So, the Steelers did it. They toppled Cincinnati once again circa 2005-2006 season when they went into Paul Brown Stadium and crushed the Bengals playoff hopes. While leaving head coach Marvin Lewis with an 0-7 playoff record and handing their AFC North rivals one of embarrassing postseason loses in recent memory is great, they have an extremely brutal task ahead of them Sunday evening. They’ll look ahead to take down the AFC’s number one seeded, Denver Broncos. Unlike their 05-06 run, the Steelers are not coming into Denver with the same level of optimism. Their Wild Card game has left their roster with a number of bumps, bruises, and questionable injuries to a number of starters. However, if the NFL Playoffs have proven anything over the years its that anything can happen at any given time. Maybe the magic will continue. Maybe history will repeat itself. After all their championship run ten years ago started in very similar fashion.
Ben Roethlisberger vs. Peyton Manning – Interestingly enough this match-up between two HOF quarterbacks may very well be decided by their backups instead. As of this article’s publication Big Ben’s status is still uncertain. While it is expected he’ll play, his arm strength and durability are certainty in question. There’s no doubting the toughness of Ben, but in a game where the Steelers will need to throw the ball his ability to make plays with his arm becomes all the more important. On the other side, the legendary Manning is getting his first start since Week 9 and hasn’t looked like his HOF-self this entire season. While the Broncos comeback win over the San Diego Chargers in Week 17 was thrilling to watch it was hardly because of Gary Kubiak’s decision to put Manning in the game (Manning went 5/9 for 69 yards). The Broncos explosive running game won them the game, but Manning got the headlines. As inspirational and sentimental as a Manning-led postseason run sounds – it unfortunately – is just that. Manning hasn’t proven he can lead this team to win all year. Sure they started off 7-0, but that was hardly because of Peyton (7:11 TD:INT ratio over that span). Yet, when backup Brock Osweiler stepped in for the injured Manning it seemed that the Broncos finally began clicking on offense. Unfortunately, Kubiak is going with the future-HOF over the hot-hand. A decision that may cost the Broncos, but regardless a Manning-Osweiler combo is significantly better than a 50% Big Ben and Landry Jones duo.
Edge – Broncos
Hillman/Anderson vs. Toussaint/Todman – For now DeAngelo Williams is still listed as day-to-day. If he plays, the Steelers would certainly have the edge considering Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman proved to be a very capable duo in the last weekend’s Wild Card game against the Bengals. Toussaint managed 118 yards from scrimmage (58 yards on the ground and another 60 through the air) as Todman rumbled for 60 yards on 11 carries. If the two can manage the same level of production this week along with the return of Williams; well then the Steelers have a potential three-headed monster that could very well carry their offense even with Big Ben’s limp noodle of an arm. Unfortunately, the return of Williams is still a hypothetical, which means the Broncos explosive duo of C.J. Anderson (168 yards and 2 TD the last two weeks of season) and Ronnie Hillman (863 rushing yards and 7 TD on season) are the better options on paper.
Edge – Broncos
Sanders/Thomas vs. Byrant/Wheaton – As of this morning, Antonio Brown has been officially ruled out of Sunday’s game with a concussion (his first game missed since 2012). He is easily the most valuable player in this Steelers’ offense. While Big Ben may drive the car, but Brown’s the fuel for the offense. Without him (and a not-so hundred percent Ben) the Steelers will have a difficult time moving the chains against this secondary. He torched the Broncos in Week 15 for 16 catches, 189 yards, and two scores. He’s a versatile weapon whose absence will surely be missed. His counterparts, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton managed a combined 149 yards on 16 catches during the two teams previous meeting this year. Bryant will need to make a few more acrobatic catches like last week’s, if Pittsburgh plans on piling up any points. Meanwhile, the former Steeler, Emmanuel Sanders nearly matched Brown’s performance going for 181 yards on 10 catches and a score in their regular season battle. His partner in crime, Demaryius Thomas managed to cash in 2 of his 5 catches for touchdowns finishing with 61 yards that game. Both receiving corps are more capable of blowing up either defense, but this one may come down more to the opposing secondaries their facing rather than individual talent and quarterback play.
Edge – Broncos
Miller vs. Daniels/Davis – In their Week 15 game, all three of these tight ends combined for a whopping 21 yards. I highly doubt that all three will have such a feeble impact on the game this Sunday. Heath Miller finished the season with 60 catches, 535 yards, and 2 TD meanwhile the Denver duo combined for 718 yards and 3 TD (this only accounts for Vernon Davis’ 201 yards in a Denver uniform). Tough to call in this one – Manning loves to lean on his tight ends, but Miller has the more impressive pedigree. Albeit, his last postseason appearance hasn’t been since 2013, one cannot ignore Davis’ insane postseason numbers – 27 catches, 600 yards, and 7 TD in 8 games.
Edge – Push
Both defenses implore a 3-4 scheme and both have undersized lineman who use their speed, agility and finesse to attack opposing quarterbacks. This may very well be the most evenly balanced match-up in Sunday’s contest. The Denver trio of Derek Wolfe, Sylvester Williams and Malik Jackson weigh a combined 891 pounds and tallied 13.5 sacks on the season. Whereas the Pittsburgh trifecta of Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and Steve McLendon top the scales just 17 pounds heavier at 908 and muscled up just one more sack (14.5) than the Mile High crew.
Edge – Push
Can’t recall the last time a playoff game featured two of the most ferocious and feared linebackers of their generation in it. Seeing DeMarcus Ware and James Harrison (the two combined for 134 sacks from 2007-2011 and have a combined 66 forced fumbles in their respective careers) in action is something that will bring a smile to nearly every NFL fan’s face while simultaneously bringing a frown to both quarterback’s faces in this contest. With those two gridiron legends aside, this contest really comes down to the middle linebackers. Von Miller’s 11 sacks will certainly add to the Broncos pass-rush, but in a game where both teams will likely look to establish the running game early and often the boys inside will be the X-factors. Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan are not household names outside of Denver, but both racked up over a hundred tackles this season (102 and 109 respectively). However, Lawrence Timmons (119 tackles on the season) may very well be the best middle linebacker in the NFL right now. Not to mention, Ryan Shazier is coming off his best game to date as a pro – 13 total tackles, 2 FF, and a fumble recovery.
Edge – Steelers
What the Steelers’ fans and coaches wouldn’t give to have just one Aqib Talib or even a Chris Harris Jr. for that manner. The CB duo along with safeties T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart helped anchor the number one overall passing defense in the NFL. The Broncos have surrender a league-best 199.6 yards per game, a 60% completion rate, and have held opposing quarterbacks to a 78.8 QBR (quarterback rating) including a 19:14 TD:INT ratio. On the flip side, the lackluster Steelers’ secondary (can anyone outside of the Steel City name their top two corners) ranks 29th in the league. Allowing 271.9 ypg, 64.3% completion rate, and a QB-friendly 90.9 QBR including a staggering 29:17 TD:INT ratio. This one is a no-brainer.
Edge – Broncos
The Steelers’ are one of the best return teams in the NFL averaging 24.2 yards on kick returns and 8.3 yards on punt returns (Denver is averaging 21.8 and 9.8 yards in those categories). Although, the Steelers’ will be without the dangerous return-weapon that is Antonio Brown. The kickers in this match-up are fairly even. Denver’s Brandon McManus went 30 for 35 on the season including a 57 yard long, but he’s never kicked in the postseason. Pittsburgh’s rookie, Chris Boswell finished the season 29 for 32 and is looking to extend his playoff streak of four-straight field goals made.
Edge – Steelers
In a rematch against the league’s number one offense vs. the number one defense, the numbers do not truly favor the injury-riddled Steelers. Pittsburgh is clearly out-matched in terms of overall defensive skill especially between the secondaries. The injuries and absences on offense make matters even worse for the black and gold. Even without a completely healthy Big Ben, the Steelers need DeAngelo Williams if they even want a chance to survive this one. Whether or not fans and NFL analysts want to admit it, the Broncos are a significantly less potent offense with Manning at the helm. The Denver defense was the main reason why they started 7-0, not Manning. That tiny silver ling, could bode well for the Steelers if they can capitalize on potential Peyton turnovers. Add in the factor that Manning is 11-13 in the playoffs, maybe just maybe, the Steelers could pull off a monumental upset. After all, in 2005 no one expected Pittsburgh upset the number one seeded Broncos 34-17. Unfortunately, injuries leave the possibility of a Steelers win in serious doubt.
Final Prediction: Broncos 28 Steelers 14
The rest of the Divisional Games
New England Patriots 21 Kansas City Chiefs 17
I really love the Chiefs and everything they have done this year. I love the fact Andy Reid has managed to pull his team out of a 1-5 start to rally off a present 11-game win streak. I love the fact Alex Smith has a 95.4 QBR rating this season. I love the fact the Chiefs defense held the Houston Texans to under 275 total yards last week. What I don’t love is the probability of the KC stealing their 12th-straight win in Foxborough. Cynical fan or not, a playoff game in Gillette Stadium always carries some level of dissension with it. Controversy withstanding, the one thing you can’t bet against is the Patriots at home – in January.
Seattle Seahawks 28 Carolina Panthers 7
I know, I know Cam Newton has been an absolute monster this season. He’s thrown and rushed for a combined 4,473 yards and 45 touchdowns while leading his team to the best record in the NFL. However, the Seahawks are the defending NFC Champions and if last week’s ugly game against the Minnesota Vikings proved anything – they find ways to win. Playoff experience will be key in this one. As amazing as the Panthers and Newton’s seasons have been (Carolina has a plus-20 turnover margin) I fancy Russel Wilson’s 7-2 postseason record over the young Cam Newton (1-2 in the playoffs).
Arizona Cardinals 18 Green Bay Packers 15
It is extremely tough to win big in the NFL. It is even tougher to win big again against a team you just faced three weeks ago. I don’t expect Arizona to wallop Green Bay 38-8 like they did in Week 16. This game has the potential to be a shootout, but I like a high intensity, defensive battle. Green Bay was able to fire on 3 out of 4 pistons last week versus Washington, but they didn’t look like the Packers of old until the second half. If they manage to start that slow against the Cardinals, they’ll be looking at a long, uphill battle Saturday night. Arizona may be one the most well coached teams in the NFL and Bruce Arians has had an extra week to gameplan for this one . The Cards will sweep the Packers, but it won’t be pretty.