Pittsburgh Steelers (11-6) at Denver Broncos (12-4)
Pittsburgh entered the post-season as a trendy sleeper pick to go all the way, thanks to a high flying offense led by arguably the best quarterback/pass catcher duo in the NFL in Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown. They finished 9th in rate of moving the chains differential and moved the chains at a 75.00% rate in the 12 games that Ben Roethlisberger played, as opposed to 63.64% in the 4 games he didn’t. Also in those 12 games, Antonio Brown caught 119 passes for 1599 yards and 10 touchdowns, an unbelievable 159/2132/13 pace over 16 games by a player who once again finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked wide receiver. He might be the most valuable offensive player in the league, excluding quarterbacks.
The Steelers won on the road in their first playoff game last week, but they may have won the battle, but lost the war. Antonio Brown will have to miss this game with a concussion, one that, ironically, was suffered on the hit that drew the personal foul penalty that started the sequence of events that led to the Steelers’ improbable late comeback, moving Pittsburgh from mid-field to easy field goal range quickly, with time running out. On top of that, Ben Roethlisberger will play this week despite torn ligaments in his throwing shoulder. The gutty effort is commendable, but it’s unclear how well he’ll be able to throw the ball downfield or if he’ll even be able to finish the game.
Roethlisberger and Brown share the injury report with running back DeAngelo Williams, who will miss his 2nd straight game with injury. He was already filling in for Le’Veon Bell, who has been on IR since week 8 with a knee injury, leaving the Steelers with undrafted 2nd year player Fitzgerald Touissant and journeyman Jordan Todman at running back. Also on IR since mid-season is left tackle Kelvin Beachum, who’s been out since week 6 with a torn ACL,while center Maurkice Pouncey has been out all year with a broken leg. Suddenly, the Steelers’ sleeper hopes seem a lot slimmer.
However, I have no idea why they’re 9 point underdogs in Denver. The Broncos might be the #1 seed, but they have their own problems, especially at quarterback, where neither veteran Peyton Manning nor the inexperienced Brock Osweiler have been able to seize control of the job. Manning played horribly to start the season before going down for close to 2 months with a foot injury, but Osweiler did not impress in his absence and was benched for Manning mid-game week 17. Manning led the comeback effort to clinch the #1 seed, but most of the Broncos’ yardage after he entered the game was on the ground, so it’s tough to know if the 39-year-old future Hall-of-Famer actually has anything left in the tank. Regardless, he’ll get the start this week.
They’ve moved the chains at a 68.66% rate in Osweiler’s 6 starts, a 67.49% rate in Manning’s 8 starts, and a 64.71% rate in the 2 games where they’ve both played. Osweiler’s number looks a little better, but most, if not all, of that can be attributed to a running game that’s recently improved. Any way you look at it, the Broncos have struggled to move the ball this season, almost no matter what, thanks to poor quarterback play, an inconsistent running game, and a weak offensive line. Despite being the #1 seed, the Broncos rank just 11th in rate of moving the chains differential. Their 12-4 record is kind of a farce because they have just 3 wins by more than a touchdown, so I don’t know why Pittsburgh couldn’t keep this one close to. On top of that, home teams in the divisional round are just 8-16 ATS since 2001 against a team that is coming off of a road win in the wild card round. Give me the 9 points.
Denver Broncos 17 Pittsburgh Steelers 13
Pick against the spread: Pittsburgh +9