ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (The Sports Xchange) – The Denver Broncos have lost in the divisional round in three of the last four years, including twice at home, both of which have come in the last three years, since quarterback Peyton Manning joined the team as a free agent in March, 2012.
Manning admits that he’s thought about his future and whether the end of his career is approaching. After missing six games because of a torn plantar fascia that will only heal through surgery, extended rest, or both, he’s had to confront his playing mortality head on. And even before he was forced from the sideline, he was in the throes of his worst statistical season, which culminated in a 5-for-20, four-interception disaster against Kansas City on Nov. 15.
No one is calling this a last stand. With a top-ranked defense that helped carry the Broncos to wins over the Patriots and Bengals during Brock Osweiler‘s first run as an NFL starting quarterback, the Broncos appear well-positioned to step into life without Manning and remain a playoff contender.
But there is something different about the Broncos as they go about the week. A different urgency. A sharpened focus.
Part of that involves Manning himself.
“Eighteen is a little more amped up, to be honest,” said running back C.J. Anderson. “Just his energy and questions and situations — there’s a lot of things that we weren’t doing in previous years.
“He’s just more amped up, making sure we’re more dialed in and detailed on this and that. It keeps you on your toes.”
Anderson says he’s seen that once before: in the 2013 postseason. It probably isn’t a coincidence that the Broncos made their only 21st-century trip to a Super Bowl that year, defeating the Chargers and Patriots to get to Super Bowl XLVIII.
“He was really detailed and on the whole playoffs,” Anderson said. “It didn’t work out the way we wanted, but that was pretty much the last time I saw him — super-detailed.”
Detailed — and focused. Being both are the keys for the Broncos as they prepare for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Last year as they prepared to face the Colts, that wasn’t the case, with two coordinators interviewing for head coaching positions and, by game day against the Colts, a report that then-head coach John Fox would be a candidate for the same job in Chicago if the Broncos lost that day and he was dismissed.
“I don’t think we had all-the-way focus,” cornerback Chris Harris Jr. recalled. “I think everybody had their mind on getting set, trying to get paid, coaches trying to leave and go get head coaching jobs. I mean, we had a lot of scrambling and stuff.
That included players, he added.
“Everybody had their own agenda, I would say. Guys were trying to get paid. Coaches were trying to get paid. Everybody was,” Harris recalled. “At this time last year, I don’t think we had the same focus that we do now.
“Guys are more focused, more locked in … Guys just want to get this win so bad and everybody is focused.”
An intangible like that might be the difference in an AFC postseason in which the four teams left are so tightly bunched.
SERIES HISTORY: 31st meeting. Broncos lead series, 18-11-1, including a 4-3 advantage in playoff games. On Dec. 20, the Steelers beat the Broncos 34-27 at home. The most historic meeting between these two teams was on Dec. 24, 1977, when the Broncos defeated the Steelers 34-21 in their first playoff game after 17 seasons without making the postseason.
–Only the Steelers were able to pick the lock of the Broncos’ top-ranked defense during the 2015 season, blistering it for 34 points — including three second-half touchdowns that allowed Pittsburgh to complete a comeback from a 17-point deficit. The Broncos’ defense likely won’t make many tactical tweaks; no matter who lines up on the Steelers’ side of the line of scrimmage, they’ll try to generate pressure and will leave their cornerbacks in man-to-man coverage, while counting on more safety help over the top if Ben Roethlisberger can throw deep. If he can’t, the safeties will flood underneath and outside routes to try and augment the cornerbacks and prevent yardage after the catch.
Offensively, the Broncos’ mantra will be simple: avoid mistakes. Five giveaways in Week 17 nearly cost them home-field advantage, and two turnovers in Pittsburgh led directly to a pair of touchdowns that were the difference in the 34-27 loss.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
–Broncos CBs Chris Harris Jr., Aqib Talib and Bradley Roby vs. Steelers WRs Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton.
Ben Roethlisberger can — and will — trust Bryant and Wheaton just as much as he does Brown, but it was clear in the Dec. 20 matchup that Brown is the one who makes the Steelers’ passing game go. The Broncos’ cornerbacks should have more help from first-team safeties deep — if Roethslisberger can get the ball downfield. If he can’t, the key will be limiting yardage after the catch, something at which the Steelers’ quick receivers are particularly proficient.
–Broncos offensive linemen Louis Vasquez, Evan Mathis and Max Garcia vs. Steelers DEs Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward.
Eventually the Steelers’ pass rush got to Brock Osweiler in Week 15, and although Pittsburgh sacked him just twice, he was pressured into errant throws and completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes, going 21 of 44. However, Peyton Manning will deliver the football more quickly, and if he can find the gaps in the Steelers’ zone, he can neutralize the effectiveness of Pittsburgh’s pass rush and make life easier for the guards, who will also have to contend with blitzing linebackers.