By virtue of fortune and not by winning on their own devices, Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos will be in the playoffs next week at Mile High Stadium. Losing their last three straight games and being outscored by 48 points in that stretch, the Broncos needed the unpredictable Oakland Raiders to lose against the NFL's year in and year out most disappointing team: the San Diego Chargers. The Raiders were happy to oblige. Oakland, playing the later afternoon game found themselves in a "win and you're in" confrontation with their California rivals and lost a game to the Chargers who were playing for Norv Turner's job and not much else.
Denver will find themselves stumbling into the Wild Card round facing the league's No. 1 ranked overall defense in the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have allowed less yards and less points against them than any other team in the league.
The timing and matchup for these Broncos could not be worse. Had they finished with a few more wins, the Broncos would have taken the Houston Texans' No. 3 seed and faced a more favorable matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals. There they would have faced rookie QB Andy Dalton and coach Marvin Lewis, who does not exactly have the best postseason track record.
The Steelers will not be overconfident coming into Denver. Head coach Mike Tomlin will remind the team what overconfidence got them in Week 1, where they suffered an ugly loss to the Baltimore Ravens. If the Steelers had practiced humility a little bit better, perhaps they would be resting this week instead of playing.
Pittsburgh has every advantage over the .500 Broncos in this first playoff game. Where the Broncos are stingy on defense, the Steelers are stingier. Before their losing streak, QB Tim Tebow magically engineered several fourth quarter comebacks to lead his team to an eventual playoff berth and the first of his career. On the other side of the field is Ben Roethlisberger, who besides Tom Brady, few would take anybody else in the league if they needed a fourth quarter comeback, especially under the pressure of the playoffs. Roethlisberger is a "been there, done that" type of quarterback who has a fire burning inside him after playing poorly in last year's Superbowl and obviously has unfinished business to attend to. Roethlisberger is the ultimate force to be reckoned with in the AFC.
The Steelers defense and ultimate deep threat Mike Wallace are not going to surprise anyone and it would behoove Denver coach John Fox to spend the majority of his time planning on how to defeat those two major factors. Ben should have his ankle healed almost 100 percent by the start of game time and everyone expects the majority of the Steelers who have missed games in the past to be present for this one.
The biggest weaknesses the Broncos need to exploit if they expect to win is making the Steelers one dimensional on offense. Feature back Rashard Mendenhall went down in Week 17 with an unconfirmed injury, believed to be a torn ACL. If this is the case the Steelers will rely on two third down backs, Mewelde Moore and Issac Redman, and seldom used back John Clay who has impressed in his limited duties. By stopping these backs who will not be used to taking on the majority of carries for an entire game, will force the Steelers to throw the ball almost exclusively.
However, the Broncos face a real challenge if this happens as they have speedster Mike Wallace, go to man Antonio Brown and former Superbowl MVP Hines Ward on the outside and the ultra-reliable tight end Heath Miller on the inside.
The other weakness that might not make itself apparent to the casual fan is that the Steelers will almost certainly be without hard hitting safety Ryan Clark, who due to a medical condition, cannot play in Denver due to the high altitude. Once again, throwing the ball to anywhere Troy Polamalu is patrolling is ill advised.
This could very well be the most one sided matchup we will see in the playoffs. If the Broncos can take advantage of the Steelers' offensive line their defense should be able to keep it close as they have with other teams this past season. The Broncos will run the ball as much as they can as it is what they do best, but don't expect great results against the Steelers defensive lineman who can resemble a brick wall.
Despite the injury concerns and being the visiting team the Steelers should be favored by 10 points.