Unless the Steelers overcome injuries to pull another 2005-esque three-win playoff run on the road, the team is going to end up having its season come to close with a loss to either Tebow, the Patriots or Baltimore. None of those is particularly pleasant to contemplate. Being myth building fodder for the Tebow media machine might not be quite as bad as conceding a first playoff loss to the Ravens, but it's not far off.
The hype behind Timmy has fallen off slightly given Denver's implosion the final month of the season. That should help allay fears that the Steelers won't suffer a crushing one-and-done road upset, but even an out-of-sync Broncos team can pose some problems for a Steelers squad at considerably less than full strength. More to the point, given how Pittsburgh has played on the road this season, I'm not sure how most pundits are calling for a Steelers blowout. What was the best Steelers road performance this season? A 24-17 win in Cincinnati? A two-score victory over Arizona? Those are the only outings I can think of where they didn't lose or squeak by with a sloppy day.
That Maurkice Pouncey will probably also miss this game concerns me more than Rashard Mendenhall being out. This is a game for the Steelers' line and passing game to win or lose. Unless the defense chips in with a score, Denver isn't scoring 20 points. If this were the Steelers run defense of last season, I'd say Denver wouldn't clear double-digits, but McGahee should probably get at least a little traction on the ground.
Anyway, should be the Steelers put up another turnover-laden performance despite the offense moving the day (see either Cleveland game) and the team is probably setting itself up for a unbearable Tebow Time finish. The problem is, Denver knows this. They know Ben isn't as mobile as he usually is. And now the line has further vulnerabilities. So you're gonna see a fierce pass rush from Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil. How Pittsburgh copes with that decides the game, almost certainly.
Ryan Clark's absence hurts run stopping possibly even more than pass coverage. Polamalu gets more of the credit for safeties crushing the run, but Clark has been fairly instrumental with
coming in and taking out the fullback. Ryan Mundy's an okay fill-in, but I'm worried, just as I am that LaMarr Woodley, even though he's playing will be anywhere close to where he was when he was winning AFC Defensive Player of the Month earlier this season. Hell, apparently James Harrison has a toe issue now, which, you know, greeeeaaaaattttt. A pure pass rush probably isn't as import against Tebow as is just being disciplined about how you try to bring him down. It's probably similar to the way a lot of teams approach playing against Ben. The worst way to let Denver to move the ball, other than just let their run game dominate you, is to miss on Tebow and have him take off for 20 yard gains.
During the Broncos much overblown run when Tebow first assumed the starting job, Football Elmer Gantry was at least good about not turning the ball over. If anything, that's where his strength lie. He let the running game and defense do their job. In some ways, he obviously helped the run game with some option looks, but for the most part, he didn't hurt the defense or put the team out of the position to stick with the run by not turning the ball over. During the recent three-game skid, that's clearly hasn't been the case, as Tebow is responsible for seven turnovers over that span, compared to only five the previous eight weeks combined. The Steelers defense has also gotten better about creating turnovers, though they're never exactly been great about it this year. Those are two encouraging trends, as any turnovers by Tebow are practically fatal for the Broncos on Sunday. The best chance for a Denver win is their pass rush frustrating Ben, maybe getting a fumble, while Tebow, maybe not even playing what a reasonable viewer might call "good", just doesn't make the killer mistake.
I know I sound racked with worry that the Steelers, but I feel pretty comfortable that the team will win, even though it won't be anywhere near as lop-sided as a lot of the general public believes. Were the Steelers totally healthy, yeah, they'd probably throttle Denver. But that seems to be lost on a lot of casual fans. So if the game remains close, I'm sure I'll see a lot of the Twitter commentary on the game be about how it's a lot closer than people expected and HURR DERR here comes Tebow Time. Not looking forward to that. I think most anxiety from Steelers fans about Sunday come from the fact that the Steelers are getting propped up like that from those hoping Tebow goes down that anything less than complete slaughter will come off looking like a disappointment. Kind of a no-win scenario. That and the prospect of losing and being background fodder for the media hero-making campaign for Tebow is too horrifying not to gnaw at you even a little bit.
As long as the Steelers win, hopefully don't lose another half dozen players to injury and put an end to Tebowmania, at least for this season, I'll be pleased however it comes about. That has to be a Mike Tomlin-approved disregard for style points.