By Jeff LegwoldThe Denver Post
January 7, 2012
Willis McGahee #23 of the Denver Broncos runs with the ball during the game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on January 1, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Garrett W. Ellwood/Getty Images)
The numbers say the Broncos have the lowest-scoring team in the playoff field — they are the only one of the 12 averaging fewer than 20 points a game — and the Steelers have the No. 1 defense in the NFL.
The numbers say Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has won two Super Bowls and played in three already in his career, and Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow is in the worst stretch of play in his football life — seven turnovers in three games and a 40 percent completion rate.
But the Broncos, especially head coach John Fox, have said all week that numbers don't matter Sunday and "that's why you play the game."
And there are some things the Broncos need to happen if they are going to pull off what many in the league would consider an upset on par with the Seahawks' win over New Orleans in last year's NFC wild-card game.
— Get to Roethlisberger. His severely sprained left ankle has him far less that 100 percent and it's unlikely he will have his usual mobility in the pocket.
He's been sacked 40 times this season, including 13 times in the Steelers' four losses. Against pressure defenses brought in those four losses, he also threw eight interceptions.
And without running back Rashard Mendenhall (knee) in the lineup, a Steelers offense that was already 14th in the league in rushing has moved down the depth chart in the backfield.
— Just play. This goes especially for Tebow. He has so many messages from so many places swirling around him — throw, don't throw, run, don't run, be aggressive, be safe — he simply looks paralyzed at times.
And while he consistently says he ignores all of what goes on around him, that is an unrealistic stance — and his play says otherwise at the moment.
It's clear the pressure of the season as well as the pressure of simply living up to what so many people expect of him are wearing on him at times.
He simply has to find a way to calm himself and play well early, something that has been a struggle. It is unlikely he will have the opportunity for a comeback here if the Steelers get the upper hand in the first quarter.
— Hope the defense allows you to commit to the run. If the Broncos' defense keeps things close, the Broncos' offense must remain committed to the run, despite any misguided notions the Broncos can consistently throw their way out of trouble against the Steelers.
The Ravens succeeded against the Steelers — two Baltimore victories — by flipping the script at times. They ran when the situation called for a pass and often passed when the situation called for a run.
They played away from the percentages and were able to dictate terms.
Of course, they were also a division opponent with far more experience against the Steelers' defense, an advantage the Broncos won't have. But the Broncos have to find a way to keep running, even when they don't get early success doing it.
They can't have three-and-outs that take 45 seconds off the clock with three incomplete passes. Their defense can't take that kind of stress in a postseason game.
Keep it close, slow the tempo and toss in a surprise or two along the way is the recipe because running back Willis McGahee may be the most important player on the field for the Broncos.
— Get the young guys to play older. In terms of playoff experience, this is one is a rout with 40 Steelers having appeared in a playoff game (39 of those in a Steelers uniform) compared to the Broncos' 11.
If that youthful group isn't up to the task, a potentially long day will get longer, especially in the offensive front where second-year players Zane Beadles and J.D. Walton and rookie Orlando Franklin will need their best efforts of the season against one of the toughest defenses to block in the league.
Jeff Legwold: firstname.lastname@example.org