01/05/2012 12:00 AM
Steelers Favored In Battle With Denver Broncos
Even the most diehard of Denver fans can be excused for wondering how their favorite team ever managed to qualify for the playoffs. But the Broncos are indeed into the postseason for the first time in six years as the AFC West champions, one of the most unlikely developments we can recall in recent pro football annals.
How long Denver lasts in the playoffs is another question. The fun might not last beyond Sunday, when the Broncos (8-8 straight up, 7-9 against the spread) host Pittsburgh (12-4 SU, 7-9 ATS) at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. A quick check of the Don Best odds screen notes that money at Las Vegas wagering outlets has generally been flowing in the Steelers’ direction since Sunday night, with Mike Tomlin’s team listed as an 8½-point favorite at most sports books at midweek. The total is mostly sitting at a rather-low 34 points.
TV coverage will be provided by CBS, with the network’s top broadcast team of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms on hand to describe the action.
Although Denver is in the postseason, we are hard-pressed to recall a postseason entrant looking any worse in recent memory. The Broncos absolutely backed into the playoffs on the heels of a season-ending 3-game losing streak, saved in the end by Oakland’s loss to San Diego on the final weekend which awarded the AFC West to Denver almost by default. Tiebreaking procedures (which had to progress to the "results in common games" stage) broke the 3-way deadlock between the Raiders, Chargers and Denver in the Broncos’ favor.
During their earlier and very improbable 6-game win streak that roughly coincided with Tim Tebow’s entrance into the lineup as the starting QB, the Broncos were able to parlay a low-risk offense and Tebow’s playmaking ability to pull out several unlikely wins in the late going. Tebow has three overtime wins to his credit, and head coach John Fox deserves loads of credit for changing the Bronco offensive formula to fit Tebow, introducing the read-option and a ground-based assault that caught several foes unsuspecting in the win streak.
Opposing stop units, however, seem to have caught on to the Denver recipe, and have been playing much better assignment defense in recent weeks. The read-option is not a major element of the Bronco offensive package these days that mostly relies upon between-the-tackles pounding by RB Willis McGahee instead.
The Broncos were also playing rather mistake-free football in their uptick, but that hasn’t been the case in the current three-game losing streak in which Denver has been guilty of nine giveaways. That’s hard enough for a team such as Green Bay or New Orleans to overcome; for the Broncos, it’s almost impossible.
Moreover, Denver was banged up down the stretch, especially in the secondary, where vet Brian Dawkins has been battling a pinched nerve in his neck in recent weeks, sometimes requiring Fox to start a pair of rookies (Rahim Moore and Quinton Carter) at the safety spots. Offensively, Fox has injury concerns, too, especially regarding FB Spencer Larsen and OG Chris Kuper, both hurt last week vs. the Chiefs. Their absence would not help the Broncos’ ground-based formula this week.
Assuming Denver is fortunate to be here, we must also wonder if Pittsburgh is in any condition to take advantage. The Steelers have been hurting in recent weeks, too, especially QB Ben Roethlisberger, alternately held out and severely limited in recent weeks after a left ankle sprain suffered vs. the Browns on December 8. Big Ben’s passing accuracy has left something to be desired in his compromised state.
Further, top RB Rashard Mendenhall went down with a season-ending knee injury last week at Cleveland, though Isaac Redman was serviceable in relief vs. the Browns when gaining 92 yards on the ground. The Steelers will also be without safety Ryan Clark, who will sit out this game due to past serious health complications resulting from games at the higher Denver altitude.
Still, it is tough to envision Tebow, who completed just six of his 22 passes last week vs. the Chiefs, burning Dick LeBeau’s zone-blitzing defense, which ranked tops in the NFL. Steelers OLBs James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley figure to keep tabs on Tebow and his improvising, while S Troy Polamalu could wreak havoc for Denver’s run-centric offense as he hangs around the line of scrimmage.
The keys to this battle are likely when Pittsburgh has the ball. Big Ben, who can at least avoid traffic when playing on two good wheels, can’t be expected to even do that much in his current condition, which could pose problems vs. an active Bronco pass rush that’s adept at collapsing the pocket from the edge with Elvis Dumervil and rookie LB sensation Von Miller, who have combined for 21 sacks.
Thus, don’t be surprised for the Steelers to spread the field and rely mostly on short, quick drops by Roethlisberger out of the shotgun to help avoid the Denver pass rush. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians will want Roethlisberger to probe Denver’s nickel and dime backs as much as possible and not risk too much against veteran big-play corners Champ Bailey and Andre Goodman. The Broncos will like their chances if they can win the turnover battle, which was their m.o. through most of their six-game win streak.
Denver can be run against, too, but it remains to be seen how effective the Steelers can be without Mendenhall and counting upon the journeyman Redman instead.
Playoff experience would figure to be a plus for the Steelers and Roethlisberger, who has won nine postseason gams (inclduing two Super Bowls in his career). Tebow has experience on the big stage, too, but that was in college; he’s about to participate in his first pro playoff game on Sunday.
Before dismissing Denver, however, please note that the rare home underdogs in this playoff round have covered 12 of 16 opportunities since the extra wildcard round was introduced in 1978. Overall, underdogs are a 56 percent play in the wild-card round since 1978, and covered all four chances a year ago.
Always remember the 3 G's Girls,Golf, Gambling not in any particular order......:2thumbs: