Newyorkjets.com will profile each playoff game in this NFL postseason, with a special eye on Jets angles in each of the matchups. Today: the two AFC Wild Card Game to be played Sunday:
(5) PITTSBURGH (12-4) at (4) DENVER (8-8), 4:30 p.m. ET, CBS
As is often the case, this game will be a battle of quarterbacks with stories. For the Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger is playing on a high ankle sprain that he said he aggravated in last Sunday's win at Cleveland. But no one, not Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin or Roethlisberger's teammates or Steelers Nation, doubts that Big Ben will be ready to stand tall in the pocket.
However, Roethlisberger will be without RB Rashard Mendenhall (knee) and C Maurkice Pouncey (ankle). Isaac Redman starts for Mendenhall, the 928-yard featured back who is out for the postseason with a torn ACL. Pouncey's loss is a blow to the Pitt offense, which averages six points more a game with their OL intact than when it's fractured. Doug Legursky will start at C and Trai Essex will move in at Legursky's G spot.
On the other side is Tim Tebow. Before losing his last three starts this season, the unconventional QB had the NFL abuzz with his seven-out-of-eight win streak that lifted the Broncos into the catbird seat as the AFC's fourth division titlist and into their first playoff berth in six years.
Now it's time, as Denver executive VP John Elway said this week, for Tebow to throw caution to the wind, sort of.
"When you get into these playoff situations, he's a good enough athlete to pull the trigger," Elway said. "He's obviously upset with last week. He's already got an edge to him, so he's ready to go. I like seeing the edge. Oh, yeah. I actually love it. I have full confidence he'll bounce back and have a good week."
A couple of other injury notes affect Pittsburgh's dominant defense. S Ryan Clark, who led the Steelers D with more than 1,000 snaps this season, will be held out because of the health concerns over his sickle cell trait, which causes a blood reaction under extreme physical conditions at high altitude. The condition cost him two of his internal organs, his spleen and gall bladder, after he played and got sick at Denver in '07. Ryan Mundy starts in Clark's place.
Despite Clark's absence and the injuries that had S Troy Polamalu (calf), LB James Harrison (toe) and DE Brett Keisel (groin) not practicing Wednesday and Thursday, the Steelers defense — first in the NFL in total yards, passing yards and points allowed — will be more than ready to stop Tebow and the Broncos' 31st-ranked passing offense.
LB LaMarr Woodley is the first player in NFL history to have at least one sack in seven consecutive postseason games and will be looking to make it eight straight by taking down Tebow.
But can Denver make it a game with their No. 1 rushing offense, spearheaded by RB Willis McGahee (1,199 rushing yards, 4.8 per carry) and Tebow (660-5.4) finding the creases in the Steelers' eighth-ranked run defense?
Meanwhile, the Broncos' dangerous defense, led by LB Von Miller (11.5 sacks) and DE Elvis Dumervil (9.5), will try to turn Pittsburgh over. The Steelers are only the second NFL team since the 1970 merger with at least 10 wins to have only 15 takeaways in a season and only the fifth double-digits winner since '70 with a TO margin of minus-13 or lower.
Steelers beware, and not just of the Tebow Effect but also the Big Record Means Nothing Syndrome. This is the third time in four years that a wild-card team has gone on the road with a record four games better than its homestanding, division-winning opponent. The previous two home teams have won: San Diego (8-8) over Indianapolis (12-4) in OT in '08 and Seattle (7-9) over New Orleans (11-5) last year.
Pittsburgh, we all remember, beat the Jets to advance to Super Bowl XLV in Dallas a year ago, where they lost to the Packers, 31-25. They have appeared in seven Super Bowls, winning six, and are 33-20 all-time in the postseason. Denver has appeared in six Super Bowls, losing its first four and winning their last two, after the '97 and '98 seasons. The Broncos are 17-15 alltime in the postseason.
The teams have had six postseason meetings and have won three apiece, with the winner advancing to the Super Bowl five times. The last time they played in the playoffs, it was also at Denver, in the '05 AFC Championship Game. The Steelers, despite being the sixth seed, opened a 24-3 halftime lead en route to a 34-17 bouncing of the two-seed Broncos as Roethlisberger threw for two TDs and ran for a third. Then Pitt went on to clip the Seahawks' wings in SBXLV.
Overall, the Broncos leads the series, 16-10-1. They had won four in a row at Denver until '09, when the Steelers came to town for a 28-10 triumph.
The Steelers of course have WR Jerricho Cotchery, whom the Jets released when he requested it in August and who went on to catch 16 passes (30 targets) for 237 yards (14.8 avg.) and two TDs. LB James Farrior, the Jets' first-round pick (eighth overall) in 1997, continues to roll along at a high level in his 15th NFL season with 78 tackles, two sacks and three PDs in 14 games, all starts. Jeremy Kapinos, who punted in one game for the Jets in '07, finished as the Pitt punter for the second straight season, with a 45.0 gross and 38.3 net on 34 punts this season.
Denver has no players with Jets ties but does have two coaches the Green & White faithful may be familiar with: Sam Garnes, the Broncos' assistant secondary coach who was the Jets' starting SS in 2002-03, and Brian Callahan, quality control–offense, who's the son of Bill Callahan, the Jets' assistant head coach/offensive line.
The Jets have lost three of their last four to the Broncs, including their contribution to Tebowmania with this year's 17-13 fall-from-ahead loss at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Week 11. And they've split their last six with the Steelers, although two of the losses came in the postseason — in the '04 divisional round and in last year's championship game.