That the Pittsburgh Steelers will open up the 2011 AFC Playoffs on the road doesn't qualify as a major shock, but few would have correctly guessed the city in which the defending conference champions will begin their quest for a repeat title just a few months back.
The Denver Broncos will serve as the Steelers' opponent in Sunday's First-Round clash from Sports Authority Field at Mile High after culminating a roller- coaster regular season with their first AFC West crown and playoff berth since 2005. Just one year removed from a disastrous 4-12 campaign filled with turmoil, the team's qualification ranks as one of the year's major surprises and intriguing storylines.
Denver's return to the tournament didn't come without its highs and lows. The Broncos were an early afterthought after losing four of their first five games on the 2011 schedule, then embarked upon a thrill-packed 6-1 stretch that coincided with former Heisman Trophy recipient Tim Tebow's insertion as the club's starting quarterback. The young lefty engineered a remarkable five fourth-quarter comebacks over that successful run, while generating his share of both supporters and detractors for an unconventional style along the way.
Tebow's critics have had the upper hand as of late, however, with the second- year pro having struggled mightily in back-to-back starts that capped a three- game losing streak heading into the playoffs. After throwing three interceptions and giving away a fumble in Denver's shocking 40-14 loss at previously-reeling Buffalo on Dec. 24, Tebow was a brutal 6-of-22 for 60 yards passing with an interception in last Sunday's 7-3 home setback to Kansas City.
Despite that ugly loss, the Broncos came out ahead in a three-way tiebreaker with Oakland and San Diego that determined the AFC West representative when the Chargers downed the Raiders in the finale.
"It's obviously a little bittersweet right now," said Tebow. "We would have loved to have won that game and [had] a little bit more momentum going into the playoffs, but I think it's still a special thing what we accomplished, to come back to win the AFC West."
The Broncos, whose last postseason contest was a 34-17 loss to the Steelers at Sports Authority Field in the 2005 AFC Championship, may have a short stay in this year's playoffs if a sputtering offense can't get untracked against a Pittsburgh defense that finished the regular season having allowed the fewest points (227), total yards (271.8 ypg) and passing yards (171.9 ypg) in the NFL. Last Sunday's 13-9 ousting of Cleveland marked the fifth time in six weeks in which the Black and Gold yielded fewer than 10 points.
Fifth-seeded Pittsburgh, edged out by Baltimore for both the AFC North title and the No. 2 ranking in the conference because of a home-and-home sweep by the Ravens, will be entering Sunday's showdown with a few injury concerns, though. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is still battling a high ankle sprain sustained in a Week 14 win over the Browns but is expected to play, but the Steelers will be without both leading rusher Rashard Mendenhall and valued safety Ryan Clark for certain.
Mendenhall is done for the entire playoffs after tearing the ACL in his right knee last week, while Clark suffers from a rare blood disorder that carries serious health risks in the high-altitude and reduced oxygen conditions of Denver. He'll be replaced by third-year reserve Ryan Mundy in the starting lineup, with capable understudy Isaac Redman to take over Mendenhall's chores as the lead ball-carrier.
"We'll take the healthy ones and proceed," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin remarked. "We won't bat an eye in that regard. We understand where we are. We will play and play to win. The guys that will be suited are the guys that will represent us and play to the standard."
Pittsburgh comes into Sunday's test having won 10 of its last 12 outings, while the Broncos have dropped two in a row on their home turf and went just 3-5 at Sports Authority Field during the regular season.
The Steelers and Broncos have split six all-time postseason meetings, the most recent being the above-mentioned 34-17 Pittsburgh victory at Sports Authority Field in the 2005 AFC Championship. The Steelers also prevailed in Denver by a 24-17 score in a 1985 Divisional Playoff, while being dealt losses at Mile High Stadium in Divisional tilts in 1977 (34-21) and 1989 (24-24). The Broncos recorded a 24-21 win at Three Rivers Stadium in the 1997 AFC Championship held between the teams, but dropped a 33-10 decision in the Steel City in a 1978 Divisional Round encounter.
Denver owns a 13-7-1 advantage in its regular-season series with Pittsburgh, with the Steelers posting a 28-10 triumph in their last visit to the Mile High City back in 2009. That ended a string of four consecutive road losses to the Broncos in non-postseason games for Pittsburgh, and Denver had topped Pittsburgh three straight times in regular-season play prior to that result. The Broncos' last win over the Steelers came by a 31-28 count in Denver in 2007.
Tomlin is 5-2 lifetime in the playoffs and 1-1 against the Broncos for his career, while Denver's John Fox sports a 5-3 overall postseason mark during his time in charge of the Carolina Panthers from 2002-10 and is 0-3 against Pittsburgh as a head coach. Tomlin is 1-0 in head-to-head bouts with Fox, with his Steelers producing a 27-3 rout of the Panthers at Heinz Field last season.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
While the absence of Mendenhall (928 rushing yards, 9 TD, 18 receptions), a near 1,300-yard rusher in 2010, is a blow to a Pittsburgh team that doesn't have much backfield depth, the gimpy ankle of Roethlisberger (4077 passing yards, 21 TD, 14 INT) may be of greater concern. The Pro Bowl quarterback took on more of a game manager's role in compiling 221 yards on 23-of-40 passing last week, and hobbled through a rough three-interception performance in a loss at San Francisco in his previous start. How he manages the pain will have a considerable impact on a Steelers' offense that's built on throwing the ball deep to its dangerous wide receiver duo of Mike Wallace (72 receptions, 1193 yards, 8 TD) and Antonio Brown (69 receptions, 1108 yards, 2 TD), both of whom averaged over 16 yards per catch in the regular season. If coordinator Bruce Arians decides to take a more conservative approach, then 14-year veteran Hines Ward (46 receptions, 2 TD) and trusty tight end Heath Miller (51 receptions, 2 TD) could have more of a role as underneath targets. Even with Mendenhall now on injured reserve and third-down specialist Mewelde Moore (157 rushing yards, 11 receptions, 1 TD) likely out with a knee sprain, the Steelers still figure to be in pretty good shape in the backfield. Redman (479 rushing yards, 3 TD, 18 receptions) ran for 92 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries in the finale, though he did fumble twice on the afternoon, while 248-pound rookie John Clay has shown potential since being promoted from the practice squad late in the season.
The Steelers may be better off employing a shorter-range passing philosophy anyway, as such a game plan could help the team neutralize a potent Denver pass rush that rates as the defense's area of strength. The Broncos sport a pair of premier disrupters in outside linebacker and NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate Von Miller (64 tackles, 11.5 sacks) and explosive end Elvis Dumervil (42 tackles, 9.5 sacks), with the tandem solely responsible for over half of the unit's healthy total of 41 sacks, and both earned a spot on the AFC Pro Bowl squad along with seasoned cornerback Champ Bailey (39 tackles, 2 INT, 10 PD), who's remained a top-flight cover man in his 13th professional season. Despite the presence of those three, Denver finished just 28th in pass efficiency defense and came up with a mere nine interceptions, and a lack of experience at the safety spots with accomplished veteran Brian Dawkins (51 tackles, 3 sacks) doubtful due to a neck injury could be an issue. Replacement David Bruton (18 tackles) has just three career starts to his credit, while opposite-side starter Quinton Carter (56 tackles, 1 sack) is a rookie who's still learning the ropes. Denver has been generally average in stopping the run over the course of the year, though Miller and a pair of ex-Eagles -- middle linebacker Joe Mays (75 tackles) and tackle Brodrick Bunkley (43 tackles) -- have stood out for their play.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
Run and then run some more. That's the plan of a Denver offense that's had to get creative with Tebow (1729 passing yards, 12 TD, 6 INT) still a considerable work in progress as a passer, though the strong-willed 24-year-old's abilities as a scrambler and leadership in the huddle have both been extremely positive attributes. His 660 rushing yards were the second-most by a quarterback this season and helped the Broncos average a league-best 164.5 rushing yards per game on the ground, and an exceptional bounce-back year from veteran back Willis McGahee (1199 rushing yards, 12 receptions, 5 total TD) certainly aided the cause as well. The offseason addition posted his seventh 100-yard effort of the season after gashing the Broncos for 145 yards on a workmanlike 28 carries last week, a feat made more impressive due to the team losing starting right guard Chris Kuper to a broken leg in the first quarter. Though Tebow has completed a below-par 46.5 percent of his attempts in his 11 starts, he does have two solid young wide receivers to work with in fellow 2010 first-round pick Demaryius Thomas (32 receptions, 4 TD) and Eric Decker (44 receptions, 8 TD), with Thomas averaging nearly 90 receiving yards in a breakout display over the final five games. Still, Denver has topped only 200 net passing yards one time since Tebow supplanted the since-departed Kyle Orton under center, but the team has rushed for 177 yards or more in six of 11 weeks following the switch.
The Steelers have been traditionally one of the toughest teams to run against, though the defense's per-game average of 99.8 rushing yards allowed this season was its highest since 2003. That was still good for eighth place in the league rankings, however, and Pittsburgh continues to field one of the NFL's best group of linebackers in the quartet of outside starters James Harrison (59 tackles, 9 sacks) and LaMarr Woodley (39 tackles, 9 sacks, 1 INT) and interior members Lawrence Timmons (93 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) and James Farrior (78 tackles, 2 sacks). Harrison and Woodley also provide a devastating pass rush off the edge, though the pair has been on the field together for only five games this season due to injuries and Harrison's well-publicized brief suspension for an illegal hit on Cleveland quarterback Colt McCoy. Both will be ready to go on Sunday, however, with Woodley seeming to finally be over a hamstring problem that rendered him inactive for six of the final eight regular-season tilts. The secondary takes a slight hit with the unavailability of leading tackler Clark (100 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT), but still contains two difference-makers in perennial All-Pro strong safety Troy Polamalu (91 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) and veteran cornerback Ike Taylor (44 tackles, 2 INT, 14 PD). Their sound coverage skills are one reason why the Steelers have given up a scant two touchdown passes over their last six assignments.
The Broncos possess several players that have made their mark in the all- important special-teams aspect during the team's unexpected playoff run. Wide receiver Eddie Royal led the AFC with a 16.2 average on punt returns and had an 85-yard score in a key win at Oakland in November, while Decker also delivered a punt-return touchdown earlier in the season and averaged a terrific 22.2 yards on six runbacks. Kicker Matt Prater was a bit shaky on field goals, making good on just 76 percent (19-of-25) of his tries, but nailed two clutch kicks of beyond 50 yards in a comeback overtime triumph at Chicago last month and had the best touchback percentage (68.1 percent) in the league on kickoffs. Punter Britton Colquitt turned in a strong second NFL season, averaging 47.4 yards per boot and placing an AFC-high 33 attempts inside the 20-yard line, while reserve receiver Matt Willis (20.4 avg.) is now handling kick return chores with regular Cassius Vaughn (30.0 avg.) sustaining a season-ending broken leg in late November.
Pittsburgh hasn't been as proficient in the kicking game, with Shaun Suisham having connected on a league-worst 74.2 percent (23-of-31) of his field goal attempts and punter Jeremy Kapinos (45.0 avg.) having been merely adequate since replacing the oft-injured Daniel Sepulveda in midseason. Brown has been a plus as a returner, however, with the second-year speedster named to the AFC Pro Bowl roster after ranking among the conference leaders in both kickoff (27.3 avg.) and punt (10.8 ypg) runbacks. He had a 60-yard punt-return touchdown in a late-season victory over Cincinnati last month.
The Broncos have been the Cinderella story of this 2011 season, but there's a good chance the team's fairly-tale run ends here. A one-dimensional offense that struggles to score points will have a tough time against a seasoned Pittsburgh stop unit that's permitted a paltry 48 points over its last six outings, and the Steelers' success and experience in big games under Tomlin and Roethlisberger also cannot be overlooked. Though Pittsburgh's chances of producing a blowout win on the road may be comprised by an offense that hasn't been in peak form down the stretch and is dealing with a few significant injuries, the Steelers are the more well-rounded and battle-tested of these two participants and seem to have more than enough pieces in place to get the job done.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 20, Broncos 13