Numbers rule the matchup between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Denver Broncos in Sunday's divisional round.
Well, that and injuries. But 34, that's the amount of points Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers posted against the Broncos in a Week 15 victory, the only team to post more than 30 points against the unit, while Big Ben emerged as the only gunslinger to post more than 300 passing yards on the unit.
One, as in one game, is all the Broncos needed to see from Peyton Manning to get him back in the starting lineup. Now healthy, the veteran entered the team's season-ending win against the San Diego Chargers and showed enough to make him the starter this weekend.
Below, let's break down all the notable numbers while predicting some and coming to a conclusion about who will emerge the winner of this heavyweight bout.
When: Sunday, January 17, at 4:40 p.m. ET
Where: Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver
Spread: Denver (-7)
|QB Ben Roethlisberger||22-of-35, 245 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT|
|RB Fitzgerald Toussaint||18 rush, 74 yards|
|WR Martavis Bryant||6 rec, 84 yards, 1 TD|
|WR Markus Wheaton||4 rec, 65 yards|
|TE Heath Miller||10 rec, 66 yards|
It's hard to imagine the Steelers can go for 30 points against the elite Denver defense again.
Look at the projections above. There's no DeAngelo Williams at running back and Antonio Brown at wideout. The former's been in a walking boot for weeks and missed last weekend's game against the Cincinnati Bengals.
In that game, Brown suffered a concussion that will hold him out this weekend, according to Fox Sports' Mike Garafolo:
Steelers have ruled out WR Antonio Brown.— Mike Garafolo (@MikeGarafolo) January 15, 2016
The same AFC North slugfest claimed Big Ben, too, as he left with a shoulder issue. He's more likely to go this Sunday after returning to last weekend's game late, but when he did it was clear he couldn't push the ball down the field as necessary and was quite averse to extending plays with his feet and taking hits.
The Pittsburgh offense will turn to third-stringer Fitzgerald Toussaint at running back and will have to hope Martavis Bryant can function as a No. 1 wideout like Brown would, albeit probably on shorter, more predictable routes with Big Ben injured.
Keep in mind all of this has to happen on the road in Denver against a fourth-ranked scoring defense that allows just 18.5 points per game, not to mention the top-ranked pass defense and third-ranked rush defense.
So, yes, those number projections don't look incredibly impressive. How could they? If Big Ben was healthy, maybe the numbers would look better. Ditto if the game went down in Pittsburgh. Or maybe if Roethlisberger had at least a top running back or wideout available.
But nothing's going right for the Steelers here. Big Ben's going to constantly check down to reliable names such as Heath Miller, and Denver's going to swarm to the football with ease.
|QB Peyton Manning||27-of-33, 289 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT|
|RB Ronnie Hillman||14 rush, 84 yards, 1 TD|
|RB C.J. Anderson||12 rush, 55 yards|
|WR Demaryius Thomas||9 rec, 115 yards, 2 TD|
|WR Emmanuel Sanders||8 rec, 79 yards|
Manning doesn't figure to have to do much this weekend, not with his defense exploiting a hobbled Pittsburgh defense left and right.
He went just 5-of-9 with 69 yards in the aforementioned contest against the Chargers, but he showed enough from a health standpoint while leading scoring drives that he's the starter this weekend.
Outside of finally looking healthy and making the necessary NFL throws again, the Broncos want Manning on the field for the mental aspect. Just ask Steelers linebacker James Harrison, according to NFL Network's Aditi Kinkhabwala:
James Harrison on trying to trick Peyton Manning w/ a defense: "Why window dress it? He's going to undress it anyway."— Aditi Kinkhabwala (@AKinkhabwala) January 13, 2016
Pittsburgh ranked fifth against the rush this year, allowing just 91.2 yards per game on the ground. But with it having to worry about Manning on the road, Ronnie Hillman and others shouldn't have problems finding space.
Not that Manning will struggle. Pittsburgh happened to rank 30th against the pass this year. In the Week 15 matchup, backup Brock Osweiler tossed three touchdowns against the unit, and Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas combined for 15 catches for 242 yards and the three scores.
This time, Denver will look to pound the ball a little more and control the pace, which makes sense. The defense shouldn't struggle against an injured unit, and the Steelers will have to face quite a different offense than what it encountered in Week 15 now that Manning's back and capable of running the offense under center or out of the shotgun.
As most do, Denver will post numbers against the Pittsburgh defense. At home, the numbers will translate to points, too.
The writing's on the wall in this one.
As the AFC North always tends to do, it didn't allow either team to emerge from last weekend unscathed. Pittsburgh's here and alive, but only by a thread. Big Ben might surprise and be able to throw farther than anticipated, but without Brown and a credible runner, the offense will be stuck in quicksand.
At home, Manning won't encounter much in the way of problems running a ball-control offense. If the backup could do it, a healthy Manning most certainly can, and if for some reason he struggles, well, the backup has already proved he can.
Any way it's sliced, the Broncos aren't losing at home.
Prediction: Broncos 28, Steelers 20