The big, bad Pittsburgh Steelers, with all their playoff experience and Super Bowl rings, are heading to Denver to take on one of the most surprising teams of the season. Pittsburgh arrives with a bit of a limp; injuries have wreaked havoc with the starting lineup, and none of the bumps and bruises are more significant than those inflicted on Ben Roethlisberger's ankle and Rashard Mendenhall's knee. The good news: The second-string players are more than capable of holding their own, and the Steelers enter the wild-card round expected to go farther than the Broncos.
Pittsburgh had hoped to earn the No. 2 seed in the AFC and the bye that comes with it, but having to go through this wild-card matchup won't be a complete negative for the team. That screeching sound you hear is coming from the brakes on the Tebowmania bus as it grinds to a halt. In addition to Tim Tebow's recent struggles, the Broncos' defense is inconsistent. Though it has played well lately, allowing just seven points in last week's loss to the Chiefs, the unit has also given up at least 40 points in four games this season. Pittsburgh certainly doesn't have to worry about such a hit-or-miss squad. The Steelers, on the other hand, boast the top-ranked defense in the league with a unit that has posted two shutouts this season and hasn't given up 40 points since 2006.
Denver has its hands full. Here are the three biggest questions I have about this game:
Can Tebow handle the Steelers' defense?
Pittsburgh will focus on shutting down the Broncos' running attack, which is ranked first in the NFL behind Tebow and rejuvenated running back Willis McGahee. Tebow and McGahee have combined for 1,859 yards on 371 carries, scoring 10 of the team's 11 rushing touchdowns. The Steelers are giving up more rushing yardage this year than usual (97 yards per game), but they have allowed just one rushing touchdown in the past seven games. They will force Tebow to throw.
That should be a concern for the Broncos, considering Tebow's play of late. Over the past four games, he has been sacked 15 times, thrown five interceptions and coughed up four fumbles. Expect Pittsburgh, which has only given up two passing touchdowns in the past six games, to show Tebow man-to-man coverage behind a varied and aggressive blitz package. Look for the Steelers' outside linebackers to get upfield quickly and pressure Tebow into making bad decisions.
Tebow couldn't beat the only two playoff defenses he faced (those of the Detroit Lions and New England Patriots), and this Steelers unit will clearly be his toughest challenge yet. I won't be shocked if backup Brady Quinn sees the field in the second half.
Can the Broncos' defense contain the Steelers' passing attack?
The Steelers have become a pass-first team on offense, as Roethlisberger has continued to develop into one of the premier passers in the game. He has the luxury of throwing to one of the fastest groups of wideouts in the game today, making Pittsburgh a dangerous vertical threat. Roethlisberger averages 37 pass attempts per game this year (40 per game on the road); running back Rashard Mendenhall is out with a knee injury, so we can expect at least 40 throws on Sunday.
The Broncos will counter with a pass rush led by Elvis Dumervil and rookie sensation Von Miller. Denver should be able to expose the Steelers' makeshift offensive line and get to Roethlisberger, but nobody wins with sacks like Big Ben. Roethlisberger is a highly respectable 18-18 during games in which he's been sacked four times, a feat most quarterbacks would be very hard-pressed to match.
Can the Steelers run the ball without Mendenhall?
Mendenhall is out after hurting his knee in the regular-season finale, so Isaac Redman will take over as Pittsburgh's No. 1 back. Mendenhall had 890 yards and nine rushing touchdowns on 220 carries this season. After Mendenhall went down last week, Redman came in ran 22 times for 110 total yards. He appears to be a better receiver than Mendenhall, which makes the Steelers even more likely to air it out in this game.
After a solid start, the Broncos' run defense has really struggled over the last six weeks, surrendering 880 yards on the ground (147 yards per game). If the Steelers are disciplined enough to take advantage of this situation, they have the edge.