Divisional Weekend wraps up in Denver on Sunday afternoon, where the artist formerly known as Peyton Manning and the League’s best defense will attempt to hold off a hobbled Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers. Here we go.
Pittsburgh Offense vs. Denver Defense
The Steelers were able to win the regular season matchup between these two teams thanks to transcendent performances from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown. Roethlisberger and Brown are far and away the two best things about this Steelers team. The unfortunate reality for Pittsburgh and their fans is that Roethlisberger will be playing at much less than 100% after separating his throwing shoulder against the Bengals and Brown has been officially declared out for the game after failing to clear the League’s concussion protocol.
Without Brown and a fully healthy Roethlisberger, it’s hard to see where exactly the points are going to come from in this game. Denver’s secondary is plenty good enough to cover every receiver the Steelers are prepared to throw at them. Cornerback Aqib Talib has dropped off since his brilliant first half, but he is up to the task of covering Martavis Bryant. To make matters worse, the Steelers will still be relying on backups Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman to carry the load in the running game. Toussaint and Todman performed admirably in the wild card round against Cincinnati, but Denver’s run defense, anchored by defensive tackle Derek Wolfe, will offer a much more imposing challenge.
The Steelers have found success this season largely by abandoning the defense-first style that is their franchise’s trademark. Their dynamic, high-scoring offense is the reason that they’re in the Playoffs to begin with. With injuries to so many key players that make that offense work, it’s a great surprise that their key to Playoff advancement is on the other side of the ball.
Denver Offense vs. Pittsburgh Defense
Gary Kubiak was hired as Head Coach in Denver this offseason to introduce more of a running-based offense to help bring down the mileage on Peyton Manning’s arm so he could still be effective this time of year. The problem with running a run-heavy scheme in this game is two-fold: the Broncos’ offensive line stinks, and the Steelers are actually very good at stopping the run. Problems on the offensive line will also figure into the passing game where outside linebacker James Harrison will be looking to make life difficult for Manning against a well-overmatched Ryan Harris.
The big cloud of mystery that’s going to hang over this game is what kind of performance we’ll see from Peyton Manning. Pittsburgh’s biggest defensive weakness is the talent level in their secondary. Denver wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders have been good at getting open for Manning and backup Brock Osweiler all season.
This game comes down to whether or not Manning can successfully get them the ball. He won’t have to be the near-perfect Manning of old, but he will have to be good. More importantly, he needs to not turn the ball over. Manning’s 17 interceptions this season were the most in the NFL until he was passed in Week 17. That’s a remarkable stat not just because this is Peyton Manning we’re talking about, but also because Manning only played in 9 games. In this game that figures to be low-scoring, few things have the potential to kill Denver’s chances than giving the overmatched Pittsburgh offense a short field. Every point is going to be vital in this game and Manning and ill afford to be giving any away.
What a Pittsburgh Win Looks Like
Ben Roethlisberger loses his goddamned mind and somehow manages to pass for 300 yards while evading the best pass rush in football. Pittsburgh’s defense is able to put pressure on Manning, who throws three interceptions, killing whatever chance Denver may have had at a rally. The Denver running game is taken out of the game completely. Manning looks a lot more like the guy he was in the first half of this season than the guy he was in the first half of last season. Denver’s offense is completely punchless, held under 10 points. Pittsburgh wins the kind of Playoff game that makes you question how the winner of this game gets a spot in the AFC Championship.
What a Denver Win Looks Like
The Denver run defense routinely stops Toussaint and Todman at the line, forcing numerous third and long situations where Roethlisberger has to throw downfield. The secondary holds coverage long enough for the pass rush to make quick work of their overmatched opponents and dole out punishment to an already hobbled Roethlisberger. The run game never gets going the way Kubiak would like it to, but Manning recaptures some fraction of his old glory. He throws for 250 yards and two touchdowns, doing just enough to ride a dominant defensive performance to a low-scoring but comfortable win.
It’s very difficult to figure out where Pittsburgh’s points are going to come from in this game. The most obvious place is Peyton Manning having the game from hell and handing them the ball either in field goal range or very close to it. Based on what we’ve seen from Manning this year, that isn’t a totally farfetched hypothetical, but Denver’s defense has routinely been good enough to save Manning against teams better than this iteration of the Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger will play valiantly, but the injuries in the offense around him will prove too much. Broncos win.