STEELERS AT BRONCOS JAN. 17, 4:40 P.M. ET
THE CASE FOR
HOW WILL DENVER win Super Bowl 50? Simple: Peyton Manning finds the Fountain of Youth, naturally or otherwise. The Broncos rose to the AFC's top seed on the back of their defense, coordinated by the blitz-happy Wade Phillips, but they'll need improvement on offense to advance. How many other teams could have a QB, in Manning, lead the NFL with 17 interceptions through its first nine games and still start 7--2? Zero. That's how good the D is, with outside linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller harassing passers, plus Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr. and T.J. Ward covering in the secondary. Denver can match up with any of the remaining dangerous offenses and mitigate damage on the scoreboard. To win it all, though, Manning will need to emerge from a six-game-injury absence not only completely healthy (and with enough arm strength to throw the deep comeback without getting picked) but also in complete unison with coach Gary Kubiak's run-first, play-action and boot-action offense. Outside of back-to-back games against the Packers and the Colts in early November, the 39-year-old QB has shown little promise of delivering sustained success in Kubiak's system. For Manning's sake, Demaryius Thomas needs to break a bad habit of shrinking from the spotlight in the biggest games, and tight end Vernon Davis, acquired in a midseason trade, must become the matchup nightmare that Julius Thomas once was. Opposing QBs may look forward to the one-on-one matchups that Phillips's blitzes create, but the Broncos' defense will do its part. Will the offense?
SUPER BOWL MVP ...
Aqib Talib. The lengthy, mouthy CB has the instincts and aggression to turn a game. He also has four TDs in two years. Denver will need a TD or two on D to win it all.
WITH HEALTH ON ITS SIDE, Pittsburgh's offense would be the postseason's most talented unit. But Ben Roethlisberger, who led the NFL with 328.2 passing yards per game, separated his right (throwing) shoulder in the wild-card victory over the Bengals, admitting afterward that he couldn't throw deep late in the game. And running back DeAngelo Williams, who averaged 4.5 yards per carry this season while playing a major role in the passing game on screens, missed that victory with a right-foot injury. (He could return in the divisional round.) Even with the league's best receiver in Antonio Brown (who, by the way, still may be feeling that illegal hit from Vontaze Burfict), an elite burner in Martavis Bryant and a steady end in Heath Miller, both Roethlisberger and Williams will be needed at full health for these Steelers to go deep into the postseason—mostly because their improving defense still needs some help. Pittsburgh finished 21st in yards allowed (363.1), 30th in passing yards allowed (271.9) and 17th in defensive passer rating (90.9). Its front seven is solid, especially on the line, where Stephon Tuitt, Cameron Heyward and Steve McClendon disrupt opposing run and pass games with their strength. But the backers are hit-or-miss. Outside, Jarvis Jones and Bud Dupree are better run stoppers than pass rushers; inside, Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier each struggle against the run. And when the pass rush flags, this secondary is easily exposed. Here's some hope: The D has played better lately, and on the road to Santa Clara, a bend-but-don't-break approach could work just fine alongside an exceptional offense like this one.
SUPER BOWL MVP ...
Antonio Brown. Some WRs thrive on deep routes, others after the catch; some even specialize on kicks. Brown does all of it exceptionally well. He'll get tons of touches and plenty of swipes at the trophy.
DOUG PENSINGER/GETTY IMAGES (MANNING)
DAVID KOHL/USA TODAY SPORTS (ROETHLISBERGER)
BRIAN KUNST/ZUMAPRESS.COM (BROWN)
JOHN MERSITS/CSM (TALIB)