The next stage for the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Denver Broncos in the NFL playoffs will be a rematch from the regular season, one which Ben Roethlisberger won, but that was back when he was healthy (as healthy as Big Ben can be) and Peyton Manning didn’t even play in.
Few players can play as well as Roethlisberger can when he’s injured, and it seems to me that he’s always injured or playing with an injury. He went out of the game in the win over the Bengals and was brought back in to lead the Steelers down the field, with a painful shoulder which he thinks won’t keep him from playing in the divisional round against Denver, and score the game winning field goal. He had plenty of help from Bengals players losing their mind, but this was something you didn’t feel Landry Jones could do. After a nice coming out appearance earlier in the season Jones regressed into what third-string quarterbacks usually bring to the field, and might have proven he’s not someone the Steelers can rely on the next time Roethlisberger is injured.
The Broncos had a bye week to get Manning in game form again. Manning didn’t play for almost two months after getting benched in the loss against the Kansas City Chiefs. He saw Brock Osweiler win the fans over and then lose them very quickly in a poor performance on the final day of the season against the San Diego Chargers. Manning stepped in, this time healthy (if he was ever injured) and did just about enough, most importantly not throwing any interceptions, to clinch the division title and thanks to the Miami Dolphins beating the New England Patriots, also the first round bye.
Whether Manning was injured or not when the Broncos benched him doesn’t matter now. It felt like the end of a career. Manning looked finished, and everything and everyone around him made it seem like the Broncos were moving on. Maybe Manning waited for the opportunity to push himself back onto the stage, knowing the booing and jeering were forgotten. Or maybe he was simply healthy enough for the first time in a while. The Broncos, unlike the Steelers, have a slightly more competent replacement should something happen to Manning.
Osweiler completed 61.8% of his passes, throwing 10 touchdown passes and 6 interceptions as the understudy who pushes the master out of the way. The Broncos won three in a row with him as the new, heralded starter, and then lost twice, including to the Steelers (a game in which Roethlisberger threw for 380 yards and three touchdowns and two interceptions on 55 attempts), before a key win over the Cincinnati Bengals and then the Chargers, although Manning got the credit.
And maybe it won’t be about the quarterbacks. Perhaps Antonio Brown recovering from his concussion means more to the Steelers than anything else, and they can live with Roethlisberger playing hurt while knowing the most productive wide receiver in the NFL is OK to play. It’s hard to find someone more meaningful than Manning on the Broncos because of who he is and how he plays. After an awful regular season, by far the worst of his career, it’s his chance to remind everyone of how good he can be, if he can still be.