The Denver Broncos host the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday in what some might still consider -- against all logic -- a road game for the home team.
Denver surprised many this year thanks to the godsend of Tim Tebow, who went 7-4 under center as the Broncos were en route to clinching the American Football Conference West title for the first time since 2005. However, Denver is riding a three-game losing streak, while Pittsburgh has won back-to-back games with the league's No. 1 defense ready to pressure Tebow into oblivion.
These two teams did not meet in the regular season, but the game plan for both has one resounding similarity: Stop the quarterback.
The defending AFC champion Steelers head into the wild-card game with Ben Roethlisberger nursing a severely sprained left ankle. Take this into consideration: In the two games Big Ben has played since initially hurting his ankle against the Cleveland Browns on Dec. 8, he has thrown for only 551 yards, with no touchdowns and three interceptions. In his first 13 games, he had 21 TDs versus only 11 picks. The staples of the Broncos' defense, Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller, who combined for 21 sacks this season, should be pursuing Roethlisberger as much as possible, especially with Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey likely out with the same injury his QB has.
As for Tebow, he will be facing a Pittsburgh defense that is known to blitz, and it will be doing just that, despite Tebow's ability to create plays after being flushed out of the pocket. Tebow has had only one touchdown pass -- with four interceptions and three fumbles -- during his club's three-game losing streak, and he can be erratic when heavily pressured, making occasionally hasty and unwise decisions. The Steelers' pass rush -- plus Tebow's inability to throw the deep ball -- could transform Denver into a one-dimensional football team.
Nevertheless, that plays into the Broncos' biggest strength, which is their running game. Denver's offense revolved around a ground game that led the NFL in rushing and set the franchise single-season record with a total of 2,632 yards. The top three rushers who tallied those yards were the rejuvenated Willis McGahee with 1,199, Tebow with 660, and backup running back Lance Ball with 402. However, a banged-up offensive line might prevent the Broncos from running the ball the way they want to.
Pittsburgh also has injury issues, as the Steelers will be without starting running back Rashard Mendenhall, who suffered a torn right anterior cruciate ligament last Sunday against Cleveland. His injury leaves third-year running back Isaac Redman and rookie John Clay as the backs Pittsburgh will have to depend on. Redman did come in after Mendenhall's injury last week and had 110 total yards (92 rushing, 18 receiving). He showed in that game his ability not only as a rusher but as a receiver, which adds one more weapon to the Steelers' offensive arsenal.
Pittsburgh ranks first in the NFL in total defense (271.8 yards per game), passing defense (171.9), and points allowed (14.2), and the Steelers will see the return of star linebacker LaMarr Woodley on Sunday. However, the team won't have safety Ryan Clark available because he has a sickle-cell trait that becomes aggravated when playing at higher elevations. Ryan Mundy will replace Clark in only his third career start.
Meanwhile, Denver has played good defense lately, but the Broncos have been inconsistent overall, having surrendered 40 or more points in four regular-season contests. Moreover, veteran safety and experienced defensive signal-caller Brian Dawkins will be sidelined with a neck injury.
The Bottom Line: Pittsburgh is a very experienced football team, Denver is untested in the playoffs. Tebow and his fellow Broncos are at home, so that may give them more of a spark to perform well, but the Steelers know how to win on the road. Pittsburgh understands that once the run is stopped, everything else will fall into place. The Steelers will win in unsurprising fashion, 24-13.