three weeks ago, Williams caught seven screens and the Steelers still scored 30 points. Williams also could figure to have a big game because Denver run-stopping safety T.J. Ward will miss his third straight game due to injury.
In fact, the Broncos' defense is dealing with quite a few injuries, which will keep several guys from playing while some others are questionable at best. This is all the more reason for Pittsburgh to try to wear out the Denver D by giving the ball to Williams. True, he's been sick this week, but is still listed as probable, and is fully expected to play.
Meanwhile the Broncos, who average 21 fewer rushing yards a game than Pittsburgh, have listed running back C.J. Anderson as questionable with an ankle injury.
The Steelers seem to be peaking at the right time, the Broncos are not. Pittsburgh has the stronger running game, the superior quarterback, and have more to play for. The Steelers are likely playing their final home game even if they do make the playoffs and they won't leave the Heinz Field faithful disappointed.
Prediction: Steelers 26, Broncos 20
— 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.