The Pittsburgh Steelers and Denver Broncos are not strangers to each other in the NFL playoffs. In fact, this weekend's Wild Card Playoff at Mile High Stadium represents a tiebreaker for the two franchises who have split victories in six previous postseason meetings.
Like John Elway's path through Three Rivers Stadium in the '98 AFC Championship or Big Ben's dismantling of the Broncos in Denver in January 2006, both quarterbacks hope a win over the other will be a springboard for bigger and better things ending in February.
For both sides, there are adamant doubters.
While the Tim Tebow saga, which dominated the 2011 NFL landscape, was compelling, it may not have been convincing. After all, considering their current three-game losing streak, critics are not only continuing to pick apart Tebow's acuity (or lack thereof) for quarterbacking, but many fans are now beginning to question the mystique and bravado that once captivated the nation for eight Sundays.
Is Tim Tebow a winner or a mere pipe dreamer who lived out the most odds-defying string of victories in NFL history?
Across the field, the Steelers are a wounded band of brothers who have proven their mettle in the dead of winter. However, with a hobbled quarterback, gimpy center and tinged linebacker, are the Black and Gold truly prepared for the obstacles that face them in this postseason?
Adding to the difficulty for the defending AFC Champions is the Ravens' AFC North Championship. Instead of healing and preparing for a home playoff game in two weeks, the Steelers will play on the road in a few days.
A win will likely only promise them a pair of grueling road playoff games in Boston and Baltimore, barring the unexpected.
Is the 'Burgh bandaged enough to prove they're battle-tested?
As both franchises enter the playoffs with more questions than answers, the Steelers are considered the clear favorite considering the apparent superiority of their roster as well as their experience.
However, even those factors don't assure victory, adding to the old adage "that's why they play the games!"
With 14 Super Bowl trips between the two clubs, which unit will take the first step toward adding to that total?
Here are 10 things for Steelers fans to watch for as their beloved football team travels to Colorado to begin their pursuit of the Lamar Hunt and Vince Lombardi Trophies.
For the past six days, I've personally suffered from the influenza of all influenza, a flu that rendered me bed-ridden up to and including the moment that I write this article.
From liquid loss (I'll spare details) to chills and aches, I've still yet to attend my day job in 2012, something that is deeply frustrating for me. For the grueling set of days I've encountered since the weekend, it doesn't remotely compare to the duration of days beginning October 21, 2007 for Ryan Clark.
A bad night started with a 31-28 loss in Denver when Jay Cutler led the Broncos on a last second drive to the game-winning field goal on Sunday Night Football.
It nearly ended with Ryan Clark's life.
Playing at such a high altitude in Denver, the thin air at Invesco Field caused the Steelers safety to have a bad reaction due to his sickle cell trait. The result of his playing in the game was damage to his internal organs, and he ultimately paid with his gall bladder and spleen having to be removed.
It could have been far worse.
Naturally, the Steelers made the right decision to keep him off the field.
Moreover, coach Mike Tomlin took the correct approach by taking the decision out of his hands... early. At the start of the week, Clark was told he wasn't starting.
Now, the worst cynics (whoever would be so disgusting) cannot question his decision either way, and Clark wouldn't have to weigh the decision himself.
In his place, Ryan Mundy will get the start alongside Troy Polamalu at the safety spots. Mundy has played well in his spots this season, and this weekend's matchup advantage should give the safety another chance to shine in support of his teammates.
So, what about Pittsburgh's other safety?
If there is any defender in football who is more in tune with the ebbs and flows of an NFL game, it is Troy Polamalu.
At long last, after a 2011 season that saw far too many cynics taking their analysis from stat sheets, the safety got recognition as a defender of the week to finish the regular season, capping another stellar year for No. 43.
Able to read the eyes of quarterbacks and show up at any position on the field, Polamalu is the Steelers' best weapon for wrecking the intangible threats that Tim gives the Broncos. Likewise, he is most able to exploit the young passers' weaknesses.
In his game against the Bills, Tebow threw an interception to Jairus Byrd that demonstrates his tendency to stare down receivers. If you check out the link, watch his body language, keeping his target in sight and obvious to the defense.
Without giving any cues, looks, or fakes to freeze the safety, Byrd gets into position easily for the interception.
I rarely make such specific predictions, as anything can happen in an NFL game, but I truly feel that Troy Polamalu is going to make the play(s) in this football game that either sets the entire tone and/or finishes its competitive phase. The ability to look off safeties is crucial to managing the football into tiny NFL throwing windows, a skill to deliver that many people question about Tebow anyway.
While Tebow did avoid turnovers early on, recent weeks have clearly seen the quarterback a bit more flustered on the field.
Beyond turnovers, Polamalu has shown a penchant to disrupt plays in any other number of manners, including beating quarterbacks to handoffs after the snap and jumping over the line of scrimmage to meet his prey in the backfield.
There will be so many little things for Tebow to keep in mind against the best defense he'll face all season.
Linebackers Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil totaled 20 sacks in 2011, and the Broncos defense held opponents to 15 or fewer points in five of eight games during the famed "Tebow" winning streak.
Many people will tell you that "Tebow Time" was only made possible by the great resurgence of Denver's defense over the course of two months.
Additionally, everyone knows that acclaimed corner Champ Bailey is still a threat in the secondary.
Steelers fans recognize that their defense struggled in haul in interceptions—or turnovers in general—in 2011. However, they may be happy to know that Denver's defense only secured nine interceptions themselves. Pittsburgh's 15:11 touchdown-to-interception ratio on defense is largely superior to Denver's 24:9.
Denver's run defense has been a bit more impressive, but only by a slim margin. While they contained many runners, their edge wasn't consistent. Late in the season, C.J. Spiller ran 16 times for 111 yards and Marion Barber ran for 108 yards in a Chicago Bears loss.
In other words, while they do represent a challenge, the Broncos can be run on.
Yes, Redman put the ball on the ground twice late in the game against the Browns. Absolutely, it must be fixed.
Am I concerned? No.
Instead, while he must have a focus on ball protection, I expect Isaac Redman to run with authority. He needs to run hard and give the Steelers a boost in the ground game.
This will allow the Steelers to run a balanced offense, something they refused to do even in spite of 40 mph wind gusts and a hobbled quarterback in Cleveland. While the Broncos secondary hasn't been stellar against the pass this season, throwing 45 times is not conducive to healing for Ben Roethlisberger, and it invites an aggressive pass rush by the Broncos' more than capable linebackers.
The running game falls on more than one set of shoulders, however. Isaac Redman is not the lone focus for this goal...(next slide)
The Steelers need to make Tim Tebow become Timothy "Te-throw." If they succeed in this goal, their defense will find success. Whether for his mechanics, arm strength, ability to control the safety, or accuracy, my examination of every throw this NFL season by Mr. Tebow reveals one clear element about his passing game: He needs to do everything better.
He's not horrendous overall, but his inability to control an NFL offense through the air against an NFL defense, especially when falling behind by large deficits before the final minutes in recent weeks, has made his lackluster throwing ability obvious.
While many will argue that the Broncos need to keep games close for Tim to win in the end, NFL teams can't depend on their defenses to hold opposing offenses to 10 points per game.
Likewise, the job of the NFL quarterback requires more than six heroic minutes at the end of games largely dictated by teammates' efforts.
Against Kansas City, Denver ran McGahee 28 times for 145 yards, which would seem a winning formula. It could have been, as the Broncos had chances to kick field goals on other drives. The problem was that despite McGahee's heroic five yards per attempt, Tebow's 6-for-22 effort and 20.6 rating practically negated the strong running game.
If Denver's quarterback couldn't pull off a home win for the division championship despite McGahee's legs and the Chiefs' lackluster point production, then how will Tebow respond in the playoffs if Willis is held in check, the Steelers score more than seven points and the edges of the line are contained to keep the running quarterback bottled up again?
Methinks me smells a frustrating day for Timothy "Te-throw!" The Steelers run defense needs to shine as it is capable.
Beyond the team's road issues this season, it's important for the team to view the Broncos as a legitimate threat. While the magnitude of playoff football would almost assuredly ensure this to be the case, one cannot forget that any given play can be the difference between a win or a loss between any two teams.
Last year taught us that some of the best teams can fall if they don't play their best football in January. In the example, the Saints defense—which helped anchor their championship march a year earlier—was ripped to shreds by the Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch.
The message to be taken from the video is simple: Take nothing for granted.
While these are two different teams, you have a defending champion against a non-winning team in a raucous environment. And, let's be honest: Willis McGahee isn't a pushover at running back.
The Black and Gold need to have their business face in Colorado. I feel strongly that they will, and I predict a 20-3 Pittsburgh victory.
The Steelers offense, despite all of its talent and potency, has been lackluster away from Heinz Field.
How many times in previewing road games this season have I heard various fans and sports personalities in the Steel City discuss the overwhelming matchup advantages in Pittsburgh's favor, only for a close game to unfold.
Those nail-biters have been largely the result of turnovers and penalties. In this instance, I'm focusing on the offensive line as it concerns the yellow towels that aren't labeled "Terrible" that have shown up with frequency during Steelers road games.
Hold up! It's time for the unit to step up their game.
Tyler Palko and Curtis Painter are proof that a quarterbacking mismatch and gap of talent between two teams is not game-clinching. In both circumstances, turnovers kept teams in games that they had no business being in.
Who remembers the interception thrown to the Colts near midfield when Pittsburgh led 10-0? And who recalls the intense pressure brought all night by Freeney and Mathis?
Recalling from the contest in Kansas City, few have forgotten the red-zone turnovers and miscues that kept a potential blowout from stretching beyond a scary 13-9 lead.
Whether we're discussing improved blocking, minimizing penalties or avoiding turnovers, the Steelers must band together and commit to playing much better football away from Pennsylvania.
Otherwise, Super Bowl XLVI is an aberration and the season may be only days away from a shocking conclusion.
When he is called upon to throw the football, no matter the frequency, the Broncos will hope to sway the momentum of the game in their favor by taking advantage of a few risky throws. Under normal circumstances, playoff football would see Ben's long shots mostly connect.
Still healing this time around, Ben needs to make throws and not force throws. In other words, if Pittsburgh avoids turnovers and takes what is given to them, the rest of the team can win the game. If the definition of gunslinging was ever devoid of "gambling," this is the week Big Ben should prove it.
After all, let's face it: He's not going to be anywhere near 100 percent.
The most important ankle in Pittsburgh underwent massively unnecessary risk on Sunday in a win over Cleveland. In the contest, Ben Roethlisberger appeared uncomfortable, and his accuracy clearly suffered from a combination of weather elements (40 passes in those winds?) and an inability to plant into his throws.
With the offense largely unproductive, few would question that Charlie Batch could have done at least a comparable job in Cleve-town. Nevertheless, the game was won with No. 7 under center, per his own wishes to stay in game form. Hopefully, his ankle follows suit.
In fact, for Pittsburgh to have any hopes of a seventh championship in 2012, Sunday needs to be a pristine day in Colorado for Big Ben's bum ankle.
Can Isaac Redman and the running backs get the ground game going?
Will the offense game plan even allow the running game to assist Ben?
Did the offensive line spend its week gearing up for its best performance of the season, being able to avoid long down and distances that come with sacks and penalties?
Despite his decline statistically, everybody knows Mike Wallace can exploit a defensive secondary on any given play, exploding behind his coverage en route to a game-breaking touchdown. He's a wonderful talent and great athlete.
However, I stand by my conviction that the best all-around receiver on the team is Antonio Brown, able to run the dirty and luxurious routes, making the highlight reels with tough-nosed and acrobatic catches equally.
After a remarkable preseason, some wondered if Brown could stand up to the rigors of being a starting receiver, but few missed his potential.
Antonio answered the call...and then some.
With his laid-back demeanor and general charm, the humble Brown differentiated himself from Super Bowl XLIII MVP Santonio Holmes.
As the team's all-time record holder for most combined yards in a single season, including a gallery of eye-popping returns and receptions, the 2011 team MVP demonstrated himself in the same light as Holmes. From his ability to make amazing catches to his skills as a returner on special teams, No. 84 appeared at times to simply be No. 10 with a new shirt.
Brown needs to translate his MVP with the Black and Gold into a fantastic postseason.
While the Steel City has fallen in love with the breakout star, there are still those few fans around the casual NFL circuit who are not fully aware of the dynamic young second receiver on the Pittsburgh depth chart.
Brown needs to ensure they know exactly who he is in the coming weeks, playing his best before the national playoff audience.
Finding the end zone in Denver, no matter which phase of the game, would be a great start.
While listening to local radio during my bed-ridden week, many feel that the 2011 Denver Broncos are the worst playoff team the Steelers have ever faced.
2012 represents the 40th year following the Black and Gold's first ever playoff win, a 13-7 victory over the Oakland Raiders remembered less for the final score than the "Immaculate Reception" that decided the outcome.
In all of the playoffs since that miraculous game for the NFL's most successful modern franchise, are the 2011 Denver Broncos (on paper) the worst team the Steelers have ever faced? Why or why not?
And, if not, which team is the worst playoff team to ever play the Pittsburgh Steelers?
Please leave your thoughts in the comments.