This game serves as a rematch of the exhilarating wildcard round contest from last season's playoffs between these two teams. The Broncos came out victorious 29-23 in overtime, but this season's Denver squad has one well-publicized change.
Out is playoff hero Tim Tebow, jettisoned to the New York Jets. In his place is future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning, who sat out all last season due to neck problems and still isn't fully recovered. For all intents and purposes, this is an all-in season for Denver.
On the other hand, Pittsburgh is largely returning a cast of the same faces, other than retired wide receiver Hines Ward. Head coach Mike Tomlin's squad comes into every season with high expectations, and this year is no different.
We'll get an answer to whether either team can actually live up to those expectations on Sunday. With that in mind, here's everything you need to know about Sunday night's game.
Where: Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver, Co.
When: Sunday, September 9 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Listen: WDVE 102.5 FM (Pittsburgh), 850 AM KOA (Denver)
Live Streaming: Sunday Night Football All Access
Betting Line: Broncos (-1.5), according to Bovada.lv
Over/Under: 44.5, according to Bovada.lv
What's At Stake?
For both teams Week 1 is all about starting out well and finding peace of mind.
Broncos management wants to see how Manning will do under duress in full game speed. If he's able to sustain himself against the Steelers' vaunted pass rush, the franchise should feel safe in its decision.
However, if Pittsburgh is able to fluster Manning early and the passes wobble out of that questionable right arm, there could be cause for concern.
For the Steelers, this game is less about playoff vengeance than finding a rhythm on offense. Top receiver Mike Wallace's holdout allowed for Antonio Brown to possibly usurp some targets going forward. And with Rashard Mendenhall on the mend, the team is still vacillating between Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer at running back.
There are ton of lingering questions for both sides, with Sunday hopefully providing some answers.
Steelers Injury Report (via CBS Sports)
QB Ben Roethlisberger, Ankle, Probable
RB Isaac Redman, Hip, Probable
RB Rashard Mendenhall, Ankle, Questionable
DL Brett Keisel, Ankle, Probable
DL Casey Hampton, Knee, Questionable
S Ryan Clark, Illness, Out
Broncos Injury Report (via CBS Sports)
RB Mario Fannin, Achilles, Out for Season
RB Ronnie Hillman, Hamstring, Probable
LB Jason Hunter, Triceps, Doubtful
Fantasy Player to Watch: WR Eric Decker/WR Demaryius Thomas
With the Broncos set to undoubtedly have an improved passing attack this season, either Decker or Thomas will have to step up as Manning's No. 1 target.
Through the preseason, that man looks to be Decker. The third-year wideout caught both of Manning's touchdowns this preseason and has a skill-set mirroring that (albeit to a lower level) of Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne.
On the other hand, Thomas is more of a wildcard. His athleticism and ability to stretch the field make him an attractive option for leagues that reward big plays. On the other hand, he's a questionable route-runner and seemingly didn't connect with Manning during the exhibition slate.
If you have both on your roster, feel lucky. One will break out and have a Pro Bowl season as long as Manning stays healthy. We'll just need to see both in action Sunday to see which one is the clubhouse favorite to do so.
What They're Saying
With incumbent starting running back Mendenhall unlikely to play Sunday, the Steelers will lean on Redman and Dwyer to fill the void.
And although most thought Redman would become the team's workhorse in Mendenhall's absence, Dwyer's emergence in the preseason has caused a tiny controversy in Pittsburgh.
Both will get work Sunday, but Dwyer's ability to catch the ball seems to have caught the Steelers' coaching staff by surprise.
Via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette:
That job has included something the Steelers are fast discovering, that Dwyer also can catch the ball. He caught only 15 passes in his three seasons at Georgia Tech, and one in the regular season with the Steelers. He caught four Saturday night in Buffalo, including a 33-yarder from Ben Roethlisberger on third down at the 3 that jump-started a 98-yard touchdown drive.
"I've really worked on it," Dwyer said of his receiving. "It's something they didn't think I could do when I first came out of college, and I'm just trying to make me an all-around player."
There is no running back controversy in Denver, leaving all eyes to be focused on the team's new quarterback.
While most seem zeroed in on how Manning will do physically, the Denver Post's Mike Klis had a feature on what the quarterback's mental prowess should do for the Broncos.
Via the Denver Post:
There are times when Manning can tell merely by watching how a linebacker stands whether he is going to drop into coverage or sprint forward on a blitz. Manning can watch how his receiver comes off the line of scrimmage and tell whether he will be open 17½ yards down the field. The Broncos don't have to put a tight end in motion to figure out whether the safety is going to chase, which would indicate man-to-man defense, or drop back into a zone.
Steelers Key Player: QB Ben Roethlisberger
With questions at running back and wide receiver, it's likely that Pittsburgh will rely heavily on its star quarterback to help figure out the depth chart.
At receiver, it's not hard. Wallace and Brown will start. Whichever one of those guys gets more targets this week is likely the one Roethlisberger feels more comfortable with at this point.
Running back is much murkier. Neither Redman nor Dwyer got extensive in-game preseason work with Roethlisberger, so it will be an in-game test for both parties. A quarterback-running back relationship is all about timing and fluidity. So whichever back takes the handoff "correctly," sells the play-action the best and hits the holes the hardest will get Roethlisberger's vote of confidence.
Nevertheless, until those relatively small issues are figured out, Tomlin will rely heavily on his quarterback on Sunday. And with the Broncos defense ranking No. 20 in passing yards against last season, that might not be such a bad thing.
Broncos Key Player: QB Peyton Manning
You can consider an abundance of other players for this spot, but the 2012 Broncos' fate rests squarely on No. 18's shoulders this season.
And with Manning still not 100 percent healthy, the Denver quarterback has the league's biggest test in Week 1. Last season the Steelers gave up just 171.9 passing yards per-game, easily the best rate in the NFL. With most of those players returning and starting against Denver, it could be a tough go for Manning's first regular season game in 20 months.
Regardless of what you want to say about Tebow, vice president of football operations John Elway took a massive gamble giving Manning a five-year, $96 million deal. And it's up to Manning (and his health) to live up to that contract.
A solid performance against the Steelers will go a long way toward making the Broncos organization and its fans sleep at night.
Which team will win on Sunday?
I learned the hard way in college to never bet against Manning in a regular season night game, and I'm going to heed that warning here.
In a Sunday night game with Denver's crowd likely to be louder than any point in the Tebow era, Week 1 will be the nation's re-introduction to one of the best quarterbacks in league history.
Look for Manning to connect on a couple of scores and the Broncos pass rush to carve through a questionable Steelers line. The game will be close, but Denver will come out with a clutch early-season victory.
Score Prediction: Broncos 24, Steelers 21