If everything was equal then Neil Monnery could very easily see a Steelers victory on Sunday at Mile High but they aren't and he thinks Denver will march on to the AFC Championship Game.
"The long and short of it is a week ago I thought this was a terrible potential match-up for the Broncos. However injuries to star Steelers and the fact the Broncos seem healthy makes me lean the other way and think Denver win and move on."
Pittsburgh Steelers @ Denver Broncos
Start-time: Sunday 21:40
TV: Live on Sky Sports
While the Seahawks @ Panthers match-up is the game of divisional round weekend, this is where the column inches will be allocated. This is because of the story of Denver QB Peyton Manning and whether he can make one (last?) run at winning it all.
Yet amazingly #18 isn't the most important player when looking at betting for this match. That would be Ben Roethlisberger and more aptly, the health of said player. He left their game with Cincinnati on Saturday night having injured his shoulder. Then he came back in in the final drive to take his team down the field for the game winning field goal. Since then though he has confirmed he has an AC sprain and torn ligaments in his throwing shoulder. There is little doubt that he'll play on Sunday but his effectiveness is very much up in the air.
Pittsburgh's second most important player is WR Antonio Brown who is undergoing concussion protocol following a sickening hit on him during that game-winning drive. He has told reporters that he is experiencing concussion-related symptoms but is hopeful that they'll subside by Sunday night. He didn't practice on Wednesday or Thursday and the tea leaves seem to be moving towards the explosive receiver sitting this game out.
Add to this the news that top running back DeAngelo Williams is also, 'on the outside, looking in' according to Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin regarding his injury status, and the Steelers could easily be without their #2 RB (#1 LeVeon Bell was ruled out for the season a while back), their top WR and have a QB who could possibly not be able to physically throw the ball down the field. For those who like to bet in-play, watch Big Ben's opening series closely, if he can only side-arm it like on Saturday after his injury then just pile on to the Broncos.
Speaking of the home team they still have the #1 rated defense in the NFL. So add that to the Steelers injury issues offensively then you can see why the odds are indicating Denver are strong favourites, when if the Steelers had all their offensive weapons this would be a real pick 'em game.
Back to the story line that could carry the post-season. Two weeks ago Peyton Manning was the back-up QB, looking like he'll end his Hall of Fame career watching Brock Osweiler lead his Denver team into the playoffs. A report linked him to HGH use and all looked bleak. Then a funny thing happened. The Broncos needed a spark as they turned the ball over five times in 32 minutes against the Chargers.
Knowing that a win would give them home field and the all important bye week, Gary Kubiak made the move and brought in the legend from the sidelines. He led the Broncos to four scoring drives out of five. He didn't throw incredibly well but he made a few nice short and intermediate throws. Most importantly though is while his physical skills have diminished and are clearly inferior to Brock Osweiler's, he is still the smartest QB in the NFL.
He makes pre-snap reads and adjustments better than anyone. We saw that a fortnight ago on back-to-back plays in his first series back. On a 1st and 10 he made a dummy snap count to get the Chargers to jump offsides, two did and they got a free five yards. Then on the next play, he made a dummy snap count, no-one moved, he then made a second dummy snap count and a linebacker and a safety both stepped forward. Therefore he knew it was going to be a two-man blitz from his right. He changed the play to a run to the left and CJ Anderson scampered for over 20 yards for what was initially ruled a TD (but changed on review to down at the half yard line).
This is why all season I've still been in the pro-Manning camp. I will always take the smartest guy in the room over a player with superior physical attributes, if the difference in game smarts is significant. I have no idea if Peyton can hold up physically and I back him with plenty of trepidation but if he can stay upright, if he can step forward and get his full body momentum into his throws then he can still get the job done.
The o-line is still a worry (although when Tyler Polumbus came in at RT, that seemed to hold the line up far better). CJ Anderson is fully healthy for the first time all season. Ronnie Hillman is running well. Manning has talent to throw to, Emmanuel Sanders has been strong all season and DeMaryius Thomas has an added incentive to star because it looks likely that his mother will see him play in person for the first time, following her release from prison and 60 days not being allowed to travel out of Georgia as per terms for her release. He will be zoned in and expect a huge day for DT.
The long and short of it is a week ago I thought this was a terrible potential match-up for the Broncos. However injuries to star Steelers and the fact the Broncos seem healthy makes me lean the other way and think Denver win and move on. Is that Daft Punk and One More Time I hear drifting across the breeze for one last Brady-Manning showdown? I think it just might be.
Back Denver to win by 7-10 points
Back Denver to score over 27 points
Back Pittsburgh to score over 20 points
Back Demaryius Thomas to go for over 100 yards
Back Heath Miller and DeMaryius Thomas in the First Touchdown market
Back Denver's D to score a TD at any time
Neil Monnery NFL P/L 2015 Season
Staked - 211pts
Returned - 277.44pts
P&L - +66.44pts