The Pittsburgh Steelers and Denver Broncos kick off their 2012 campaigns on Sunday Night Football in a rematch of last season’s AFC wild card showdown.
The Broncos, who finished 9-9, limped into the playoffs with losses in each of their last three regular-season games, but they weren’t complaining after missing out on the postseason each of the previous five seasons. They made good use of their trip with a 29-23 overtime win over the Steelers. It was their fifth win in the last seven meetings in the series.
The Steelers are coming off a 12-5 season and have reached the playoffs eight of the last 11 years. They have made three Super Bowl appearances during this span, winning two of them.
Odds makers believe Denver has the slight edge Sunday night. They have listed the Broncos as a 1.5-point favorite and have set the total at 44.5.
Despite the Broncos recent success versus Pittsburgh, they would not be favored if future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning wasn’t under center.
It won’t take long to see if Manning is his old self as he goes up against a Pittsburgh stop unit that led the NFL in total (271.8 yards per game), scoring (14.2 points per game) and pass (171.9 yards per game) defense last season.
Last season, the Broncos ranked 31st in the NFL in passing offense (152.1 yards per game) and first in rushing (164.5 yards per game). I expect them to be a more balanced team this year.
While the offense should show improvement with a capable passer calling the signals, the defense is still an area of concern. It ranked 24th in the league in scoring defense a year ago with 24.4 points allowed per game.
One thing the Broncos do have going for them is a strong pass rush. Led by Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller, the Broncos amassed 41 sacks last season (tied 10th in NFL).
Denver better be able to bring the heat Sunday night or it could struggle to slow down Ben Roethlisberger and company. Big Ben led an aerial attack that ranked 10th in the NFL last season with 253.4 yards per game.
The passing game, however, could experience a hiccup if leading receiver Mike Wallace isn’t ready to play both physically and mentally after dealing with a contract dispute. Wallace caught 72 passes for 1,193 yards and eight touchdowns last season.
Roethlisberger still has a pair of good ones in wide receiver Antonio Brown and tight end Heath Miller. Brown had 69 receptions for 1,108 yards and two scores in 2011. Miller caught 51 passes for 631 yards and two touchdowns.
The Steelers are 0-4 against the spread in their last four road games, but the road has treated them, and the Broncos, better in this series. In fact, the road team has covered the spread in five of the last seven meetings. It is also worth noting that the underdog is 5-1 against the number in the last six matchups.
In regard to the total, the over has been the play recently. These two have combined to finish over the number in four of the last five meetings. The Broncos have played to the over in four of their last five games, but the Steelers have come in below the number in six of their last seven.
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