Whether Tatum Bell plays in this afternoon's 4:15 game at Heinz Field is up to the Denver Broncos' medical staff, but the bigger question is this: What's the big deal about playing the 2-5 Pittsburgh Steelers, particularly after last week's showdown with the Indianapolis Colts?
"You report on the NFL, right?" Jake Plummer said when asked that question.
"It's all about what's coming next," Plummer said. "It's not about what happened in the past. You guys know that."
Ah, but that's where Plummer's wrong. It is about the past. It has been all season. Jacksonville was jumping, San Diego was smoking, Atlanta was at a frenzy, and the Black Hole was buzzing, all because the Steelers are the defending champion. And here come the Broncos, bucking about last season's loss in the AFC Championship game. When does the past stop mattering to the Steelers' opponents?
"You can sense it from the teams and the fans. It's playoff football. There's more electricity, more energy out there," said Steelers lineman Chris Hoke.
"I don't think anybody's going to relax against us, especially how last year everybody thought we were out of it and how we picked it up" said receiver Cedrick Wilson. "I'm pretty sure the coaches over there are telling them, ‘You guys better not relax. You know they're a good football team that's just having bad breaks right now.'"
So here comes another opponent with an attitude, and these 5-2 Broncos have the defense to send the 2-5 Steelers into oblivion. The Broncos had given up only two touchdowns in their first six games before allowing three touchdowns in a 34-31 Colts win at Denver last Sunday.
The Colts scored all three touchdowns at the expense of cornerback Darrant Williams. Reggie Wayne caught 10 passes for 138 yards and three touchdowns and a two-point conversion as the Colts avoided Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey. Not that the 5-foot-8 Williams should be considered a weak link. Steelers coach Bill Cowher called Williams "the biggest difference that I see from this year to last year."
Last season, with Williams benched with a groin injury, the Steelers picked on Bailey's opposite corner Dominique Foxworth, who led the Broncos with 11 tackles that day. The Steelers won handily, 34-17, after jumping out to a 24-3 halftime lead. Ben Roethlisberger completed 21 of 29 passes for 275 yards and a passer rating of 124.9. The Broncos geared up to stop the run and couldn't stop the Steelers' running game.
This season, the Broncos are seventh against the run and 15th against the pass. Rookie pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil, with five sacks, has been the other significant addition.
On offense, the Broncos are third running the ball and 30th throwing it. With the clear dichotomy, they are similar to the Atlanta Falcons, except Plummer, with his average mobility, isn't quite the Steeler-killer that Michael Vick has become.
The Broncos have also undergone changes on offense since last January's game. They've added a legitimate deep threat in Javon Walker to replace Ashlie Lelie, and a rookie tight end, Tony Scheffler, replaced Jeb Putzier. So far, Walker has caught 33 passes (16.2 ave. yards per catch) after sitting out last season with a torn ACL. Scheffler showed his first signs of life last Sunday with four catches for 51 yards.
"Javon is known for the deep ball and is also one of their go-to guys," said cornerback Bryant McFadden. "Last year it was basically Rod Smith doing everything by himself but this year you really have to honor Rod Smith and Javon Walker also. That's a big upgrade. Lelie's a good receiver but Javon brings a little more to the table as far has his route-running ability and his ability to go deep."
In the title game, Mike Anderson started and rushed for 36 yards and Bell added 31. The ultra-quick Bell moved into the starter's role this season, but his injuries allowed undrafted rookie Mike Bell, a more physical inside runner, to rush for 136 yards last Sunday against the Colts.
The Steelers hope to shut down the two Bells and put the focus on Plummer, who is playing his best football of the season. In the last six quarters – on the heels of reports that first-round rookie Jay Cutler would take his job – Plummer secured a win over the Cleveland Browns and posted a 104.1 passer rating against the Colts. His passer rating for the season is only 65.2, or close to the mediocre 66.4 he posted in last season's title game.
"I'm tired of talking about last year," Plummer said this week.
The Steelers only wish he and the Broncos were telling the truth.