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ESNY’s NFL Divisional Round Preview

Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos

Unlike New England, who is welcoming back several offensive playmakers from injury as they head into their matchup against KC, Pittsburgh is saying bye to two of the team’s top playmakers right before the team travels to Denver to take on the NFL’s top defense.

DeAngelo Williams will miss another important game this weekend as he continues to deal with his foot injury, and will now have company on the sidelines as star wide receiver Antonio Brown was officially ruled out with a concussion. Brown suffered the concussion on the late-game Vontaze Burfict hit that drew a personal foul and set up the game-winning field goal last week in Cincinnati.

With Williams and Brown both out for this game, it’s going to be up to a banged up Ben Roethlisberger to work some playoff magic with the weapons he has left–Marcus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant. Unfortunately they’ll be going up against a Denver defense that on average allowed less than 200 passing yards per game and racked up a league-high 52 sacks this season.

The combination of Chris Harris Jr., Aqib Talib and Bradley Roby in the secondary, and Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware up front has proved to be lethal for the Broncos this season and it’s one of the main reasons they’ve made it to this point. Offensively, Denver struggled to find their identity this season as they dealt with two different quarterbacks, multiple starting running backs, and inconsistent play from their star wide receiver, Demaryius Thomas.

Now that Peyton Manning is healthy and back in the starting lineup however, Denver’s offense figures to have no issues moving the ball against a Pittsburgh defense that allowed 271.9 passing yards per game (30th) this season. That is, if they can protect their aging quarterback from the Steelers fearsome pass rush. Pittsburgh finished just below Denver this season with a sack total of 48 (3rd).

Ultimately, whichever team gets the running game going and owns the turnover margin will win this game. Both teams have a hall of fame quarterback commanding their offense, but both QB’s are going up against very good front sevens. It’s hard to imagine Big Ben pulling this one off against a Denver defense that may go down as one of the best the NFL has ever seen, especially without Williams and Brown at his disposal.

Alternatively, it’s not so hard to imagine Peyton Manning, fueled by recent HGH accusations, Omaha-ing his way up and down the field against Pittsburgh’s defense and leading Denver to the AFC Championship game. The offensive line will have to do their part, but in many ways Peyton is a sixth member of the o-line because of his ability to recognize blitzes and make adjustments.

If Manning can do this and stay on his feet for most of the game, Denver’s defense will do the rest. Big Ben doesn’t have enough magic or enough playmakers at his disposal to pull off this upset against this defense.

Prediction: Denver 34, Pittsburgh 24

I'm a senior journalism and communications major at THE University of Connecticut, as well as a die hard Jets and Knicks fan. College football and basketball have their place in my heart, but the NFL is my pride and joy.