NFL Playoff Betting Preview: Pittsburgh vs. Denver

NFL: New England Patriots at Denver BroncosTomorrow afternoon’s game have two of the AFC’s best teams of the last decade preparing to meet up again for the third time in the postseason in the Ben Roethlisberger era.

But there is a strange feeling in the air as questions abound as to if the two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks will play in this game.

Also when you look at recent match ups the Pittsburgh Steelers were among the few squads to win against the Denver Broncos, who’ve had a top-ranked defense this season. But despite their previous success, it won’t be that easy this time around.

Steeler’s wide receiver, Antonio Brown won’t be playing this time alongside two of the other players that fueled that attack, who might not get much play. Add to that, that the top-seeded Broncos’ secondary is much healthier than last time, when the Steelers visit Denver on Sunday afternoon in an AFC divisional-round game.

Pittsburgh who was 11-6 in the regular season is the only team to reach the 30 point plateau against Denver, and they also posted the highest yardage total of the season against the Broncos with 377, in a 34-27 win on Dec. 20. QB Ben Roethlisberger threw for 380 yards and Brown finished with 189 receiving yards. Both stats season highs for Denver opponents.

“We got lucky the first time,” said Roethlisberger, the only quarterback to throw for 300 yards against the Broncos in 2015. “We made plays, they had guys injured, we were at home. It’s not going to be that easy (again).”

It’s definitey not going to be easy without Brown, who was ruled out Friday because he had suffered a concussion from which he was still having major side affects. The Steelers last week put on an amazing performance, and got into the playoffs in a stunning late comeback, in their wild card win at Cincinnati 18-16. But that win didn’t come without costs, as both Roethlisberger and Brown suffered lasting injuries.

Roethlisberger injured his shoulder late in the third quarter when he was sacked by Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict. Brown got a shoulder to the head also from Burfict while trying to make a jumping catch with 22 seconds left in the game. It resulted in the first of back-to-back Cincinnati penalties which helped set up Steelers’ kicker, Chris Boswell’s winning field goal.

Roethlisberger was able to return for Pittsburgh’s final drive to seal the deal, but told local media this past Tuesday that he’s dealing with torn ligaments and a sprain in his right shoulder.

“We will just kind of take it day-by-day, but probably hour-by-hour really,” Roethlisberger told the team’s official website. “I will take a lot of mental reps, get in there and do my rehab and treatment and everything the doctors say to strengthen it and get back.”

Running back DeAngelo Williams is also a longshot to return from a right foot injury which has kept him out of the playoffs so far. What’s worrying for Pitt fans is that their league third-ranked offense is short on weapons, so as the club gets ready for the AFC championship game, for the first time in five years, there will be a lot of readjusting and compensating to do if they want to advance.

Brown in the last meeting who is an All-Pro, set the Broncos secondary alight, but they were also without safeties T.J. Ward, Darian Stewart and Omar Bolden. They got 16 catches and a pair of touchdowns last month, ending Chris Harris Jr.’s 35-game streak. Brown had seven catches for 119 yards against the Bengals, his highest total in six career playoff games.

“We want those guys to be there,” Denver cornerback Aqib Talib said of the injured Steelers. “If we didn’t want them to be there, that means I’d want A.B. to be messed up. That’s a good dude, a good family dude. We don’t want him to be messed up.”

Denver was 12-4 i yje regular season, and they should have Peyton Manning starting for the first time since Week 10. That’s when reports surfaced that he was suffering from a partially torn plantar fascia in his left foot, and that was the reason for his dismal start to the season.

Manning will relieve an inconsistent QB Brock Osweiler, he picked up in a 27-20 win over San Diego in the regular-season finale, and went 5 of 9 for 69 yards to spark an offense that had only scored seven points in the first half.

Manning will look to spark his team again, and should have Demaryius Thomas and former Steeler Emmanuel Sanders as targets. That pair combined for 242 receiving yards and three touchdowns in the first matchup with Osweiler throwing to them. So imagine what they can do with Manning?

The key factor for the Broncos will be having a completely healthy secondary. With Ward and Stewart back for the final two weeks of the regular season, the Broncos held the Bengals and Chargers to a combined 393 passing yards. That’s impressive.

That group will have some extra motivation too, due to a hit from Steelers center Cody Wallace on Denver safety David Bruton Jr. last month which resulted in a serious injury. It was only two plays after breaking his fibula, that Bruton was speared by Wallace. The seven-year veteran was then placed on a season-ending injured reserve list, that the Broncos are still bitter about.

“No, it’s not going to be anything as far as cheap or anything,” Stewart said. “We’re going to get them between the lines, between the plays, the whistle. So, I mean, (Wallace is) going to be sore after the game. That’s how I see it, man. He come out on a screen, he’d better not come at (number 26, Stewart’s jersey). Shoot, I’m cutting him.”

The record is tending to lean on the Broncos’s side who have won eight of the last 11 meetings with the Steelers in Denver. That includes a 29-23 overtime win in a wild-card game Jan. 8, 2012 where Thomas scored in the extra period on an 80-yard pass from Tim Tebow. A lot has changed since then, but we think the Broncos will still have the edge.

Our Pick: Broncos over Steelers, 24-10