The Denver Broncos and the Pittsburgh Steelers are two of the league’s most recognizable franchises, owning a total of eight combined Super Bowl victories and producing some of the NFL’s most iconic players. Having met seven times in the postseason (with Denver holding a 4-3 edge in those meetings), the two teams will face off once again in the divisional round of the playoffs this Sunday with a spot in the AFC Championship game on the line.
Earlier this season, Pittsburgh earned a key victory against the Broncos in Pittsburgh that helped the Steelers get into the AFC playoffs. This time, the game will take place in Denver, as the Broncos earned the top seed in the AFC with a 12-4 record that saw them secure the AFC West (the Steelers are the No. 6 seed in the AFC). Denver holds a great defense; Pittsburgh possesses a great offense when at full power (more on that later). The contradicting styles could produce the most exciting matchup of the entire divisional round. With that, let’s break down key matchups and X-factors to see which team has the edge in this contest.
There are several key matchups here. None of them compare to Denver’s secondary against Pittsburgh’s passing attack. The Broncos possesses the top NFL defense, as they gave up the fewest yards per game this season. Conversely, the Steelers own one of the best passing attacks in the league, putting up about 288 yards per game through the air in 2015.
When the Broncos’ strength met the Steelers’ strength back in Week 15, Pittsburgh exposed Denver’s secondary. Ben Roethlisberger threw for 380 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Steelers’ comeback victory in the second half. The great Antonio Brown ran wild through the Broncos’ secondary, catching 16 passes for 189 yards and two touchdowns against one of the best corners in the league in Chris Harris Jr. It was easily the Denver defense’s worst performance of the entire season.
In Sunday’s game, it is imperative that the Broncos’ contain Roethlisberger and Brown — if they are on the field. Both players are dealing with injuries suffered in Pittsburgh’s victory over the Cincinnati Bengals last weekend. Roethlisberger has a shoulder injury, and his status is still up in the air at this point. Brown, on the other hand, is going through the concussion protocol and could miss the game. The Steelers’ can likely handle not having Brown in the game, but need their quarterback to play if they have any chance of beating the Broncos on the road.
[update: Brown has since been ruled out for this game]
Another key factor in this game will be the performance of Broncos QB Peyton Manning. He hasn’t started a game since mid-November due to an injury, although he did come off the bench to lead Denver to a victory in their regular season finale against the San Diego Chargers. Manning led the league in interceptions prior to his injury, so it is imperative that he takes care of the ball in this one. If he is anything close to his normal self, Denver should have an even greater chance to win this game behind that great defense.
Each team has several players who are critical to their success. The key factors for the Broncos are running backs, C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman. Whenever Denver ran the ball well this season, they won (6-0 when either Anderson or Hillman went over 100 yards). Both players showed their abilities to break the game open with huge touchdown runs, and they will be vital to the Broncos’ offensive game plan against Pittsburgh, especially since it’s unknown how well Manning will play in his first full game back since his injury.
Outside of the health of their key players, the big X-factor in this game for the Steelers is receiver Martavis Bryant. Behind Brown, Bryant proved to be an explosive playmaker throughout the season for Pittsburgh, as he averaged over 15 yards per reception. In the team’s wild-card victory over the Bengals, Bryant scored the Steelers’ lone touchdown and went off for a huge 44-yard run. His speed is matched by few players in the league and if Brown can’t play, he will be the go-to man for Roethlisberger (or whoever throws the ball for Pittsburgh).
The Steelers’ potential rash of injuries may take some of the juice out of this matchup. We don’t see how Pittsburgh has a chance to win if Roethlisberger can’t play, and considering how huge Brown was in the first meeting between these two teams, the lack of his presence could see their chances go out the window. While it’s likely that Roethlisberger will play, it just seems to be too much for the Steelers to overcome when they go up against a great Broncos defense. A healthy Manning, a strong running game, and game-changing plays by Von Miller, Aqib Talib, and Denver’s defense should see the top-seeded Broncos advance to host the AFC Championship game.