Steelers travel to Denver for Divisional Round match-up against Broncos

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Photo used courtesy of: Andy McLemore. (CC) Some rights reserved.

The banged up Steelers will be at Sports Authority Field at Mile High Sunday afternoon at 4:40 p.m. (ET) to take on the Broncos in a AFC Divisional Round match-up.

The winner will go on to the AFC Championship game. The loser will go home for the winter to ask a bunch of “what ifs?” For the Steelers to be the team to make it one step closer to Super Bowl 50, they will have to compensate for the absence of All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown, who was ruled out of Sunday’s game after suffering a concussion near the end of the wild card match-up against the Bengals on January 9. Brown led the NFL in catches in 2015 (136) and yards (1,834), and he certainly can’t be replaced by just anyone. Therefore, a wide receiver committee that includes Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant and Darrius Heyward-Bey will have to pick up the slack. Pittsburgh’s receiving corps has long been considered the deepest in the NFL (don’t forget rookie Sammie Coates), and if there was ever a time for that depth to be counted on, it will be against the Broncos’ top ranked defense that also includes a top ranking against the pass. The last time these two teams met–a 34-27 come-from-behind victory by the Steelers–Brown had 16 catches for 189 yards and two touchdowns. Therefore, the remaining receivers are going to have to come through in a big way in-order to make up for such an integral offensive weapon.

Pittsburgh will also have to compensate for the right shoulder of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, or at least the 12-year veteran will have to do so when he makes his throws. Roethlisberger had to leave last Saturday’s wild game against Cincinnati early in the fourth quarter after a hard sack by linebacker Vontaze Burfict left him with an ailing throwing shoulder. After being carted into the locker room for evaluation, Roethlisberger went back in late in the game to lead the Steelers on a game-winning field goal drive to extend the season at least another week.

Roethlisberger was quickly diagnosed with a right shoulder sprain, and after an MRI revealed no serious damage, the superstar quarterback’s status remained up in the air throughout the week, as he didn’t throw until Friday. However, head coach Mike Tomlin was pleased with the throws Roethlisberger was able to make when he finally did throw, and he is expected to start Sunday’s game.

Veteran running back DeAngelo Williams, who missed the wild card game with a foot/ankle injury, will not play against the Broncos and will once again be replaced by Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman, who teamed up for 183 total yards last week in Pittsburgh’s 18-16 victory.

The Broncos have some quarterback issues of their own, despite having the conference’s top seed and home-field advantage. Veteran Peyton Manning, 39, is going to start his first game since November 15, when he suffered a foot injury and had to miss the rest of the regular season, save for the second half of the finale against the Chargers, when he passed for just 69 yards.

Manning struggled mightily before his injury, throwing just nine touchdown passes to 17 interceptions in nine games, as the Broncos jumped out to a 7-2 start.

The Broncos a sound running game and receiving weapons in DeMaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, so there will be more than enough weapons to surround Manning with on Sunday. It will be imperative for a Steelers defense that recorded 48 sacks during the regular season to get after the veteran quarterback as much as possible and force him into mistakes. The Steelers’ defense had 30 takeaways in the regular season and recorded a whopping four last week against Cincinnati–including a forced fumble by Ryan Shazier in the final minute-and-a-half that set-up the winning field goal.

Despite the absence of both Brown and Williams, the Steelers might have enough to squeak out a close, low-scoring affair.

Prediction: Steelers 17, Broncos 13.

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