Conference Championship Playoff Betting Previews
January 19, 2006 4:00 PM
Pittsburgh Steelers (13-5)
at Denver Broncos (14-3)
It may not be the game network
bigwigs were hoping for, but fans of smash-mouth
football are salivating over Sunday's AFC donnybrook
pitting the sixth-seeded Steelers against the
Even though Pittsburgh and Denver
haven't met since 2003, these teams should be
quite familiar with each other because they're
mirror images. Both squads love to run the ball,
using a bigger back inside and a faster back
outside. Both have one downfield threat they
rely on. Both smother the run defensively, using
a hard-hitting safety as an extra linebacker.
There should be plenty of teeth-rattling,
helmet-knocking hits on Sunday, with the victor
emerging from under a playoff cloud (Bill Cowher's
lack of success in title games, Mike Shanahan's
dearth of postseason wins sans John Elway) in
Detroit for Super Bowl XL.
the Steelers have the ball: Against the
Colts, Pittsburgh came out throwing and went
up quickly, 14-0. But by the end of the game
they had settled into their familiar format,
with 42 runs and 24 passes.
Why change now? Both teams are
far more effective when they don't have to ask
their quarterback to play from behind, so each
will do everything possible to get their ground
game started. What's nice for the Steelers is
that they're extremely familiar with Denver's
defensive line, seeing as most of them were
playing for the Browns last year. And, seeing
as Pittsburgh always runs the ball well against
Cleveland, they should enter this game extremely
confident about their prospects of moving the
ball on the ground.
Of course, the Browns don't have
John Lynch. And Denver's linebackers are pretty
Still, as long as this one stays
reasonably close the Steelers will continue
to hand the ball to Willie Parker and Jerome
Bettis. Each garnered 17 carries last week,
and odds are duties will be similarly split
against Denver: Parker will see the bulk of
the early carries, while Bettis should see the
goal-line work. Verron Haynes will be called
on as well, though he's clearly the third wheel
in the Steeler backfield.
Denver's defense hasn't surrendered
a running back rushing touchdown at home since
mid-October, and they've allowed only two 100-yard
rushers all season. It's unlikely either Parker
or Bettis get the carries to add to that total;
combined, however, they should reach triple-digit
yardage. If they do, it bodes extremely well
for the Steelers' chances of running the road
table and bringing Bettis home to Detroit for
the Super Bowl.
Despite the early flurry of passes,
Ben Roethlisberger's final numbers last week
were about what we've come to expect: a couple
touchdowns and around 200 yards (197 against
Indy) on about 20 or so attempts. The best news
for Big Ben this week is that he isn't likely
to be harassed by Denver's pass rush, which
ranked last in the league in sacks. The Broncos
do like to bring linebackers and safeties on
the pass rush, but Pittsburgh is ideally suited
to counter that plan with fullback Dan Kreider
picking up the blitz and tight end Heath Miller
working the middle of the field.
In fact, Miller—who caught
three balls for 61 yards and a touchdown last
week—will be a key to Pittsburgh's passing
game. With Champ Bailey shadowing Hines Ward,
if Roethlisberger can get the ball to Miller
exploiting the space vacated by Denver's blitzing
safeties it could keep the Broncos on their
heels—and allow them to run the ball more
effectively as well.
The Steelers may have more difficulty
getting Antwaan Randle El involved because of
the speed of Denver's linebackers. However,
if Bailey is locked on Ward he'll be working
against a pair of rookies, another matchup Roethlisberger
may feel compelled to exploit. And don't expect
Bailey to completely take Ward out of the picture;
the Steelers are famous for an array of direct
snaps and double passes that are sure to find
their way into Sunday's game plan.
Jeff Reed shouldn't be thrown
by the conditions, as the wind at Heinz Field
makes kicking their as difficult as anyplace
on the league. He's connected on eight straight
and should be money here as well, though don't
get your hopes up for a point orgy.
the Broncos have the ball: Everything
we said up above? Repeat it, only substitute
"Mike Anderson" for "Jerome Bettis,"
"Tatum Bell" for "Willie Parker,"
"Rod Smith" for "Hines Ward,"
and "Jake Plummer" for "Ben Roethlisberger."
Yes, these teams are that similar.
Like the Steelers, the Broncos prefer to run
the ball and limit Plummer's attempts, though
they're also not afraid to take a couple shots
downfield. Like Pittsburgh, Denver has one primary
target in the passing game that it will turn
to in almost every situation.
And, like the Broncos, the Steelers
play a little bit of defense—especially
against the run.
Denver's ground game was less
productive than usual against the Patriots,
though to give New England credit they've been
among the league's best against the run since
Richard Seymour returned to the lineup. That
said, the Broncos' 96 rushing yards against
the Pats matched their season low.
Will that stop Mike Shanahan
from trying to run against the Steel Curtain?
No. Despite the lack of yardage, Denver ran
32 times against the Pats and averages 35 rushing
attempts per home game. A pair of Mike Anderson
touchdown runs bumped their season total at
Invesco to 15 rushing scores in nine games.
We expected to see more Bell
last week, given his past success against the
Pats and the fact that his outside speed seemed
a better match for the New England defense;
however, it was Anderson who received 19 carries
and Bell just six. Again this week, Bell seems
to be the better play, but we're hesitant to
project anything more than a 50-50 split of
the workload. And, like Bettis across the way,
Anderson is the primary ball carrier when the
Broncos approach the stripe.
And much like the Steelers will
try to exploit Lynch creeping up towards the
line of scrimmage, the Broncos will identify
Troy Polamalu in the defensive game plan and
react accordingly. Neither views coverage as
their strong suit, so expect Plummer to use
the old Bronco standby—the bootleg toss
to the tight end—to direct plays away
from the blitz and from Polamalu's tackling.
One area the Broncos may have
an edge is in the deep passing game, where Smith
and Ashley Lelie could exploit the Steelers'
Cover 3 when Polamalu comes up for support.
Expect Plummer to take a couple shots down the
field, perhaps early on in order to excite the
home crowd and get the Broncos on top.
Plummer's mobility could also
negate Pittsburgh's frequent blitzes, though
would anyone be that surprised if a few pops
from Polamalu and Joey Porter suddenly turn
"No Mistake Jake" back into the Plummer
we all knew and loved back in his interception-slinging
Jason Elam connected twice last
week—once from 50 yards out—and
has missed just once in the thin air since the
end of September. He certainly inspires confidence
in his offense, as they know if they get in
position the former Rainbow Warrior will knock
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