Injuries cloud AFC playoff matchup

The defending AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers head into the playoffs with Ben Roethlisberger nursing a severely sprained left ankle and Rashard Mendenhall out with a torn ACL.

They still might be in better shape than the Denver Broncos, who are also dealing with injuries to key offensive personnel and have been struggling mightily behind Tim Tebow.

Making matters worse for the AFC West champs, they also have to contend with the league’s best defense.

With the Steelers’ offense banged up, their defense looks to frustrate Tebow and the Broncos, who back into Sunday’s wild-card game in Denver on the heels of three straight losses.

Most sports books monitored by SportsOptions have installed the Steelers as 8 1/2-point home favorites, with the total set at 33 1/2.

Pittsburgh (12-4) lost Mendenhall, the team’s top rusher, late in the first quarter of last Sunday’s 13-9 win over Cleveland. The injury to his right knee leaves third-year running back Isaac Redman and rookie John Clay as the only healthy ball carriers on the roster.

Redman ran for 92 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries against the Browns, but also lost two fumbles.

“Now that we’ve got (the fumbles) out of the way, we tell him ‘You’re the feature guy, you need to prepare for it,'” tackle Max Starks said.

Pittsburgh would benefit greatly if Redman can make some plays to take the pressure off Roethlisberger, who hasn’t been as effective since injuring his ankle against Cleveland on Dec. 8. He re-aggravated the injury in the regular-season finale after sitting out the previous week, and said Wednesday his ankle felt like a “five” on a scale of one-to-10.

While Roethlisberger expects to play, his protection might not be as good as hoped with starting center Maurkice Pouncey likely to sit out due to a sprained ankle.

In the two games he’s played since initially hurting his ankle, Roethlisberger has thrown for 551 yards with no touchdowns and three interceptions for a 62.2 quarterback rating. In his first 13 contests, he had 21 TDs to 11 picks, averaging 1.66 more yards per attempt, for a 95.6 passer rating.

While Roethlisberger hasn’t been at his best lately, he’s been considerably better than Tebow.

After being the talk of the NFL while engineering amazing comebacks during Denver’s six-game winning streak, Tebow has seemingly lost his magic as his team hasn’t won since. He has four interceptions and two fumbles in the last two games, and is coming off a brutal performance in last Sunday’s 7-3 loss to Kansas City, misfiring on 16 of 22 passes and throwing for 60 yards with a pick for a 20.6 QB rating.

The Broncos (8-8) still managed to win the division thanks to Oakland’s loss.

“I think that he’s probably going through what a lot of newly starting quarterbacks go through in that you get enough looks on people on film, then you get ideas about comfort zone and things about how you can potentially play him,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “I think people are gathering more information about him.”

Despite sputtering into the playoffs, Tebow isn’t concerning himself with what happened in the final weeks of the regular season.

“The three losses haven’t shaken my confidence,” said Tebow, who has completed 41.1 percent of his passes and is averaging 146.3 passing yards during the skid.

Now he’s got the difficult task of facing a Pittsburgh team that is first in total defense (271.8 yards per game), passing defense (171.9) and points allowed (14.2).

The Steelers, who have allowed a league-low three touchdowns in six games since Week 12, will be welcoming back linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who spent the second half of the season dealing with a strained left hamstring.

They won’t have safety Ryan Clark available, though, because of a sickle-cell trait that becomes aggravated when playing at higher elevations. Clark also didn’t play in the Steelers’ last game in Denver, a 28-10 win in 2009 in which Roethlisberger threw for 233 yards with three TDs.

Ryan Mundy will make his third career start in Clark’s place.

Going up against Pittsburgh’s stout defense, John Fox and the Broncos’ offensive staff are likely to be even more cautious to prevent Tebow from making more mistakes.

“We have to put him in position where he can succeed,” Fox said. “We’ll try to give him some better pass plays to operate.”

Denver’s offense revolved around a ground game that led the league in rushing and set the franchise single-season mark with 2,632 yards. Willis McGahee ran for 1,199 of those and Tebow finished with 660 on the ground, but continuing that pace could be tough because of a couple injuries.

Right guard Chris Kuper, the leader of a young line, broke his left leg against the Chiefs and is done for the season, while fullback Spencer Larsen might miss the game with a sprained MCL in his left knee. On the other side of the ball, safety Brian Dawkins has been ruled out due to a neck injury.

Although the odds seem to be stacked against Tebow, Roethlisberger and the Steelers know what the unorthodox quarterback is capable of.

“I think he’s a winner. I think he finds ways to get it done,” said Roethlisberger, who has nine TD passes and a 115.8 passer rating in three games in Denver. “People say he can’t throw the ball, he can’t do this. He finds a way to win.”

Roethlisberger should know. The two-time Super Bowl champion is 10-3 all-time in the playoffs – the third-best record of any QB with at least 10 postseason starts since 1950 – and has won seven consecutive games in January.

One of those playoff victories came over the Broncos in the 2006 AFC championship, Denver’s last playoff appearance.

These teams have split their six playoff meetings, with the winner advancing to the Super Bowl five times.

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