You want to know one of the nice things about the NFL? There are very few one way streets. All roads in the NFL might not lead to Rome, ask the Cleveland Browns, but roads double back to intersect again.
- And so it is with the Steelers Broncos Divisional Playoff matchup.
Looking at the X’s and O’s, the Steelers December victory over the Broncos probably offers the best clue to understanding today’s AFC divisional playoff matchup.
It’s a given the Ben Roethlisberger needs to show something and that Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Heath Miller and, yes, Sammie Coates must step up their games in Antonio Brown’s absence. Ditto Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman with DeAngelo Williams out.
- But you knew that already.
An analysis of the X’s and O’s says that the key to this game will depend on which Steelers defense shows up. If the Steelers defense of the first half of the Broncos game makes even a brief appearance, the Steelers 2016 off season will begin in earnest. However, if the Steelers defense of the second half of that game shows up in full force, the Steelers have a shot at going to Foxborough.
- But that tells us very little about the story underlying today’s game.
For that you must look back further.
Steelers Getting Tebowed Leads to Transition
The date was January 8th 2012, the site was the same as today, Denver’s Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Steelers had opened the 4th quarter trailing by 10 points, but a Ben Roethlisberger to Jerricho Cotchery connection and a Shaun Shuisham field goal had tied it in regulation.
The Denver Broncos got the ball to start ove time. Tim Tebow hit Demaryius Thomas over the middle. Ike Taylor missed the tackle. Ryan Mundy couldn’t get into position to take a shot. 80 yards later and Demaryius Thomas ended it all in the end zone.
- Steelers Nation suffered the ultimate buzz kill.
2011 Pittsburgh Steelers failed at a chance to defend their AFC Championship and atone for the defeat of Super Bowl XLV. But it went beyond that. That loss marked a fundamental shift for the franchise. Shortly afterwards, I remarked to Tony Defeo that I felt I had the feeling that Steelers fans must have had in 1980, when the Super Steelers run can to a sobering end as the Houston Oilers ended their playoff chances.
- But this thread doesn’t just involve the Steelers, it involves the Denver Broncos too.
Tim Tebow was a terrible quarterback blessed with an uncanny ability for finding a way to win when all appeared lost. That made for some dramatic finishes to football games, but John Elway was smart enough to know that he shouldn’t stake his franchise’s future on an intangible quality.
So he did something about it. He went out and got Peyton Manning, convincing Manning that, like Elway, he still had enough to win Super Bowls in his late 30’s.
- Elway’s first test of that ability came next season, on Sunday Night Football, against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
If Steelers Nation has blotted that game out of their collective memory, we’ll forgive them. Much screamed to be forgotten. Its synthesis, however, is rather simple. All night long, Peyton Manning engaged in a chess match with Dick LeBeau and Troy Polamalu, while James Harrison watched in street clothes from the sideline.
- And at each and every critical juncture, Peyton Manning outfoxed LeBeau and Polamalu.
In a word, Peyton Manning schooled the Steelers defense. Yes, the Steelers 2012 defense would finish the season as the NFL’s number one overall in terms of total yards. Yes, the defense would keep the Steelers in games they had no business being in late in the season (see the 2012 7 turnover fiasco vs. the Browns).
- But Petyon Manning revealed that “Coach Dad” had no clothes.
It may have difficult for some of us (read: Steel Curtain Rising) to see at the time, but with 20/20 hindsight, Peyton Manning revealed the bitter truth that Sunday Night opening day loss.
Steelers and Broncos Two Teams at Diverging Crossroads
Now the Steelers and Broncos meet and again the venue is Mile High, and again it is the playoffs. But this time the backstory is decidedly different.
Peyton Manning is in the twilight of his career. One would have to be a fool to discard the possibility that number 18 would be able to find a way to move the needle in dramatic fashion just one more time. And he might.
But the number of quality football games Peyton Manning has left in him are measured in single digits –at best. Objectively speaking, Steel Curtain Rising is already on the record saying that Pittsburgh’s best plan for success is to dare Peyton Manning to beat the Steelers defense.
- And this is a very different Steelers defense and, for that matter, offense, than the one that lost to Tim Tebow.
On defense, Cameron Heyward, Steve McLendon, Lawrence Timmons, James Harrison and Will Allen are (about) all that remain. In terms of personnel, the Steelers offense hasn’t seen as much turnover since 2011, but the backfield is completely new, Matt Spaeth is back, and the offensive line presents a mix of old and new.
Regardless of the outcome, assuming that Ben Roethlisberger neither risks nor suffers greater long term injury as a result of playing today, the Steelers Broncos Divisional Playoff marks as much of a new beginning for the Pittsburgh Steelers franchise as it does an ending for the Peyton Manning era of the Denver Broncos.