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Preview of the Pittsburgh Steelers-Denver Broncos playoff game

Everything anyone needs to know about today's Steelers-Broncos playoff game in Denver.

MEMORABLE SERIES MOMENT

Broncos 24, Steelers 23

Jan. 7, 1990: Mile High Stadium

Ten-point underdogs, the 9-7 Pittsburgh Steelers were off an upset win over the Houston Oilers when they came to Denver for the second round of the playoffs to face the 11-5 Broncos and their 29-year-old quarterback John Elway. The Steelers got off to 10-0 and 17-7 leads behind the rushing and receiving of fullback Merril Hoge and the quarterbacking of Bubby Brister. The Boncos tied the game in the third quarter on a 37-yard touchdown pass to Vance Johnson, but Gary Anderson kicked a pair of field goals to put the Steelers back on top, 23-17. The Steelers even got the ball back with 11:32 left in the game, picked up a first down and were a yard short of another. They punted back to the Broncos and Elway drove them for the go-ahead touchdown with 3:30 remaining. The key play was a second-and-inches pass to Johnson over Rod Woodson for 36 yards. With one last chance from their own 20, the Steelers' Mark Stock dropped a pass, Brister threw incomplete to Louis Lipps and Brister fumbled the third-down snap to end the game. It will be remembered as Hoge's greatest game with 120 yards rushing on 16 carries and an additional 60 yards on eight receptions.

TALE OF THE TAPE

"They run the outside zone really well, and that's not a surprise. It's (Gary) Kubiak, Alex Gibbs. That was their bread-and-butter with the Texans and prior to that with Mike Shanahan and the Broncos. The Steelers are better stopping the outside zone today because they play more of a penetrating defense. So you stop the run on first down and you get them in second-and-long and third-and-long situations. Peyton (Manning) doesn't have the arm anymore. He's just kind of dropping it in. For him to get anything on the ball, he's got to hitch into his throws and that's going to be harder with this offensive line because all of them give up a lot of penetration. Stephon Tuitt and Cam Heyward were getting a great push the last time they played these guys, especially Cam. It looks to me like Peyton is much more confident throwing to his right. He does a better job of it. He hitches into his throws. So you want to make sure you get in his face. Don't give him a place to step up because he's got to double-hitch to get his body torqued to get the ball out and to where it needs to be. They run a ton of checkdowns and a ton of screens. They probably run more tight end screens than anyone I've seen so far. That's what you've got to watch." -- Steelers Radio Network analyst Tunch Ilkin.

TOP QUESTION

Can Manning muster one last hurrah the way Terry Bradshaw did in 1983 against the New York Jets?

Let's go double Tunch today (actually, triple Tunch since he played in the aforementioned 1990 game in Denver) for this answer, since he played in Bradshaw's final game. "I don't think Manning has the arm that Brad did at that point," said Ilkin. "I think Peyton's issue is nerve damage and I don't think the nerve is firing because he just can't get anything on his throws. He's throwing w-a-a-a-y early."

THREE QUESTIONS: With SS Will Allen

Q: Logically, we can deduce that you can play up in tighter coverage because Manning's arm isn't what it used to be. What's your response to that?

WA: "Um, who's making that logical deduction?"

Q: Me, your average, 50-something sportswriter.

WA: "A guy who's not on the field."

Q: Right.

WA: "You can take that and it means nothing. He's had about three or four weeks off now. He's held up and he's going to come out firing that ball. He's going to try to shock the world. We've just got to be ready for it."

GAME BREAKDOWN

What to look for from the Steelers at 4:40 p.m. at Denver:

ON OFFENSE

Ten years ago, when the Steelers shocked Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in the playoffs, the Colts had the same home-stadium edge with their pass-rushers that the Broncos have today. So the Steelers came out passing on first downs. That should be a surprise to the Broncos just as it was 10 years ago to the Colts because Antonio Brown is out and Ben Roethlisberger has a wounded wing. Come out throwing to Markus Wheaton and Heath Miller short, with screens to Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman, maybe back them off with a deep ball to Martavis Bryant or Darrius Heyward-Bey or Sammie Coates, and then try to get the running game rolling.

ON DEFENSE

Regardless of what Allen said in the above interview, the Steelers need to shut down the run with their penetrating linemen against the outside stretch plays -- as they did in the previous meeting -- and put it all on Manning and his 39-year-old arm. The Steelers should gamble with tighter press coverage from their DBs against Emmanuel Sanders and the beastly Demaryius Thomas. That's the risk worth taking today. Make Manning prove he has some arm strength left before backing off.

PREDICTION

In the last 35 years, the Steelers have been underdogs of seven points or more in six playoff games. They won two of those games and came close enough to cover the pointspread every other time, with the exception of the Dan Marino Dolphins in the 1984 AFC Championship Game. I feel this wounded Steelers team (+8) is game enough with quality depth in place at both receiver and running back. I also believe Roethlisberger will rise to the occasion and overcome the arm pain to find a way to win. It's not that much of a stretch considering how bad Manning has looked since late in the 2014 season. Steelers, 19-17.

BY THE NUMBERS

33: Hoge's jersey number is now worn by Toussaint.

71.7: Manning's passer rating in his last 16 games, dating back to November 2014.

71.9: Blaine Gabbert's career passer rating.

5: Number of passes completed by Manning in the last 60 days.

4: Home starts by Manning this season, in which he's thrown one touchdown pass and eight interceptions.

DOWNLOADS

* The weakest link on the Broncos' offensive line is right tackle Michael Schofield, who's allowed nine sacks, eight other QB hits and 41 QB pressures this season. His final pressure led to Brock Osweiler's second interception in the finale against San Diego. It forced Coach Gary Kubiak to replace Osweiler with Manning and Schofield with Tyler Polumbus in the second half and the Broncos rallied for a win. Broncos fans thought they had the problem at RT fixed, but Kubiak announced his intention to go back to Schofield in a move that must remind Steelers fans of Antwon Blake and the left cornerback position.

* The biggest problem posed by the Denver defensive front in the Dec. 20 game at Heinz Field wasn't so much the pass-rushing combo of Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware as it was big defensive tackle Malik Jackson, who had two sacks for 18 yards in losses. The 6-5, 293-pounder was one of the reasons the Steelers could rush for only 23 yards on 17 carries. "He's a long guy. He can push the pile. He's very quick with his hands," said Steelers RT Marcus Gilbert. "With a guy like that, we have to get a body on him, maybe even double him. That whole front five, whatever they rush with, is very special. That's why they're the No. 1 defense in the league, No. 1 run defense in the league."

* An inactive Manning signed autographs for the first row at Heinz Field for about 30 minutes when the Broncos visited in December. But when a kid handed Manning a Terrible Towel, Manning dropped it. "I think it's wrong for me to be signing their towel," Manning told the Denver Post. "That's reserved for Bradshaw, Ben, Swann, Franco and Stallworth. That's their towel."

* Broncos safety Darian Stewart missed the last meeting, as did sidekick T.J. Ward, but both will be in the lineup today. Stewart even comes with a warning for Steelers center Cody Wallace, who was flagged for an extra-late hit on Stewart's replacement David Bruton. "We're going to get him between the lines," Stewart told the Denver Post. "He's going to be sore after the game. That's how I see it. He comes out on a screen, he better not come at [me]. I'm cutting him. That's where I'm at with it."

* Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips on Wallace: "“Cody Wallace, we had him in Houston. Cody is a good person. I know he knows that he made a mistake. We just go on from there. We’re going to play the right way. I think we’ve learned to do that this year with this team as far as personal fouls and after the play. I don’t expect anything but clean football from our team and from their team. Cody is the kind of guy where I don’t think it’ll happen again with him. It hasn’t happened since then. Knowing him personally, and Pittsburgh with the way that they approach the game, they don’t try to get penalties. We’re not going to try to get penalties either.”

* Miller, the sleek 250-pounder who led the Broncos with 11 sacks this season, missed a practice this week because got sick from eating Mozzarella sticks while watching the new Star Wars movie. "You can't put regular gas in a Ferrari," Miller said. "It did me bad. I learned my lesson." Miller told reporters he was back on his regular diet and ready to go. "The force struck back," he said.

PARTING SHOTS

* "I see Ben going out there and doing things that he does. Same thing he has been doing the last 10 years or so. I mean, we would like to have A.B. but we don't. Next man up." -- James Harrison.

* "It could be a breakout game for anybody. For Todman. For Fitz. For Sammie Coates. DHB. Martavis. Anbydoy. Anybody could be the guy. That's the thing about this group. Any one of them can explode at any time." -- Markus Wheaton.


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