In the previous two games, an unexpected winner moved on to the next round. To close out the 2005 season, a Broncos team many believe was good enough to win the Super Bowl was upset 34-17 by the Steelers and 23-year-old quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
In 2011, it was the Steelers who came into the game with the league’s No. 1 defense but were upset by the Broncos, 29-23 in overtime, behind 24-year-old quarterback Tim Tebow. Tebow finished with 316 yards passing on 10 completions in what turned out to be the second-to-last start of his NFL career (to date, anyway).
This time a battered Steelers team with several injuries -- including to Roethlisberger (right shoulder) and wide receiver Antonio Brown (concussion) -- will face the Broncos with Peyton Manning behind center, as Denver coach Gary Kubiak has put Manning back in the lineup for the playoffs after he missed seven starts because of a left foot injury. It was backup quarterback Brock Osweiler who faced the Steelers in Pittsburgh's win over Denver on Dec. 20.
ESPN NFL Nation Steelers reporter Jeremy Fowler and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold take a look at Sunday's game:
Legwold: Jeremy, how much different does the Steelers' offensive approach become if either Roethlisberger or Brown, or both, don't play?
Fowler: Handoff. Handoff. Handoff. Manageable throw. Handoff. Screen pass. And handoff again. That could be the early script if Roethlisberger is out. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley will dial up a game plan that doesn't ask Landry Jones to win the game by himself, though Jones would probably get a few deep shots. The Steelers were 0-5 in the regular season when losing the turnover battle, including Jones' only start of the season at Kansas City. They will ask Jones to protect the ball. Now, if Roethlisberger plays but Brown is out, it gets really interesting as far as game planning goes, because Roethlisberger throws Brown's way on nearly 40 percent of his completions. They'll probably use a lot of Markus Wheaton and Heath Miller in the middle of the field, then take their deep shots with Martavis Bryant.
Jeff, how will this defense approach a Steelers receiver corps that had its way with the Broncos in the second half of that Dec. 20 game?
Legwold: The Broncos finished the regular season No. 1 in total defense, No. 1 in sacks and No. 1 in pass defense. They still feel as if both their plan and their depth chart enable them to play more man coverages than most others teams. And they will still give the Steelers plenty of man coverage in this game. Now they have moved into zone looks with effectiveness at times, including during a second-half comeback against the Bengals in Week 16. If Roethlisberger plays, as expected, the Broncos will certainly keep a close eye on him during pregame and early in the game to see if he is compromised. If Roethlisberger can't push the ball down the field, I believe the Broncos will be more aggressive in the pass rush. The Broncos will match their cornerbacks plenty on the Steelers' receivers, but look for them to mix things up a little more than they did in the Dec. 20 game.
Sticking with the quarterbacks, several Chiefs players were vocal after Kansas City's Nov. 15 win in Denver, saying Manning is "not what he used to be." What do the Steelers think about Manning being back in the lineup?
Fowler: Funny you ask, Jeff, because I just spoke to cornerback Brandon Boykin about this. He said Manning is still dangerous, but what he has noticed on film is that Manning can be rattled by pressure when he can't get his feet set. Perhaps that's a byproduct of some lost arm strength, but the Steelers believe it will start up front when it comes to stopping Manning and the Broncos. The Broncos want to run, run, run the ball. The Steelers don't believe Manning wants to throw 40-50 times. So my sense is the Steelers respect the heck out of Peyton but don't fear him like teams used to a few years ago.
So, is Manning still capable of testing defenses deep downfield?
Legwold: That is certainly the question Manning will have to answer. From about the midpoint of the 2014 season, the defensive game plan against Manning has been to clog the middle of the field, take away the crossing routes and routes down the hashmarks, leaving the single coverages deep up the sidelines. Defensive coordinators believe that is now the hole in Manning's game, and with his injury issues the past two seasons -- left foot, rib and shoulder this year -- Manning hasn't been consistently accurate with the deep ball and often his mistakes have been made trying to make those throws. The Broncos believe Manning is healthy enough to play under center more now, which would unlock their run game a bit. And that's what has been missed at times against that defensive game plan. If the Broncos can pull a safety up closer to the line of scrimmage because of their run game, Manning gets more of the routes down the field he wants and it opens things up more overall.
Jeremy, if you had to name a player other than Brown or Roethlisberger, who has to have a big game for the Steelers to win?
Fowler: The first person who comes to mind is Bryant. He's such an X factor for this team. He's wildly talented, so when he shows up, he "changes the complexion of the game" as teammate Darrius Heyward-Bey told me. Especially if Brown is out, they need the beastly Bryant, not the one who disappeared late in the season. Also, they have a second-year linebacker named Ryan Shazier who was unbelievable in Cincinnati. He's the kind of freak athlete who can change a game if he's flying around. He's great in zone coverage. If the Steelers can stop the run with their front, he'll be able to roam from sideline to sideline. They need him. He's a catalyst.
And if you had to name a player who's the biggest X factor in this game from the Broncos' side, whom would it be?
Legwold: It's Manning. He hasn't started a game in two months, and played all of 29 snaps in the regular-season finale against the Chargers. If his foot is healthy enough for him to function both in the shotgun and under center, the Broncos' offense can move the ball on any defense. And with the Broncos' defense, that instantly makes them a Super Bowl contender. But if Manning physically isn't up to the task, he already has shown it's difficult for him to avoid the kind of turnovers that have sunk many playoff teams. At the time he was pulled from the Nov. 15 game against the Chiefs, he was leading the league in interceptions with 17. And he still finished the regular season second in the league in interceptions, only one behind Blake Bortles. So if Manning is functionally healthy and can limit mistakes, the Broncos have the depth around him to win and advance. If the foot starts to bother him the way it did in October and November, he has to give the Broncos an honest, in-the-moment assessment so they can consider making a change.