Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos (-6)
The Pittsburgh Steelers (11-6, 5-4 road) will travel to meet the Denver Broncos (12-4, 6-2 home) on Sunday (4:40 p.m. Eastern) with a trip to the AFC Championship Game on the line. But after an injury-riddled Wild Card win over Cincinnati, it’s unclear which of their stars will be able to suit up.
Already playing without All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell, plus back-up DeAngelo Williams, the Steelers shocked Cincinnati last weekend (18-16) in a game that saw quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (shoulder) and wide receiver Antonio Brown (concussion) leave due to injuries. Roethlisberger was able to come back for the game-winning drive, but was limited in his ability to throw down field. Both are questionable for Sunday.
The Broncos have injury concerns of their own, but the biggest one, quarterback Peyton Manning, looked relatively good in Week 17, and now has had another two weeks to rest.
Pittsburgh coughed up a 15-0 lead in their Wild Card win over the Bengals, but saw a Willis Reed-like return of Roethlisberger spur a penalty-aided final drive to set-up the game winning field goal in the waning seconds.
Six weeks ago, Pittsburgh was the team that no one wanted to face in the playoffs. The squad was finally getting healthy and the offense – especially the passing game – looked unstoppable. (Though Roethlisberger missed four regular season games due to injury, he still managed close to 4,000 passing yards and 21 touchdowns.) That enabled the Steelers to finish third in the NFL in passing, and fourth in points scored (26.4).
But the team limped to the finish line – losing to Baltimore and looking subpar against Cleveland in their last two – and barely qualified for the post-season. The defense, which has been up and down all season, had to come to the rescue in the Wild Card round. The unit was 30th against the pass in the regular season but limited Bengal QB AJ McCarron to just 212 yards on 41 attempts. (Of course, all the rain helped.)
All told, the Steelers went 3-4 against other playoff teams this year and 8-7-2, overall, against the spread (4-4-1 on the road).
Whether Manning can take advantage of Pittsburgh’s usually porous pass defense is a big question mark. He played the second half of Denver’s Week 17 win over San Diego. But that was his first action in six weeks and he attempted just nine throws, completing five for 69 yards. In reality, it was the run game that led to the win over the Chargers. Ronnie Hillman and CJ Anderson combined for over 200 yards and two majors on the ground.
Before exiting a loss against Kansas City in mid-November, Manning had thrown for nine scores this season with 17 picks and managed only 6.8 yards per attempt, the lowest since his rookie year in the league.
The Broncos won the AFC West because of defense. The team allowed 18.5 points a game, fourth best in the NFL, and finished number one against the pass and number three against the run. Incredibly, the team won 12 games despite a negative turnover margin.
Two of the Broncos four losses came against playoff teams, (29-13 against Kansas City and 34-27 against Pittsburgh). Against the Steelers, Roethlisberger rallied Pittsburgh from a 27-10 deficit, throwing 55 times for 380 yards and three scores including two in the fourth quarter.
Denver beat five playoff teams this year and went 8-6-2 against the spread (3-5 at home).
It feels like that the Steelers gave everything they had last weekend. How much gas they have left, and what condition their players are in, is highly questionable. Even if Big Ben can play, he’ll be limited in his throws and will be hounded by Denver’s league-leading pass rush (52 sacks. Manning has been mediocre at best all year, but he is usually at his peak when well rested.
Pick: Denver (-6).
(Photo credit: Jeffrey Beall (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.)