By Christina Rivers

The last time the Denver Broncos and Pittsburgh Steelers met was on December 20 at Heinz Field. The game was a perfect illustration of two halves that looked like separate matches altogether. After allowing the Broncos to get a large first-half lead, the Steelers defense adjusted to shutout the Broncos for a 34-27 win. With memories of the 2006 AFC Championship game in the minds of many, the Broncos look to get revenge for the loss during the regular season as well as the opportunity to redeem themselves after allowing Pittsburgh to use them as a stepping stone to Super Bowl XL in Detroit.

Broncos have Manning at the helm, concerns along line

Denver’s offense was run by backup Brock Osweiler when they visited Pittsburgh. Dealing with several injuries, the offense got off to a hot start and then fizzled. Osweiler exposed areas of the Steelers’ pass defense that has been suspect during the entire 2015 NFL regular season. Manning may not be 100 percent, but head coach Gary Kubiak said that his quarterback looks fresh and has been throwing the ball well in practices. Manning’s biggest concern will likely be his offensive line; riddled with injuries that forced offensive coordinator Rick Dennison to continue moving players in and out as they were assaulted nearly non-stop by opposing defenses. This line watched Khalil Mack of the Oakland Raiders burn them for a five-sack game and the Steelers are likely to key in on soft spots to harry Manning. Denver gave up the 13th most sacks in the league (39), with 26 of those occurring in the past eight games (3.25 per game) of the regular season.

Denver ‘D’ is at its best entering contest

The Broncos benefit from a defense that has become razor-wire sharp. As the top overall defense in the league, Denver can boast top in total defense, pass defense, number of sacks, fewest yards allowed per play, fewest yards allowed per rush, fewest yards allowed per pass and drop to third against the run. They even scored five regular season touchdowns. Against the Steelers, Denver expects to have safety T.J. Ward and cornerback Chris Harris, Jr., right on track and will be keeping an eye on the hamstring injury to safety Darian Stewart. Beyond outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (left knee), the Broncos look healthy in the divisional round.

Things to watch in this game

The Broncos found success in attacking the seams in December against the Steelers and if tight end Owen Daniels is healthy enough to play, watch for Denver to take advantage of the soft outside coverage Pittsburgh has been willing to give and attack the seam with play-action in one-on-one mismatches with linebackers. The Steelers have improved how they play teams with strong tight ends, but have stumbled when teams have picked up the blitz to find players open in the space abandoned by guys like Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier.

The Steelers have a ton of questions headed into this meeting. Roethlisberger may or may not be able to play after suffering a shoulder injury against the Cincinnati Bengals, but he came in to help win the Wild Card game. Receiver Antonio Brown is in concussion protocols and the Steelers may not have DeAngelo Williams at running back. The Broncos will prepare for the best if they want to beat the best.

Erasing the memories to succeed

Champ Bailey has been publicly open with his feelings over the 2005 AFC Championship game. As a cornerback, he admitted that it was necessary to have a short memory, but it was that one game he never quite put behind him. “The only way to get rid of a loss like that…is to win,” Bailey said. “Otherwise, you’re always going to be (mad) you didn’t get it done.” Denver didn’t get it done and they watched Pittsburgh take the title of Super Bowl Champions, a title Denver believed was theirs.

On Sunday, the Broncos won’t want a repeat of the 34-17 win the Steelers took out of their city in 2006. They can’t afford to let the Steelers shut down their ability to produce points like the December 20 game. They’ll have to put those memories in the rear-view by winning. The Steelers aren’t likely to give them an easy next step on the way to Super Bowl 50.

Christina Rivers has covered the Pittsburgh Steelers and National Football League professionally as a journalist and photographer for over a decade. Rivers studied Exercise Physiology and Sports Psychology at Brigham Young University as a student-athlete. Christina is a freelance writer covering all things NFL as well as a published author. Her work can be found on
Examiner.com.

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