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John J. Raspanti
Last year the Pittsburgh Steelers season ended in Denver. On Sunday, they return to Sports Authority Field to face the new look Denver Broncos. When these two met in the playoffs last year, the Broncos were a -8.5 point underdog. Fast forward to opening day, the Broncos are now -2 point favorites. That's a 10.5 point swing in the line. That's the difference between Peyton Manning and Tim Tebow. The Broncos are attracting about 60% of the betting action at Sportsbook.ag.
Quarterback Tim Tebow, who threw the game winning touchdown against the steel crew, was traded to the New York Jets. Executive vice president of football operations John Elway, who was never very impressed by Tebow, wanted a quarterback who could throw with accuracy. Elway zeroed in on 36-year-old Peyton Manning. The future Hall of Famer was recovering from neck surgery. After working Manning out, Elway signed the 11-time All-Pro. In his 15-year professional career, Manning has completed 65 percent of his passes with 399 touchdowns. Manning will enjoy handing the ball off to running back Willis McGahee (1199 yds - 4.8 yards per carry). His favorite target during the preseason has been Eric Decker. Manning will also be looking for speedy Demaryious Thomas.
The Steelers are very happy with returning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben threw 21 touchdown passes last year. The talk in Pittsburgh has been whether Roethlisberger and new offensive coordinator Todd Haley can coexist. Haley was brought in to tweak an offensive that ranked 12th last year. Running back Rashard Mendenhall, who tore up his ACL last season, is hoping to play against the Broncos. The Steelers need his 928 yards. If Mendenhall can't go, capable Isaac Redmond will start. Wide receiver Mike Wallace, who missed the entire preseason due to holding out could also start on Sunday. Wallace caught 72 passes last year. Roethlisberger likes Antonio Brown, who caught 69 passes in 2011.
The Steelers defense was the best in the NFL last year. Leading tackler Ryan Clark will miss the Bronco game. Clark, who has the sickle cell trait but doesn't have full-fledged sickle cell anemia, had his spleen removed after the disease was aggravated playing at high elevation in Denver five years ago. Linebackers Lawrence Timmons (93 tackles) and James Harrison (9.5 sacks last year) will be applying the pressure on Manning. The Steelers have two outstanding corners in Keenan Lewis and Ike Taylor. Safety Troy Polamalu continues to play at a high level.
The Bronco defense improved steadily during the 2011 campaign. The upper brass drafted Derek Wolfe, a 6'5 300-pound defensive end. Defensive tackle Ty Warren, who didn't play in 2011, will be starting against the Steelers.
Standout Elvis Dumervil will be pursuing Roethlisberger all night. Steady linebacker Wesley Woodyard will look to keep the Steelers running game in check.
It will be fascinating to watch Manning this week. Remember, the last time you saw Manning in a regular season NFL game, he was with the Colts and running an offense that was like a well oiled machine. A well oiled machine that took some time to get that way. It would be asking a lot to expect the Broncos offense to run that smoothly after a training camp and 4 pre season games. Also note that the Steelers were a banged up football team 8 months ago in that playoff game.
Still, the Broncos were able to run the ball and Tebow had 300 yards through the air, although 80 of those came on the final play of the game. No reason they shouldn't be able to do the same this time around. We'd expect this game to be close well into the 4th quarter, possibly coming down to the last possession. In which case, you have two of the best game winning drive QB's in recent NFL history. Last team with the ball wins? We'll give the nod to Peyton. Broncos -1.5
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