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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — After an improbable comeback win in Week 11, the Denver Broncos only sit one game out of the final Wildcard spot.
With six games remaining, there is a renewed optimism for the 2018 season.
But as the Broncos are preaching, it’s one game at a time.
On Sunday, the Terrible Towel, accompanied by the 7-2-1 Pittsburgh Steelers, enter the Mile High City to put a kibosh on Denver even thinking about the playoffs.
Will Pittsburgh succeed? Or will Denver spark a magical playoff run just as the holidays roll around?
The BSN Broncos crew breaks it down.
WE TALKIN’ ABOUT… PLAYOFFS?!
Wellllllll… — While Vance Joseph certainly is not ready to talk about this, it’s not entirely crazy.
With that in mind, Sunday’s game against the Steelers is essentially a do-or-die game for the slim playoff chances that exist.
If the Broncos can get by the Steelers this week and the Bengals next week, they have a real chance to reel off six in a row, potentially making their final game of the season against the Chargers a win-or-go-home scenario.
The Broncos believe they can make this happen right now, and that’s the most important part. Win on Sunday, and that belief will grow even stronger.
Why not! — It’s truly remarkable that, after losing six of seven games, the Broncos sit just one game out of the final wild-card spot.
With six games remaining, the focus should be, and is, 100 percent on making a run to January football.
Saying that, the odds are not in their favor as five teams sit at 5-5 with all of them owning the tiebreaker (conference record) over Denver.
There’s an outside shot — As I illustrated in a recent piece with the help of the “Pythagorean win theorem,” given the Broncos tough schedule up to this point and a much easier stretch moving forward, Denver has a shot at the wide open sixth seed in the AFC.
That said, it’s an outside shot, as the runner-up in the AFC South—the Houston Texans or red-hot Indianapolis Colts— or the Baltimore Ravens are the front-runners. The Texans and Ravens aren’t just ahead of the Broncos in the standings, they also have a valuable head to head ‘W’ that gives them much better odds to make the final wild-card spot.
Which makes this game against the Steelers absolutely crucial, as expecting the Broncos to go 5-0 in their last five games and the Colts and Ravens to lose two more will significantly decrease their odds.
The Broncos should feel like they still have a shot to, but they’re far from the favorites.
Broncos linebackers and safeties against Steelers backs and tight ends — Obviously, Pittsburgh has the two big-name receivers in Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster, but if your safeties are too concerned about the deep threat of those two guys, the middle of the field could be very exposed for a tight end like Vance McDonald to go off.
On top of that, James Conner has been a problem in the receiving game thus far this season. Denver is going to need to have a great plan for containing both McDonald and Conner in this one. If you think this offense cant hurt you beyond the wideouts, you’re going to have a bad time.
Broncos’ offensive line vs. Steelers’ pass rush — Denver’s makeshift offensive line did a remarkable job against the Los Angels Chargers’ stout pass rush — featuring Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram — not giving up a single sack for the first time all season.
Bosa, Ingram and the Chargers’ pass rush, however, look cute compared to what the Steelers bring to the table.
Led by J.J. Watt’s brother, T.J., Pittsburgh has the NFL’s best pass rush, racking up SIX more sacks than Von Miller, Bradley Chubb and Co.
If Garett Bolles, Billy Turner, Connor McGovern, Elijah Wilkinson and Jared Veldheer — yes, that’s Denver’s starting offensive line — can keep Case Keenum relatively clean, Denver will have an excellent shot at another upset.
However, if the Steelers make Denver’s line look like a bunch of backups, the Broncos won’t have a chance to keep up with Big Ben.
Denver’s cornerbacks vs. the Steelers talented receiving core — With the loss of Adam ‘Pacman’ Jones who had been Denver’s clear third-best corner, this matchup becomes even tougher for the Broncos to win.
The Steelers duo of Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster will test Denver’s depth severely and Brown going against Chris Harris Jr. will be a big one-on-one battle to watch. Harris has had a terrific season thus far but struggled against the Los Angeles Chargers last week, as Keenan Allen gave him all he could handle, and Brown won’t be any easier to cover.
How Bradley Roby, who’s just recently cleared the concussion protocol, fairs against Smith-Schuster will be a huge test for No. 29 who’s had an up and down season.
Pittsburgh running back James Conner is having a great season, but I’m less concerned of the run game, as the Broncos have picked it up defensively with the return of Will Parks, who’s helped the nickel run defense significantly.
How the Broncos handle the Steelers receivers, and if they can force a turnover or two, should be the decider in this one.
THE BRONCOS WIN IF…
Their pass rush does what they’re paid to do — So much of hat ‘Big Ben’ wants to do involves getting time in the pocket or buying extra time in the pocket with his unique elusiveness.
if the Broncos’ combo of Von Miller and Bradley Chubb can make his life hell in the pocket, they can take away the most dangerous part of the Steelers’ offense—the deep ball. If you can force the Pittsburgh offense to adjust to your pressure, you have a great cha1nce at contaning them to a number that your offense can top.
The defense, once again, makes multiple big plays — Statistically, Denver’s defense did not play well against the Chargers, giving up nearly 500 yards of offense and 401 passing yards to Philip Rivers.
But they came up with two game-changing interceptions by their two best players, Von Miller and Chris Harris Jr.
Roethlisberger is 100 percent capable of dropping another 400-yard game on Denver, and the Broncos could actually withstand that if they’re able to come up with multiple turnovers a second week in a row.
Pittsburgh puts up points, yards and turnovers with the best of them as they have the seventh-most turnovers in the league.
So I’m telling you there’s a chance.
Win the turnover battle — This is piggybacking off of Zac’s answer a bit, but it’s a key for sure. If the Broncos are to win, they need to play turnover free on offense and generate one or two giveaways on defense, that’s been their roadmap to success this season, and it won’t change against the Steelers.
Just winning the turnover battle won’t be enough either against Pittsburgh’s high-scoring offense that’s averaging 29.6 points per game—third best in the NFL—the Broncos will have to capitalize on those opportunities. In their current five-game win streak the Steelers have lost the turnover battle twice and still won easily against the Cleveland Browns and squeaked one out last week against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Denver’s defense will have to play a special game, and the offense has to get points once they’re in the Steelers half of the field, simple as that. If the Broncos could play a clean game like they did against the Chargers last week—avoiding penalties and major breakdowns on the offensive line and secondary—that would go a long way, too.
Broncos 27, Steelers 24 — The Broncos have played some of the best teams in the NFL extremely close on multiple occasions, but they haven’t yet broken through.
Now, though, with a newfound belief in themselves, the Broncos find a way to make the necessary plays to pull one out at home.
They’ve always had the talent; now they have the belief.
Steelers 24, Broncos 23 — Denver can hang with the second-best team in the AFC. And they likely will.
But the combination of Big Ben, James Conner — who is performing better than Le’Veon Bell did in many categories — and the Steelers’ pass rush up against Denver’s offensive line will just be too tough a task.
Steelers 27, Broncos 24 — This team has proven that coming into Mile High is no easy task and while the Steelers are good, they’re far from perfect.
The concern is keeping pace with the Steelers passing offense with a young receiving corps and a still unproven offensive line group. That’s how the visitors manage to pull off the ‘W’ in a higher-scoring affair than we’ve been used to this season.