Contact CUI Independent Sports Writer and Copy Editor at Jared.Funkbreay@colorado.edu and follow him on twitter @jaredfunkbreay
The Steelers are coming to town. After Pittsburgh nearly derailed Denver’s season in a 34-27 victory on Dec. 20 at Heinz Field, the Broncos went from the possibility of missing the playoffs to winning their last two games and securing the AFC’s top seed.
Injuries have decimated Pittsburgh, with star wide receiver Antonio Brown being ruled out after a concussion he suffered last week in Cincinnati, as well as running back DeAngelo Williams from a previous injury. Ben Roethlisberger also has a bum shoulder and is still questionable for Sunday. It goes without mentioning the Steelers lost Pro Bowlers Le’Veon Bell and Maurkice Pouncy earlier in the season too. Sunday’s game will mark the first time in NFL history a team plays a playoff game without its leading regular season receiver and runner (Brown and Williams).
The divisional round game offers a smorgasbord of interesting matchups and storylines that are enhanced with it being the playoffs. Writer Jared Funk-Breay analyzes what to expect for Broncos fans in two parts: logically and emotionally.
Saying there is any “logic” to what plays out in the NFL playoffs is a bit silly. See: Seahawks vs. Vikings last week. But there’s aspects of this Sunday’s game that will be fascinating to watch. Let’s get into it.
If there is such a thing as a bad matchup for the No. 1 defense in the league, the Steelers offense is it. The Denver “D” has the luxury of getting pressure on the quarterback with elite pass rushers like Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. Blitzing isn’t necessary to get sacks. At the same time, the Broncos have two of the best lockdown corners in the league in Chris Harris and Aquib Talib out wide, and second-year defensive back Bradley Roby, who often covers the slot receiver, has stepped up as well.
To emphasize how absurdly good this defense has been, it ranks first against the pass AND third against the run. On paper there is no real weakness.
Back to the Steeler offense. Ben Roethlisberger stands in the pocket as well as any quarterback, and that’s what especially hurt Denver its previous game against Pittsburgh. His height and strength make him unique in that he is able to avoid pass rushers better than anyone in the league. Roethlisberger is famous for escaping the hands of defenders and improvising his way to a big play—often off of his back foot or at an awkward angle. He’s helped lead Pittsburgh to the league’s third-ranked offense that averages 26.4 points per game.
Offensively, there is really no other way to beat the Orange Crush than for a quarterback to stand in the pocket, take a beating, find a receiver in single coverage and drop in an accurate pass. Colts quarterback Andrew Luck was able to do essentially this in a victory over Denver earlier this season, but he paid for it. Nearly every time he threw, a pass-rusher hammered Luck just as let go of the ball. Luck has missed the rest of the season with a lacerated kidney and an abdominal tear. It’s going to take that kind of gutsy performance from Big Ben for the Steelers to win, and he has proven he’s capable in the past.
The biggest difference in Sunday’s rematch from the previous one will be the absence of Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown. He proved he could dominate Denver when he had 16 catches, 189 yards and two touchdowns back in December. Behind Brown, Martavis Bryant and Marcus Wheaton are still solid receivers who can make big plays, but the Denver secondary will be able to breath a little easier knowing the man who torched them won’t be playing.
Don’t expect a complete shutdown of the Steeler offense. Pittsburgh is still going to get its big plays, but scoring 34 points again won’t happen—not only because of the injuries (keep in mind starting safeties T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart weren’t playing in December) —but also the change of venue. Sports Authority Field at Mile High should be rocking and cause the Steeler offense problems.
The biggest wildcard is if Roethlisberger plays. If he isn’t out there you can throw everything out the window. It’s hard to see how backup Landry Jones could get the offense going anywhere. But expect Big Ben to come out firing. He’s one of the toughest players in the league, and if there’s any way he can suit up, he will.
Luckily for the Broncos, the Pittsburgh defense has been spotty this season, even looking terrible in some stretches when giving up 39 and 35 points to the Seahawks and Raiders respectively. The Broncos were able to put up 27 points in the first half against the Steelers previously, but a lackluster game plan had the offense sputter with zero points in the second half.
Unfortunately for Denver, its offense has been pedestrian all year, still waiting for a game where everything comes together and clicks. Contrary to what some are suggesting, the key to Sunday’s game will not come down to how Peyton Manning throws the ball (unless he costs Denver the game with interceptions a la against the Chiefs), but rather if the Broncos can get the running game going. C.J. Anderson has been battling injuries all year, but when healthy he has proven to be one of the most explosive running backs in the NFL. Just ask New England. Ronnie Hillman is serviceable, but doesn’t posses the power and elusiveness of Anderson. Denver can win without a huge game from him, but if Anderson is able to burst out for a big game it would be a huge advantage.
While Manning’s reentry into the offense over Brock Osweiler was dramatic in the comeback win against San Diego in the last week of the regular season, Denver shouldn’t look to him as a savior. The Broncos don’t need Manning to be his old self and throw for over 300 yards—although it wouldn’t hurt. His leadership and ability to diagnose defenses will be his greatest asset come Sunday. The defense should be able to hold Pittsburgh to a reasonable amount of points, which should keep the pressure off the offense.
Some of us love watching the game for the X’s and O’s and the strategy of it all. But even those who are stat geeks are also often seen screaming at their televisions, hugging friends after wins and hanging heads in defeat. And that emotion will be amplified this Sunday. It’s the playoffs. Hearts are going to be broken.
So what is at stake for the psyche of the Broncos fan base? A lot. A loss would tear the Rocky Mountain faithful’s hearts to shreds. Denver is 1-3 in its last four divisional games—the feeling of an early playoff exit is a familiar one. It would be especially painful because the Broncos are becoming huge favorites at home, largely because of Pittsburgh’s depleted roster. Denver is a seven-point favorite in Las Vegas.
On the other hand, a win would set up something grand. A rematch with either the Patriots or Chiefs, two of Denver’s biggest rivals, would be an epic battle for a chance to play in the Super Bowl. Like finishing the first movie of a trilogy, a win against the Steelers would be a stepping stone to something even greater.
In the last matchup, Steeler offensive lineman Cody Wallace had a late hit on Bronco safety David Bruton Jr. It’s safe to say Denver hasn’t forgotten. Darian Stewart has said Wallace is “going to be sore after the game, that’s how I see it.”
So other than the obvious motivation Denver already has to win a playoff game, getting revenge from the Steelers for beating them last time and for what Wallace did only enhances the incentive. The Broncos fell to the Colts last season because they overlooked them for the Patriots, as some players have openly admitted. That won’t happen this year. If Denver loses, it’ll because it puts out a poor performance. The Broncos will be as prepared as they can be.
The Broncos and Steelers have a rich playoff history, with the last installment being a 29-23 Denver overtime victory in 2011 led by Jesus Christ—I mean Tim Tebow—and his 316 passing yards. The Steelers dealt Denver a crushing blow in the 2005 season when they took down the No. 1 seed Broncos in the AFC championship game, en route to Big Ben’s first Super Bowl. But in 1998, John Elway up ended the Steelers, which helped give him and the Broncos their first Super Bowl title.
Coming back to the present, fans should keep in mind that even without a recent championship, Denver is experiencing its most consistent success it’s ever seen. The Broncos have won five straight AFC West titles. Previously, they never had more than two in a row. Without the ridiculous run Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have been on since 2001, Denver’s recent play would probably be seen as more incredible accomplishment (the evil empire has won seven AFC East titles in a row and 12 of the last 13). What better way to cap off an incredible run than with the Broncos’ first Super Bowl Title in 17 years, sending one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history off into the sunset?
Prediction: Broncos 29-23 OT (Dejà vu all over again?)
Trying to guess who is going to win is inherently a stupid thing to do—the fun of watching sports is not knowing. So take every prediction, every betting line and every hunch with a grain of salt, including from this guy. But I’ve got it at 29-23 in OT. Logic says the Broncos should win by a wider margin, but that’s just not how the Broncos roll. Denver hasn’t beat anyone by more than 7 points in its past nine games, and I don’t expect that to change come Sunday against a scary Steelers team even with all the injuries. The Broncos have shown a tendency to do just enough to win this year, point differential and pretty-looking games be damned. Denver won’t be perfect, but it’s worked out all right so far.