The Pittsburgh Steelers after having to rely on a Bills victory against the Jets in week 17 to even make the playoffs, advance to the divisional round by benefitting from the late fourth quarter collapse of the Cincinnati Bengals. In a bizarre Wild Card matchup that included Ben Roethlisberger exiting and returning to the game, controversial hits, and two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties that put the Steelers in field goal range to win the game in the final seconds. The Steelers survived the ups and downs of their first playoff game much like they have survived the ups and downs of their entire season. After losing star running back Le’veon Bell to first a suspension and then a knee injury, and then losing his replacement Deangelo Williams, as well as injuries to star wideout Antonio Brown the Pittsburgh offense that at full strength is one of the most explosive units in the league may be a liability going against the stingy Denver Broncos defense. The big question for the Steeler offense is if Big Ben will be able to fight through the shoulder injury that took him out of the game last week enough to be effective against the incredible secondary of Denver. The Steeler’s defense is a far cry from the Steel Curtain days of the 70s or even the stout defense under Bill Cowher and they especially struggle agains the pass. The Steeler defense is noticeably better against the run and they will have to continue that trend and make Denver rely on their passing game. Fortunately for the Steelers they are not the only team with a question mark at quarterback coming into this game.
Peyton Manning has had by far the most peculiar season in his career, and despite his high interception total and at time inability to push the ball down the field has led the Broncos to an impressive win loss record as the starter. Due to a foot injury he was replaced by Brock Osweiler who played well enough that many expected Peyton to be the backup going into the playoffs, but after Manning replaced Osweiler in week 17 after three turnovers and led the offense to a victory Manning retook his starting job. Manning has struggled in cold weather playoff games his entire career even before his arm strength began to deteriorate so it will be interesting to see how effective he will be even against a poor Steeler secondary. The Bronco offense has attempted to rely on the running game behind Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson with mixed results, but if they can establish balance and put Manning in manageable third down situations Manning has enough weapons (Thomas and Sanders) to be productive. The Broncos defense deserves the most credit for their number one seeding entering into the playoffs.
The Broncos defense has held their opponents to a league best 283 yards per game and also leads the league in only giving up 199 yards per game through the air. Lockdown corner backs Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. will have a tough task containing Martavis Bryant and Marcus Wheaton but are spared from having to track down star wideout Antonio Brown due to a concussion suffered last week. The Broncos also have an aggressive pass rush led by Von Miller that averages over 3 sacks a game so an already banged up Big Ben will have to get the ball out quickly to avoid further hits in the pocket. This game will come down to which starting quarterback looks the most like their usual self and is able to fight back father time and injury to complete the big third downs to keep drives alive. The Steelers injury plagued offense against arguable the best defense at home will have a tough time sustaining long scoring drives, but if Peyton struggles it may not take that many points to survive yet another playoff game for the Steelers.