Nary a year goes by without at least one division champion losing on wild-card weekend. But with three previews out of the way, we’ve gone with all three home favorites. The bad news is that we’re not going to pick an upset this weekend (we more than filled our quota picking the Seahawks last year). The good news is that the Steelers are a road fave in Denver, so we don’t have to completely break from a seemingly unbreakable trend.
The top storylines:
1. Tim Tebow, of course. He’s the story of the year, so why wouldn’t he and his religious beliefs and his virginity and his politics and his throwing motion and his on-field slump and his three-game losing streak be the story of wild-card weekend?
2. Ben Roethlisberger’s health. He and his injured ankle apparently suffered a setback Sunday in Cleveland.
3. Spleengate. Pittsburgh’s got a slew of injuries, but the one the player they’ll miss the most isn’t even hurt. Safety Ryan Clark won’t suit up because of a medical condition that puts him at risk in the Denver altitude. Last time he played there, he went home without a spleen.
The last time they met…
- Steelers 28, Broncos 10 on Nov. 9, 2009. But who cares? Kyle Orton and Brandon Marshall were Broncos then, and Tim Tebow, Willis McGahee and Von Miller were not.
Injuries to watch:
- Pittsburgh really could have used a first-round bye, because it is in bad shape. In addition to Clark, Rashard Mendenhall is out and won’t be back again this year. The following starters all should play, but will be less than 100 percent: Roethlisberger, LaMarr Woodley, James Harrison, Troy Polamalu, Brett Keisel, Doug Legursky and Maurkice Pouncey.
- But it’s a Denver injury that might have the most impact on this game, as the Broncos have lost guard Chris Kuper for the season. Brian Dawkins also probably won’t play and Von Miller still isn’t back to full health either.
I’m definitely picking the Steelers, but in a one-score game. Here’s why:
1. The Steelers’ injuries won’t put them at a major disadvantage. In addition to the fact that Denver, too, is banged up and will be without Kuper and Dawkins, Pittsburgh is simply good at fighting through injuries. Harrison and Polamalu have been superb despite health problems for years, and Roethlisberger has played through pretty much everything. Dick LeBeau’s defense might miss Clark a little, but his absence is very unlikely to have an impact on the final score.
2. That said, I’m a little worried about Big Ben. If the typically cryptic Steelers are willing to admit that Roethlisberger suffered a setback, that could mean that things are even worse than they’re letting on. And while Roethlisberger has been fantastic despite seemingly worse injuries over the years, his struggles against the 49ers in Week 15 are turning me cautious.
3. And the Steelers have had trouble pulling away from inferior teams on the road. For instance: Steelers 13, Browns 9; Steelers 13, Chiefs 9; Steelers 10, Texans 17. They also had more trouble than expected with the Browns at home.
4. Tebow’s magic still scares me. A part of me can see this being a blowout, but you never know what Tebow’s gonna do. Plus, this defense has proven that it can keep the Broncos in games with superior teams, and the running game is still a threat with Willis McGahee playing well. Denver might not have Kuper anymore, but I can still envision the offense moving it on the ground against a Steelers front seven that is banged up and struggled a fair bit more than usual against the run this season.
5. It should be noted that Tebow has yet to face a defense as good as this one, and yet he’s still been a disaster of late. The closest resemblance to Pittsburgh’s D that Tebow has faced: Chicago. Against the Bears, Tebow and the Broncos scored just 10 points in regulation. Can you really see them bettering that or holding Pittsburgh to less than that on Sunday? Lebeau is going to make life very difficult for Tebow with a wide array of disguised blitzes and complex looks.
6. Plus, the Steelers lack a killer instinct on defense. They’ve recorded just 15 takeaways this year and just one in the last three games, which is startling. I’m not convinced they’ll make Tebow pay for his mistakes, especially considering the injuries.
7. And while on paper the Broncos have been one of the worst teams in football the last three weeks, I’d like to make excuses for them. Okay, for the debacle in Buffalo, there is no excuse. But consider that they outplayed the Patriots in three of the four quarters of that game and held an underrated Chiefs team to just seven points in the finale. It was tough to see the defense give up 81 points in two games, but they seemed to get back on track with a solid performance against Kansas City. Things have still been bad, but there has been a bit of a silver lining.
8. The key for Denver (apart from Tebow stepping up) will be the pass rush: They simply have to take advantage of Pittsburgh’s shaky line to disrupt the hobbling Roethlisberger, which is exactly what the 49ers did three weeks ago. The problem is that the pass rush has been non-existent of late, registering just four sacks in the last three games. Miller has disappeared since getting a cast on his injured right hand, leaving Elvis Dumervil to do all the work. Knowing that, I just can’t pick the Broncos to pull off the upset.
9. The Broncos have struggled at home. During the Tebow era, they’re actually only 2-3 with only one win in regulation at Mile High. Maybe it’s a fluke, but #TebowTime has been more effective outside of Colorado.
In conclusion, Pittsburgh again looks like a team built to make a playoff run. This won’t be a blowout, but the more experienced Steelers will grind out an ugly road victory against an inferior yet unpredictable opponent.
GLS prediction: Steelers 17, Broncos 10
(Last year’s playoff GLS playoff record: 9-2 straight up and 9-2 against the spread)