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NFL Football Pick: Defense Is Key As Steelers Meet the Broncos

by Aengus Moorehead

NFL Football Pick: Defense Is Key As Steelers Meet the Broncos

The Pittsburgh Steelers could have used a bye in order to lick their wounds as well as rest some key cogs in its arsenal although a trip to Denver may have been exactly what the doctor ordered, for the Broncos, though much healthier, are entering the playoffs with some serious offense issues.

Pittsburgh's running back Rashard Mendenhall is out for the season with a knee injury and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is hobbled by a high ankle sprain. So, it begs the obvious question for pundits as the Steelers is preparing for the Broncos on Sunday night in an AFC wild card matchup: Is Roethlisberger more effective on one leg than Tim Tebow is on two? The way Tebow has been playing lately might indicate that even Steeler backup QB Charlie Batch has the edge on Tebow.

Tebow, as has been the case all season, will again be under the microscope when he leads his team into its first playoff game since the 2005 season. The much-maligned Tebow directed the Broncos to six consecutive wins, including four fourth-quarter comebacks, but the wheels have come off during a three-game losing streak to end the regular season.

Tebow's critics have had the upper hand as of late, however, with the second- year pro having struggled mightily in back-to-back starts that capped that three- game losing streak heading into the playoffs. After throwing three interceptions and giving away a fumble in Denver's shocking 40-14 loss at previously-reeling Buffalo on Dec. 24, Tebow was a brutal 6-of-22 for 60 yards passing with an interception in last Sunday's 7-3 home setback to Kansas City. That does not bode well for his posse against the best defense in the entire league.

Despite that ugly loss, the Broncos came out ahead in a three-way tiebreaker with Oakland and San Diego that determined the AFC West representative when the Chargers downed the Raiders in the finale.

The Broncos, whose last postseason contest was a 34-17 loss to the Steelers at Sports Authority Field in the 2005 AFC Championship, may have a short stay in this year's playoffs if a sputtering offense can't get untracked against a Pittsburgh defense that finished the regular season having allowed the fewest points (227), total yards (271.8 ypg) and passing yards (171.9 ypg) in the NFL. Last Sunday's 13-9 ousting of Cleveland marked the fifth time in six weeks in which the Black and Gold yielded fewer than 10 points.

Fifth-seeded Pittsburgh, edged out by Baltimore for both the AFC North title and the No. 2 ranking in the conference because of a home-and-home sweep by the Ravens, will be entering Sunday's showdown with a few injury concerns, though.

Aside from Mendenhall and Roethlisberger, S Ryan Clark who suffers from a rare blood disorder which could carry some serious health risks in the high-altitude and reduced oxygen conditions of Denver is definitely out for this one. He'll be replaced by third-year reserve Ryan Mundy in the starting lineup, with capable understudy Isaac Redman to take over Mendenhall's chores as the lead ball-carrier.

Pittsburgh comes into Sunday's test having won 10 of its last 12 outings, while the Broncos have dropped two in a row on their home turf and went just 3-5 at Sports Authority Field during the regular season.

The Steelers and Broncos have split six all-time postseason meetings, the most recent being the above-mentioned 34-17 Pittsburgh victory at Sports Authority Field in the 2005 AFC Championship. The Steelers also prevailed in Denver by a 24-17 score in a 1985 Divisional Playoff, while being dealt losses at Mile High Stadium in Divisional tilts in 1977 (34-21) and 1989 (24-24). The Broncos recorded a 24-21 win at Three Rivers Stadium in the 1997 AFC Championship held between the teams, but dropped a 33-10 decision in the Steel City in a 1978 Divisional Round encounter.

Denver owns a 13-7-1 advantage in its regular-season series with Pittsburgh, with the Steelers posting a 28-10 triumph in their last visit to the Mile High City back in 2009. That ended a string of four consecutive road losses to the Broncos in non-postseason games for Pittsburgh, and Denver had topped Pittsburgh three straight times in regular-season play prior to that result. The Broncos' last win over the Steelers came by a 31-28 count in Denver in 2007.

Mike Tomlin is 5-2 lifetime in the playoffs and 1-1 against the Broncos for his career, while Denver's John Fox sports a 5-3 overall postseason mark during his time in charge of the Carolina Panthers from 2002-10 and is 0-3 against Pittsburgh as a head coach. Tomlin is 1-0 in head-to-head bouts with Fox, with his Steelers producing a 27-3 rout of the Panthers at Heinz Field last season.

Time & Venue:
- 4:30 PM ET, Sunday, January 8, 2012. Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver, Colorado

Last Week's results:
- Pittsburgh Steelers (-7) beats host Cleveland Browns 13-9.
- Denver Broncos (-3.5) loses to visiting Kansas City Chiefs 7-3.

Last week's ATS:
- Favourite Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) wins but does not cover
- Favourite Denver Broncos (8-8) loses outright.

NFL Football Odds: Steelers -9, O/U 33.5

Team records:
- Pittsburgh Steelers: 12-4 SU, 7-9 ATS
- Denver Brocons: 8-8 SU, 7-8-1 ATS

Pittsburgh was in contention for the No. 1 seed entering last weekend but needed losses by both powerhouses New England and Baltimore to accomplish the feat. Roethlisberger said he aggravated his ankle in the win at Cleveland and has struggled since suffering the initial injury in Week 14, but the Steelers have their defense to fall back upon. The Steelers did now permit a touchdown in four of their last 6 games even without stud LB LaMarr Woodley who is expected to return from a hamstring injury. Redman ran for a career-high 92 yards last week. Although Roethlisberger has struggled since hurting the ankle, he has won two Super Bowls and lost in last season’s title game to Green Bay.

The Tebow magic appears to have run out, particularly in back-to-back losses to the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs. His passer ratings in those games were ghastly – 37.9 and 20.6, respectively. He has been intercepted four times in the last two weeks and has committed 10 turnovers in the last five games. Expect the Broncos to lean heavily on running back Willis McGahee, who rumbled for 1,199 yards this season. McGahee, however, struggled against the Steelers in three seasons with Baltimore, managing only 183 yards on 61 attempts in six games.

The Broncos possess several players that have made their mark in the all- important special-teams aspect during the team's unexpected playoff run. Wide receiver Eddie Royal led the AFC with a 16.2 average on punt returns and had an 85-yard score in a key win at Oakland in November, while Eric Decker also delivered a punt-return touchdown earlier in the season and averaged a terrific 22.2 yards on six runbacks.

Kicker Matt Prater was a bit shaky on field goals, making good on just 76 percent (19-of-25) of his tries, but nailed two clutch kicks of beyond 50 yards in a comeback overtime triumph at Chicago last month and had the best touchback percentage (68.1 percent) in the league on kickoffs. Punter Britton Colquitt turned in a strong second NFL season, averaging 47.4 yards per boot and placing an AFC-high 33 attempts inside the 20-yard line, while reserve receiver Matt Willis (20.4 avg.) is now handling kick return chores with regular Cassius Vaughn (30.0 avg.) sustaining a season-ending broken leg in late November.

Pittsburgh hasn't been as proficient in the kicking game, with Shaun Suisham having connected on a league-worst 74.2 percent (23-of-31) of his field goal attempts and punter Jeremy Kapinos (45.0 avg.) having been merely adequate since replacing the oft-injured Daniel Sepulveda in midseason. WR Antonio Brown has been a plus as a returner, however, with the second-year speedster named to the AFC Pro Bowl roster after ranking among the conference leaders in both kickoff (27.3 avg.) and punt (10.8 ypg) runbacks. He had a 60-yard punt-return touchdown in a late-season victory over Cincinnati last month.

Roethlisberger has a 10-3 career record in the postseason.

RThe Broncos and Steelers have split six playoff matchups. The winner went to the Super Bowl on five of those occasions.

"People say he can't throw the ball, he can't do this. He finds a way to win." – Roethlisberger on Tebow.

Denver is 4-2 SU in its last 6 games when playing Pittsburgh
Denver is 1-6-1 ATS in its last 8 games at home
Denver is 1-3-1 ATS in its last 5 games
Pittsburgh is 2-7 ATS in its last 9 games on the road
The total has gone UNDER in 4 of Pittsburgh's last 6 games on the road
Pittsburgh is 2-4 ATS in its last 6 games

The Broncos have been the Cinderella story of this 2011 season, but there's a good chance the team's fairly-tale run ends here. A one-dimensional offense that struggles to score points will have a tough time against a seasoned Pittsburgh stop unit that's permitted a paltry 48 points over its last six outings, and the Steelers' success and experience in big games under Tomlin and Roethlisberger also cannot be overlooked.

Though Pittsburgh's chances of producing a blowout win on the road may be comprised by an offense that hasn't been in peak form down the stretch and is dealing with a few significant injuries, the Steelers are the more well-rounded and battle-tested of these two participants and seem to have more than enough pieces in place to get the job done. Tebow may have engineered late fourth quarter rallies this season but it is hard to fathom his beliefs that he can accomplish the feat against such a formidable defense.

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NFL Football Pick: Take Steelers.

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