The Pittsburgh Steelers stagger into Denver with an ailing Ben Roethlisberger, who won’t have his leading rusher or his top receiver against the league’s best defense Sunday.
The Steelers (11-6) are deep even without All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown (concussion) and running back DeAngelo Williams (foot), and the Broncos insist Big Ben can go deep even with a sprained throwing shoulder.
The Broncos (12-4) swear they won’t make the same mistake they did last year, either.
They were in this situation a year ago, coming off a bye and facing a banged-up opponent who was a big underdog.
Indianapolis 24, Denver 13.
“I think we were focused on New England,” cornerback Aqib Talib said. “We just knew we were going to tear Andrew Luck and the Colts, get them up out of here and get ready to go to New England. So, when I look back on last year, there was a lot of, ‘Next week when we go to New England we’ve got to play Gronk like this.’ There was a bunch of future talk when we didn’t even get the Colts yet.”
The Broncos believe the coaching staff wasn’t dialed in either, as coordinators Jack Del Rio and Adam Gase were interviewing for head-coaching jobs, and John Fox let it be known even before kickoff that Chicago was his kind of town.
“I don’t think we had all-the-way focus,” cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. “Everybody had their minds set on trying to get paid, coaches were trying to leave and go get head coaching jobs. So, I mean, we had a lot of scrambling and stuff going on last year. I think this year everybody’s more focused. Everybody’s bought in.”
Nobody’s thinking about the AFC championship this time.
“Not a drop of overlooking guys,” Talib said. “Not a drop of that.”
Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas, whose 80-yard TD in overtime was the dagger the last time these teams met in the playoffs four years ago, said, “All we’re worried about now is the Steelers.”
And there are plenty of good story lines for this matchup:
PRIMED PASSER: Peyton Manning‘s teammates say the five-time MVP looks like his old self — maybe even better — as he gets set for his first start in 64 days.
“Eighteen is a little more amped up, to be honest,” C.J. Anderson said.
That could be because Manning has acknowledged this playoff run could be it for him.
Brock Osweiler started the last seven games for Denver while Manning was sidelined with a left foot injury, but Manning’s epic cameo against San Diego secured the AFC’s top seed and earned him the starting gig again.
“I think he’s looked great,” tight end Virgil Green said. “He’s been throwing the ball very accurately, putting a lot of oomph on the ball, throwing the ball deep, short, medium. … So, I think he’s looked like the Hall of Fame Peyton he’s always looked like.”
REPLACING A.B.: Brown is out with a concussion courtesy of Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict, but with Martavis Bryant, Heath Miller and Markus Wheaton combining for 163 catches and 14 TDs, the Steelers are confident they’ll carry on just fine.
“We’ve got great wideouts,” rookie Sammie Coates said. “We’re going to go out there this weekend without our lead dog and we’re going to fill in his shoes and make the plays we know we’ve got to make.”
PAYBACK TIME?: The Broncos are still smarting from their 34-27 loss at Pittsburgh last month when Roethlisberger capitalized on Denver’s dearth of safeties, and Steelers center Cody Wallace speared David Bruton Jr.
That drew a flag and a fine but no suspension, and the Broncos promised Wallace would pay the price next time they saw him.
“It’s not going to be anything as far as cheap or anything,” Stewart said. “We’re going to get them between the lines, between the plays, the whistle. So, I mean, he’s going to be sore after the game.”
MOTHER & CHILD REUNION: Demaryius Thomas‘ mother will see him play in person for the first time Sunday.
Katina Smith was released from federal prison last summer when President Barack Obama commuted her sentence on drug trafficking charges. Smith went to a halfway house in Georgia and then home, but was restricted from traveling until now.
“I’ll be excited, she’ll be excited,” said Thomas, whose mother and grandmother were arrested and incarcerated when he was 11 years old and he had to go live with an uncle.
DENVER DUO: Broncos pass-rushing partners DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller are healthy again just in time to chase down Roethlisberger.
Ware will wear a brace on his left knee, the same one he used during his 20-sack season in Dallas, and Miller vows he won’t be wolfing down any more mozzarella sticks at the movies after doing so forced him to miss Wednesday’s workouts.
He’d gone to see “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” on his day off.
“The Force struck back,” Miller said.
Republished with permission of the Associated Press.