AFC Championship: Steelers vs. Broncos

The AFC Championship on Sunday is Denver's game to lose rather than Pittsburgh's game to win.

Records: Pittsburgh 13-5, Denver 14-3

Site: INVESCO Field at Mile High in Denver

Kickoff: 1 p.m. MST


SEASON RECAPS: The Broncos have won five games in a row and and eight of their past nine. They have been consistent all season with only one bad loss on their record – the 34-10 embarrassment at Miami in their season opener. The Steelers enter the game with six consecutive victories, but haven't been as consisently dominant as the Broncos in 2005. Pittsburgh has been a streaky team, with a four-game winning streak and a three-game losing streak earlier in the season. But the Steelers are hot now.

COMMON OPPONENTS COMPARISON: Vs. Baltimore - Denver defeated the Ravens 12-10 in Week 14; Pittsburgh split the divisional series with the Ravens, earning a 20-19 win in Week 8 and dropping a 16-13 decision at Baltimore in Week 11. Vs. Jacksonville - Denver defeated the Jaguars 20-7 in Week 4; Pittsburgh lost to the Jaguars 23-17 in Week 6. Vs. New England - Denver defeated the Patriots 28-20 in Week 6 and beat them again 27-13 last week in the divisional playoff round; Pittsburgh lost to the Patriots 23-20 in Week 3. Vs. San Diego - Denver swept the divisional series with 20-17 and 23-7 wins; Pittsburgh defeated the Chargers 24-22 in Week 5. Denver is 6-0 against common opponents, including playoff competition; Pittsburgh is 2-3.


Denver offense vs. Pittsburgh defense: Denver's offense is second in NFL in rushing and 18th in passing. Pittsburgh defense is third against the rush and 16th against the pass. This is an almost equal matchup in terms of what the personnel can do against each other. Big plays will tip the balance to either side and it will be up to the stars to guide their team to a successful day. Denver's key to winning this matchup will be establishing a running game to give room for Jake Plummer to move out of the pocket and get the Steelers out of their defensive comfort zone. The key for Pittsburgh is to blitz as much as possible and eliminate Denver's short game. EDGE: Even.

Pittsburgh offense vs. Denver defense: Pittsburgh's offense is fifth in the NFL in rushing and 24th in passing. Denver's defense is second against the rush and 29th against the pass. This is another instance where the units are strong against the run and weak against the pass. If Ben Roethlisberger remains in his role as a consistent manager of the offense and running backs Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis pound the ball, the Steelers will be able to wear down the Broncos' defense. Denver is capable of capitalizing on mistakes by the Steelers, so the key is for Pittsburgh to play error-free football and avoid turnovers. EDGE: Steelers.

Special teams: One thing that was really noticeable in last week's game against New England was the Broncos' ability to win the battle of field positoin and put the Patriots in an unfavorable starting position. The Broncos have done an excellent job in putting their opponents into uncomfortable deep territories. The Steelers have been more consistent in field-goal kicking (82.8 percent to the Broncos' 75 percent). The Broncos have been hot winning the battle of field position and that gives them a slight edge here. EDGE: Broncos.

ANALYSIS: This game will be very close and it could come down to the final possession. In almost all of the personnel battles, the Steelers and Broncos are almost equal in strength. Both teams also have a lot of momentum coming in and a lot of fire and energy. So it's going to come down to who makes the plays in a battle of equal opponents to determine which team goes to Super Bowl XL. Expect a lot of running, because that's what both teams do best. Denver has a distinct advantage playing at home - where the Broncos are 9-0 this season, and winning three consecutive playoff road games will be too much for the Steelers to accomplish. The Steelers will make it interesting, but this is Denver's game to lose rather than Pittsburgh's to win.

PREDICTION: Denver 17, Pittsburgh 16.

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