The Broncos did a free fall into the playoffs, losing three straight and getting in by virtue of a Raiders home loss on the final weekend. If coach John Fox is searching for something to buoy Denver's spirits, it could be that the last two teams to reach the postseason with records of 8--8 or worse won their opening games. The 7--9 Seahawks knocked off the defending Super Bowl champion Saints last season, and in the 2008 season the 8--8 Chargers beat the 12--4 Colts, who had won nine in a row.
The task before the 8--8 Broncos would seem equally daunting. They face the 12--4 Steelers, who, while hobbled, are tough, experienced and winners of six of seven. And Denver is suffering a severe scoring drought. The offense has reached the end zone just twice in its past two games, and quarterback Tim Tebow has lost the magic that captivated the league through the middle part of the season. Since replacing Kyle Orton and winning seven of eight games, including three in overtime and five after trailing in the fourth quarter, Tebow failed to throw for 200 yards three straight times and was picked off four times with only one touchdown during the skid. (Part of his success had come from taking care of the ball; he had just two interceptions over his first eight starts.) In a 7--3 loss to the visiting Chiefs on Sunday, Tebow completed only 6 of 22 for 60 yards with a pick and a lost fumble.
The Broncos' problems are not limited to Tebow's struggles as a passer, though. They also have to do with his diminishing production as a runner. He averaged at least 6.3 yards a carry in all but one of his first five starts; in his last six he gained 3.4 or less four times. The Steelers have had one of the league's top run defenses over the past decade, but this season they gave up 99.8 yards a game rushing, the first time since 2003 that they've surrendered more than 90. The Broncos will need to find abundant creases in the Pittsburgh defense with Tebow running read option—that's the only way they can win if they can't put up 200 yards in the air.
Inconsistent running and nonexistent passing usually translates into a fatigued defense, and in four of its last seven games Denver's D has been on the field for at least 71 plays, including 81 on Dec. 4 at Minnesota. Not surprisingly, the Broncos surrendered 40 points or more in two of their last three outings. Against that backdrop, it's hard to believe Tebow Time will stretch beyond Sunday.
Tim Tebow's completion percentage, the lowest for a playoff quarterback with at least 200 attempts since Doug Williams (41.8%) in 1979, and for a Broncos quarterback with that many attempts since Steve Tensi (45.8%) in '69.
Average margin of victory and of defeat, respectively, for Denver this season. Six of the Broncos' eight wins were by four points or fewer; they gave up 40 or more points on four occasions.
ON THE SPOT
Wideout Demaryius Thomas was a key contributor during the Broncos' hot streak, with TD catches in the final three minutes of regulation in wins against the Dolphins and the Bears and two scores in a victory over the Vikings. At 6' 3" and 235 pounds, the 2010 first-round pick from Georgia Tech has the size, speed and leaping ability to pose matchup problems, but Tim Tebow tends to look away from him too quickly. That has to change. The Steelers undoubtedly will focus on shutting down Denver's running attack, which means someone is going to have to rise to the challenge in the passing game. Will Thomas get the chance?
GROUND DOWN As defenses have adapted to Tebow's unique skills, he has found the going much more difficult.