Considering their start to the season — and the middle-of-the-schedule slump — for the Denver Broncos to even be thinking about the playoffs at this point is somewhat ludicrous.
However, here we are. If the Broncos, who beat the white-hot Chargers last week, can find a way to win against the 7-2-1 Pittsburgh Steelers today, Denver will work their way back into the playoff conversation.
A win would give the Broncos a 5-6 record on the season with five games to go, featuring a run of winnable games against the Bengals (5-5), 49ers (2-8), Browns (3-6-1) and Raiders (2-8) before finishing against the Chargers.
Win today and Denver could somehow, someway turn it into a massive win streak with those weak opponents. Especially at the end of a long season when three of those teams know they’ll be home for the postseason.
But none of that matters if they don’t first win today.
Pittsburgh comes into the contest as a well-rounded opponent, and maybe the best team the orange and blue has faced all year long. They’re currently fourth in scoring (29.9 points per game) and 10th in scoring defense, allowing 22.5 PPG.
“Big” Ben Roethlisberger throws the ball more than any other quarterback this year, and he’s got a ton of talented targets. We know about how deadly Antonio Brown is, and his matchup against Chris Harris will be great as always. But, don’t forget about JuJu Smith-Schuster against Bradley Roby.
And for the Broncos to give themselves a chance at winning, focusing on covering two-headed tight end monsters Vance MacDonald and Jesse James will be key. Tight ends have killed the Denver defense all year long and the two have combined for 751 yards and five touchdowns this season.
Of course, when the Steelers throw the ball, that means Roethlisberger may turn it over. His 10 interceptions are tied for fourth-worst in the NFL and if Denver wants to win, they need to find a way to force the veteran quarterback into multiple mistakes.
Getting pressure on “Big Ben” is crucial, but so is taking him down once they’ve made contact. Roethlisberger’s huge frame makes him difficult to sack, and he’s mobile enough to make plays on the run.
The key on defense for Denver today is Von Miller, Bradley Chubb and the rest of the defense pressuring, sacking and picking off the Steelers stalwart.
Defensively, Pittsburgh has allowed 21 or fewer points in six straight games, with four of those being in the teens. The Broncos offense — who’s struggled mightily all season long — has to focus on making the most of their opportunities today.
Case Keenum, who’s tied with Roethlisberger in the interception department, needs to be that game-manager the Broncos thought they were getting when they signed him in the offseason. Turning the ball over today will lead to certain failure for Keenum and Co.
One only has to look to last week to see the Broncos’ recipe for success against a playoff-caliber team: Keenum had zero interceptions for the first time all year long while Denver ran over the century mark (108 yards) with three touchdowns on the ground.
Repeat that today, by handing it off to the explosive Phillip Lindsay, while throwing safe routes, and the Broncos will have a chance at victory.
Win today and the Broncos are back in the playoff conversation for the first time since late 2016.
Denver (4-6) hosts Pittsburg (7-2-1) at Mile High Stadium with a 2:25 p.m. MST kickoff.
Pittsburgh is a familiar foe for the Broncos. In fact, they’re two of the most dominant AFC teams when it comes to Super Bowl appearances, with eight each. Only the New England Patriots’ 10 is more.
Head-to-head all-time, Denver holds the 14-8-1 advantage, including their 23-16 Divisional Round win in 2016 as the Broncos went on to win Super Bowl 50.
Go back to 2012 and the Tim Tebow to Demaryius Thomas miracle in overtime of a playoff game, and go back further to 2006 when the Steelers ended Denver’s Super Bowl hopes in the AFC Championship Game with Jake Plummer as QB.
Including playoffs, Roethlisberger is 3-5 against the Broncos, and 2-3 in regular season games.
Go way, way back to 1974 and the Broncos and Steelers played the first-ever overtime game against one another, a 35-35 tie. The Broncos also beat Pittsburgh, at Three Rivers Stadium, in the Divisional Round in 1977 on the way to Denver’s first franchise Super Bowl appearance.