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Predictions & Projections
David Dorey
The Huddle
Conference Week
January 21, 2005
Season Ticket
Pittsburgh at Denver
3:00 PM Sunday on CBS
Carolina at Seattle
6:30 PM Sunday on FOX

Prediction: Pittsburgh 17, Denver 23

The Steelers and Broncos have not played each other since the 2003 season when the Broncos won 17-14 in Denver. The last time before that was back in 1998 so these teams have very little recent history between them. The Steelers have battled their way from the wildcard round and come off a shocking win over the Colts in Indianapolis while the Broncos just ensured that the Patriots would be sitting home for the Super Bowl this year.

Line: Denver by 3, Over/Under = 43.5
Weather: Clear and around 42 degrees

Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)
1 34-7 TEN 10 34-21 CLE
2 27-7 @HOU 11 13-16 @BAL
3 20-23 NE 12 7-26 @IND
4 Open Bye 13 31-38 CIN
5 24-22 @SDC 14 21-9 CHI
6 17-23 JAC 15 18-3 @MIN
7 27-13 @CIN 16 41-0 @CLE
8 20-19 BAL 17 35-21 DET
9 20-10 @GBP . MON SAT
PIT Projections Rush Catch Pass
QB Ben Roethlisberger 0 0 240,2
RB Jerome Bettis 30 0 0
RB Willie Parker 50 20 0
TE Heath Miller 0 30 0
WR Hines Ward 0 70,1 0
WR Cedrick Wilson 0 60,1 0
WR Antwaan Randle El 0 20 0
PK Jeff Reed 1 FG 2 XP -
Pregame Notes: Like the Panthers, Pittsburgh has won two road games to reach the conference championship and shown great defense with a surprisingly effective passing game to get there. The Steelers have scored 51 points in those two games and arrive in Denver healthy and ready to continue their underdog status. They have allowed just 35 points in those last two games and that was playing as a visitor against two of the best offenses in the NFL of the Colts and Bengals.

Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger gained the perception last year that he was ineffective late in the season and particularly in the playoffs. That perception is by no means reality this year. He leads all quarterbacks in the post-season with five passing scores and most impressively - only one has gone to Hines Ward. While the regular season saw Ward as the main touchdown target, the post season has mixed in scores by Cedrick Wilson, Willie Parker, Heath Miller and Antwaan Randle El. This offense has always been run-first. In the postseason - it's been a surprisingly deadly passing attack with all new diversity.

Running Backs: Willie Parker has remained the starting tailback but after two weeks, he only has 98 yards on 33 carries. Jerome Bettis has been more effective (when he is not fumbling) near the goal line with a score in each game but the running game is not what has advanced the Steelers this far. Going against a stout run defense in Denver this week - it won't likely be the key on this Sunday as well.

Wide Receivers: As mentioned, the Steeler passing attack has been more diversified in the post-season than at any time during the year. Hines Ward has one score but only five catches for 78 yards - one went for 45 yards and without it Ward would have been relatively invisible as the secondaries have focused on shutting him down. But stepping up at the right time has been Cedrick Wilson who had no catches against the Bengals but then led the team last week when he racked up 104 yards on three receptions and scored once. Antwaan Randle El has scored as well. There's no doubt that the first read for Roethlisberger will be Ward, but for the last two weeks - it has not been the final read before throwing the pass.

Tight Ends: Heath Miller also did not have a catch against the Bengals and yet turned in three catches for 61 yards and one score against the Colts. It was his first score in the last ten games after starting the season with six touchdowns.

Match Against the Defense: The Steelers face a very good rushing defense that held the Patriots to only 79 total rushing yards last week and that has not allowed a visiting runner to rush in a score for the last five games. Only two runners have scored in Denver this year - Tomlinson and Patrick Pass. Other than Clinton Portis netting 103 yards back in week five, the best any runner has done in Denver has been just 64 yards this season - and that was Patrick Pass, not Tomlinson. Expect more moderate numbers from the Steelers ground game here.

Once again, Roethlisberger is going to have to be the deciding factor. The Broncos only allowed one passing score per opponent in Denver this year and Big Ben has never had less than two in these playoffs. Look for those two scores to happen here in a game that will once again have Roethlisberger needing to throw more often than usual. There is an excellent chance that the Broncos move Champ Bailey over to cover Hines Ward at least some this week but the other wideouts and even Miller has stepped up to make a difference. It will have to happen again this week for the Steelers to advance.

Denver Broncos (13-3)
1 10-34 @MIA 10 31-17 @OAK
2 20-17 SDC 11 27-0 NYJ
3 30-10 KCC 12 24-21 @DAL
4 20-7 @JAC 13 27-31 @KCC
5 21-19 WAS 14 12-10 BAL
6 28-20 NE 15 28-17 @BUF
7 23-24 @NYG 16 22-3 OAK
8 49-21 PHI 17 23-7 @SDC
9 Open Bye M THU SAT
DEN Projections Rush Catch Pass
QB Jake Plummer 0 0 220,1
RB Mike Anderson 60,1 10 0
RB Tatum Bell 40 20 0
TE Jeb Putzier 0 30 0
WR Rod Smith 0 70 0
WR Ashley Lelie 0 60,1 0
WR Charlie Adams 0 30 0
PK Jason Elam 3 FG 2 XP -

Pregame Notes: The Broncos won last week 27-13 against the reigning world champion Patriots and while the offensive charge was nothing impressive, the defense decided the game. They only allowed one touchdown which came midway through the fourth quarter and intercepted Tom Brady twice. The Champ Bailey interception in the endzone that was returned almost 100 yards was the critical play - instead of the Patriots taking a 13-10 lead in the third quarter, the Broncos extended their lead to 17-6 and never looked back.

Quarterback: Jake Plummer completed just 15 of 26 for 197 yards and one score last week with one interception. He has not been called on to pass the ball as much this season since the running game had been enough to win most games and because of that he's only thrown for more than one touchdown in four games this season. This is easily the biggest game of his career thus far and with the Steelers rush defense well above average, Plummer cannot expect to win by just handing off.

Running Backs: Mike Anderson only gained 69 yards on 19 carries against the tough Patriots defense though he did have two short scores. Tatum Bell was expected to have a better game than the 19 yards on six carries since he had ran for 107 yards in the previous match-up against the Pats but Bell has not topped 71 yards in any game since that week eight meeting. Bell ended the year with three scores against the Chargers but has not scored in any of the six previous games.

Wide Receivers: Rod Smith may be one of the oldest wideouts in the NFL but there is no sign of him hitting any wall. He comes off a six catch, 96 yard performance with one score against the Patriots. Smith has been the lone consistent aspect to the passing game in Denver. Ashley Lelie had five catches for 50 yards last week but he's been all over the map this year, turning in as high as 110 yards against the Raiders and yet being held without a catch against Dallas. Todd Devoe has managed to catch one pass in most his starts this year but it remains just that - one catch.

Tight Ends: Jeb Putzier had three catches for 37 yards last week which was almost exactly what he had in the previous meeting with the Patriots. Despite starting every game this year, Putzier has no touchdowns on the seasons.

Match Against the Defense: Anderson and Bell face a rush defense that just held Edgerrin James to 56 yards and Rudi Johnson to 56 yards as well. Both runners scored once. The only runner against the Steelers that topped 100 yards this season was James in week 12. The only runner that ever scored more than one time against Pittsburgh was Rudi Johnson in week 13. The Steelers have obviously stepped up their play at the right time. Look for the Denver tandem to top 100 rushing yards collectively but neither Bell or Anderson is likely to have a big game individually. There should be one rushing score here that favors Anderson.

Plummer needs to turn in one of his best games to let the Broncos get past the Steelers. Almost every opponent has topped out around 230 passing yards against Pittsburgh and five opponents never broke 200 yards. Only Palmer, Manning and incredibly Harrington managed to throw for more than one passing score against them. Look for Plummer to throw for at least one score that favors Ashley Lelie much more strongly by match-up though Smith has been the most common scoring target. This game will be a battle of defenses and the winner will likely be the team which makes the least mistakes.