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-AFC Championship - Steelers/Broncos
By Chris Pokorny, PFCritics Writer
January 19, 2006
Last week, the Pittsburgh Steelers upset the Indianapolis Colts on the road while the Denver Broncos were able to put away the defending Super Bowl Champions. For the Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger is looking like a veteran that has played in the league for years. The Steelers hopes nearly came to an end when Jerome Bettis fumbled last week, but their excellent defensive effort came through in the end. The Broncos capitalized on the Patriots' turnovers, showing the country that they are not a team you can forget about. Both teams have great running games, but it may be the passing games that they rely on in this one. Now that these two teams meet for a chance to go to the Super Bowl, who will come out on top?

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AFC Championship - Team Stats
Pittsburgh Steelers - #6 vs. #2 - Denver Broncos
- Overall Record: 11-5
Road Record: 6-2
15th overall
(5th rush, 24th pass)
4th overall
(3rd rush, 16th pass)
- Overall Record: 13-3
Home Record: 8-0
5th overall
(2nd rush, 18th pass)
15th overall
(2nd rush, 29th pass)
Positional Rankings (With Last Week's Statistics)
Quarterback vs. Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger: 14 of 24 for 197 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception.

For the second week in a row, Roethlisberger removed doubts that the Steelers had to completely rely on the running game to make it far in the playoffs. Not only did Roethlisberger make the tackle that sent the Steelers to the AFC Championship, but he played a near-flawless first quarter. Almost all of his throws throughout the game were on the money, and that allowed the running game to succeed in the fourth quarter.
Jake Plummer: 15 of 26 for 197 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception.

Note: At the start of the season, I would have told you that you were nuts if you said that Jake Plummer would take his team to the AFC Championship. From Week 1 of the season though, Plummer has gone from a mistake waiting to happen to a player who is calm and makes all of the right throws. It's not easy to beat the defending Super Bowl champions twice in a season, especially once in the playoffs, but that's exactly what Plummer has done.
Running Backs vs. Running Backs
Willie Parker: 17 carries, 59 yards, 3.5 avg. 3 catches, 19 yards.
Jerome Bettis:
17 carries, 46 yards, 2.7 avg, 1 touchdown, 1 fumble.

For the second week in a row, the Steelers running game will face one of the top run defenses in football. Parker has shown that he can't break a big play against a fast defense, calling for a similar game that he had against the Colts. One thing the Steelers running backs are great at though is moving the chains. If the Steelers need two yards, they'll get two yards.
Tatum Bell: 6 carries, 19 yards, 3.2 avg.
Mike Anderson: 19 carries, 69 yards, 3.6 avg, 2 touchdowns. 1 catch, 14 yards.

Note: The Broncos also have a nice one-two punch at running back, but will be facing a tough run defense for the second week in a row. The Broncos usually find one running back that'll produce a little better than the other in a particular week, and that happened to be Anderson against the Patriots. The Steelers will have to watch both backs carefully because right when they think they've keyed in on one of them, the other could go the distance.
Receivers vs. Receivers
Hines Ward: 3 catches, 68 yards.
Heath Miller:
3 catches, 61 yards.
Antwaan Randle El:
3 catches, 30 yards, 1 touchdown.

It doesn't look like the Steelers' receivers had that big of a game, but most of their production came early on. Roethlisberger's throws were right on the money and Ward, Miller, and Randle El all came through. The Broncos' defense is prone to giving up yards in the passing game, which Roethlisberger will look to exploit early.
Rod Smith: 6 catches, 96 yards, 1 touchdown.
Ashley Lelie:
5 catches, 50 yards.
Jeb Putzier: 3 catches, 37 yards.

Note: These three members are the core of the Broncos receiving game, and the people that Plummer counts on every week. All of them will get their touches throughout the game, and Lelie and Smith are capable of beating the Steelers secondary down the field when Plummer rolls out. They'll have to look out for Polamula though, who is always a threat to break up a route.
Defense vs. Defense
Defense: 5 sacks, 18 points allowed.

Note: The Steelers "blitzbergh" attack on the Colts last week was simply amazing. The Colts pride themselves in the fact that Manning is well protected all day long, but he was under pressure before the shotgun snap came to him it seemed. Troy Polamula completely fooled Manning at least three times, and should have had one interception. The linebacking crew will try to get to Plummer, but they must be aware of the fact that Plummer rolls out of the pocket often.
Defense: 2 interceptions, 3 fumbles recovered, 13 points allowed.

Note: Without a doubt, the Broncos were able to beat the Patriots by executing as a result of turnovers. When Faulk fumbled, it led to a touchdown. When Hobbs fumbled, it led to a field goal. When Brady threw an interception to Champ Bailey, took it back 100 yards. The Broncos will find it difficult to force the Steelers well-trained offense into turnovers, but it's an absolute must if Denver wants to win the game.
Special Teams vs. Special Teams
Antwaan Randle El: Randle El is always a threat to return one, especially if the Steelers have an offense backed up near their own end zone.

Jeff Reed may have an advantage kicking in Denver's atmosphere.
Jason Elam: Elam should be pleased that he's kicking where he's comfortable.

Note: The Colts counted on Vanderjagt last week and he didn't come through. If Elam is put in a similar situation, expect him to get the job done.
Final Analysis
Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Denver Broncos
Roethlisberger has made a drastic turnaround in the playoffs from last year, and proved me wrong after I predicted he would experience a "sophomore slump." From the games I have seen him play in as of late, his accuracy has improved tremendously and he is just as deadly as Plummer can be when he throws on the run. His leadership on the field is definite even on the road, but you have to wonder what'll happen if he has troubles early with the altitude in Denver.

Although the Steelers passing game deserves a lot of credit for what they've done, they would not be able to win a single game if not for their running game. Parker and Bettis did not dominate the Colts last week, but the only thing that stopped Manning from getting back on the field quicker in the fourth quarter was about 11 straight runs for Pittsburgh, taking around six minutes off the clock at a critical juncture of the game.

Defensively, Troy Polamula is the "X" factor for the Steelers. He seems to be everywhere on the field whether he stunts a blitz, blitzes, or runs across the whole field to dive and break up a pass. The Steelers know that Denver will be ready to pick up the blitz better than the Colts did, so Dick Lebeau will have to call his plays wisely.
Plummer doesn't need to have big plays to beat the Steelers. Although the Colts were able to burn the Steelers deep later in the game, Manning did not have an answer for the blitz. As soon as Plummer sees the blitz, he'll throw the ball to Smith for a two-yard gain if he has to. Whatever it takes to minimize mistakes, Plummer will do it. When the Steelers blitz, he can also run out of the pocket for a short gain, or throw the ball away to prevent a sack.

It'll be very tough to defend the Broncos running game for Pittsburgh. Anderson and Bell always present problems near the goal line. Their presence allows Plummer to beautifully run a play-action pass for a touchdown. It's rare that a team can shut down Denver's running game, but it'll be critical that that the Broncos have the appropriate packages ready for any 4th-and-1 situations they encounter during the game.

The Broncos defense needs turnovers. The Patriots offense seemed to dominate the Broncos statically, but that doesn't mean a thing if they force a punt just shy of field goal range or cause a crushing turnover when you're about to score. Denver's defense often comes through in the clutch, but it's not often that the Steelers turn it over.
AFC Championship Prediction
Winner - Pittsburgh Steelers
This is a game that features quarterbacks I felt were incapable of making it this far. I thought that Roethlisberger would fall into a sophomore slump while Plummer would continue his inconsistent play. Both teams are so evenly matches on both sides of the ball. Both teams have a good group of running backs and are among the league leaders in overall rushing. Both defenses are great at stopping the run. Both defenses have playmakers in the secondary, but are vulnerable in giving up yards. The Broncos have an advantage with their home atmosphere, but it doesn't seem to matter where the Steelers play right now: they are simply on fire. Take the excitement from both of the AFC divisional games last week and combine them; that'll be the feeling in this one. Pittsburgh will advance to the Super Bowl after Bettis fails to fumble this time.
Final Score:
Pittsburgh Steelers 21, Denver Broncos 17.

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