The moment both Peyton Manning and fans of the Denver Broncos have been waiting for what seems like an eternity is finally about to arrive.
It's a day the Pittsburgh Steelers have probably circled on the calendar for quite some time as well.
Manning's official Denver debut -- and first meaningful game action in 20 months -- will undeniably be the central focus when the NFL opens its Sunday Night Football schedule with a colossal showdown between the Broncos and a determined Steelers squad that will be invading Sports Authority Field at Mile High with the opportunity to avenge the loss that ended their 2011 season.
Pittsburgh came into Denver this past January as the defending AFC champions and heavily favored to dispatch a resourceful but seemingly flawed Broncos team that got into the playoffs despite a mundane 8-8 record. The home underdogs gave the Steelers all they could handle and then some, however, coming through with a stunning 29-23 overtime victory thanks to an unforeseen aerial display from then-quarterback Tim Tebow.
The accuracy-challenged Tebow piled up 316 yards on a Pittsburgh defense that yielded the fewest passing yards in the NFL during the regular season, with the final 80 coming on a thrilling touchdown connection to wide receiver Demaryius Thomas on the first snap from scrimmage in overtime.
While the play enhanced Tebow's already established legacy as an unlikely miracle worker, it didn't prevent the Broncos from searching for an upgrade from a quarterback who completed under 47 percent of his throws during the team's unexpected run to last year's AFC West title. And they got the best one available when the four-time league Most Valuable Player Manning chose Denver among a host of suitors shortly after being released by the Indianapolis Colts for both medical and financial reasons.
The Colts parted ways with their franchise icon in large part due to the multiple neck surgeries that caused Manning to sit out the entire 2011 campaign. He's shown no major aftereffects from the procedures and little rust during the preseason, however, and appears primed and ready to take the field in a game that counts for the first time since Indianapolis' loss to the New York Jets in a 2010 AFC Wild Card Playoff.
"I know how hard I've worked to get back to this position, how much time I've put in to rehabbing, how much time I continue to put in, how hard I've worked to try to get comfortable in this system," Manning said. "That's really all that I know that I can do. I'm going to play as hard as I possibly can."
Manning figures to be tested right from the get-go, as Pittsburgh returns the majority of its core players from a stop unit that also finished atop the NFL in both total defense and scoring defense.
The Steelers won't have free safety Ryan Clark available, however, as the valuable veteran will be held out of Sunday's showdown because he carries the sickle cell trait and is at risk of experiencing serious health complications in the high-altitude environment of Sports Authority Field.
Clark also missed last January's playoff tilt for the same reasons, and his absence was a factor in Pittsburgh surrendering a season-high 447 total yards to the Broncos.
There's a chance the Steelers could be without outside linebacker James Harrison as well, with the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year just recently resuming practicing after recovering from a knee scope. While it's believed the standout pass rusher will suit up for the opener, his playing time may be limited.
Harrison and his defensive mates will be facing a Denver attack that won't be resembling anything close to when the teams last met. With Tebow at the helm of the offense, the Broncos ranked first in the league in rushing yards but 31st in passing, a number that stands to improve dramatically with a healthy Manning.
"We acknowledge that they're different of course, not only with Peyton but defensively with Coach (new defensive coordinator Jack) Del Rio, who is very good at what he does," stated Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. "We better remain focused on the challenges that are in front of us this weekend as opposed to looking back at something that happened months ago."
Broncos lead 13-7-1
Last Regular-Season Meeting: Steelers 28, Broncos 10 (Nov. 9, 2009 at Denver)
Steelers HC Mike Tomlin vs. Broncos: 1-2 Broncos HC John Fox vs. Steelers: 1-3 overall, 1-0 with Broncos Tomlin vs. Fox Head-to-Head: tied, 1-1
Notes: Broncos had won three straight in the regular-season set prior to their 2009 loss to Pittsburgh, with the most recent triumph a 31-28 verdict at Sports Authority Field in 2007. Last season's AFC Wild Card bout marked the seventh all-time meeting between the clubs in the playoffs, with Denver owning a 4-3 edge. Tomlin's Steelers bested Fox's Carolina Panthers by a 27-3 count in Pittsburgh during Week 16 of the 2010 season.
BY THE NUMBERS
2011 Offensive Team Rankings
Pittsburgh: 12th overall (372.3 ypg), 14th rushing (118.9 ypg), 10th passing (253.4 ypg), tied 21st scoring (20.3 ppg)
Denver: 23rd overall (316.6 ypg), 1st rushing (164.5 ypg), 31st passing (152.1 ypg), 25th scoring (19.3 ppg)
2011 Defensive Team Rankings
Pittsburgh: 1st overall (271.8 ypg), 8th rushing (99.8 ypg), 1st passing (171.9 ypg), 1st scoring (14.2 ppg)
Denver: 20th overall (357.8 ypg), 22nd rushing (126.3 ypg), 18th passing (231.5 ypg), 24th scoring (24.4 ppg)
2011 Turnover Margin
Pittsburgh: -13 (15 takeaways, 28 giveaways) Denver: -12 (18 takeaways, 30 giveaways)
2011 Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (offense)
Pittsburgh: 50.9 percent (53 possessions, 27 TD, 16 FG) -- 18th overall Denver: 47.2 percent (36 possessions, 17 TD, 12 FG) -- 23rd overall
2011 Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (defense)
Pittsburgh: 54.8 percent (31 possessions, 17 TD, 10 FG) -- 17th overall Denver: 51.9 percent (52 possessions, 27 TD, 21 FG) -- 15th overall
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
A balanced Pittsburgh offense was able to compile 400 total yards in the playoff loss at Denver, and new coordinator Todd Haley likely plans to use a relatively even mixture of run and pass plays to accent the Steelers' strengths in this game as well. Running back Isaac Redman (479 rushing yards, 3 TD, 18 receptions in 2011) racked up a career-best 121 yards on the ground on only 17 attempts in January's matchup, and with 2011 leading rusher Rashard Mendenhall still on the mend from an ACL tear that also kept him out of the most recent encounter between these teams, he's slated to be the lead carrier once again in the opener. Redman's been bothered by a tender ankle, however, meaning Jonathan Dwyer (123 rushing yards), a 2010 draft pick used sparingly over his first two years but who put together an impressive spring, could be in line for a significant role. It will be interesting to see how much wide receiver Mike Wallace (72 receptions, 1193 yards, 8 TD), Pittsburgh's best deep threat, will be part of Haley's plan as well after sitting out all of training camp in a contract dispute. The 2011 Pro Bowl selection didn't make a big impact in last season's back to the Broncos, catching only three passes for 26 years, but slot receiver Emmanuel Sanders (22 receptions, 2 TD) stepped up by making six grabs for a team-best 81 yards that day. Those two along with 2011 breakout star Antonio Brown (69 receptions, 1108 yards, 2 TD) give quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (4077 passing yards, 21 TD, 14 INT) three strong options that will test Denver's secondary depth, but a line that surrendered five sacks in the playoff setback must stand its ground against the Broncos' formidable pass rush for the offense to be at its most dangerous.
Denver didn't do a particularly good job in containing the run in these teams' last meeting, but the offseason additions of veteran tackle Justin Bannan (31 tackles with Rams) and promising rookie end Derek Wolfe (2nd Round, Cincinnati) as well as the return of interior lineman Ty Warren -- out all of last season with a torn triceps -- may make the Broncos a little tougher up front. Pressuring Roethlisberger shouldn't be that much of an issue, however, with reigning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Von Miller (64 tackles, 11.5 sacks and lightning-quick end Elvis Dumervil (42 tackles, 9.5 sacks) heading up a group that amassed 41 sacks during the 2011 regular season. Both players were constant thorns in the Steelers' side in the playoff win, while the versatile Wolfe posted 9 1/2 sacks as a college senior and could the inside more of a push when used as a tackle on nickel downs. A secondary that was a bit long in the tooth last year also got some new blood with the free-agent pickups of cornerback Tracy Porter (52 tackles, 1 INT with Saints) and safety Mike Adams (64 tackles, 3 INT with Browns). Porter will start opposite the still-capable Champ Bailey (39 tackles, 2 INT, 10 PD), the one most responsible for neutralizing Wallace in the most recent clash.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
The read-option scheme that accented Tebow's strengths as a runner and minimized his weaknesses as a thrower is a thing of the past, replaced by a more traditional and wide-open pass-oriented approach that will be directed by one of the game's all-time on-field masterminds in Manning. The 11-time Pro Bowler should have plenty of worthwhile receivers to choose from, with the up- and-coming Thomas (32 receptions, 4 TD) and fellow returnee Eric Decker (44 receptions, 8 TD) occupying the outside flanks and two Manning confidants from his Indianapolis days -- tight end Jacob Tamme (19 receptions, 1 TD with Colts) and veteran slot man Brandon Stokley -- working the underneath routes. Thomas, a first-round choice in 2010, showcased his immense talents by torching the Steelers for a personal-best 204 yards on only four catches in January's playoffs. Battle-tested running back Willis McGahee (1199 rushing yards, 12 receptions, 5 TD) enjoyed a career revival in last year's run-based system and remains the main man when the Broncos take to the ground, with former first-round pick Knowshon Moreno (179 rushing yards, 11 receptions, 1 TD) the favorite to handle third-down work after overcoming an ACL tear that ended his 2011 campaign after only seven games. Expect Denver to spread the Steelers out on Sunday with the idea of taking full advantage of Manning's accuracy and smarts.
Though the Steelers were one of the league's toughest teams to throw on last year, the secondary doesn't come without a few concerns for the opener. Pittsburgh is breaking in a new starter at one cornerback spot in Keenan Lewis (37 tackles, 1 INT), elevated from the nickel role after William Gay left for Arizona in free agency, with lightly-tested second-year man Cortez Allen (15 tackles) now an integral part of the sub packages. Ryan Mundy (37 tackles, 1 INT), one of the culprits in the defense's rough outing against the Broncos back in January, will be filling in for Clark alongside playmaking strong safety Troy Polamalu (91 tackles, 1 INT, 2 TD). The reworked backfield would be aided if Pittsburgh brings its traditionally strong pass rush to the field, though the outstanding combo of Harrison (59 tackles, 9 sacks) and outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley (39 tackles, 9 sacks, 1 INT) could encounter difficulty matching their usual standards in that department if the former's troublesome knee slows him down some. Longtime coordinator Dick LeBeau loves to bring the blitz, but may have to done down the aggressiveness a bit with Manning able to exploiting any mismatches that tactic could create. With the Steelers always stout in defending the run and Denver lacking a dynamic back that could cause problems, LeBeau's focus can be on devising ways to prevent the big plays the Broncos were able to deliver in last season's victory from reoccurring. Creating more turnovers may be a priority as well after Pittsburgh ranked last in the NFL with 15 takeaways a year ago.
Manning's arm may not be what it once was after the surgeries and his advancing age, but the savvy veteran's mind is still sharp as tack. He'll find whatever openings are present in a Pittsburgh defense that while still high- caliber, won't be at full strength this week. With a pass rush that continually harassed Roethlisberger in the playoff upset locked and loaded as well, Denver's defense also has a chance to make a difference in what should be a hard-fought and tightly contested affair. And don't discount the impact the thin Rocky Mountain air can have on an unaccustomed visiting team, giving the Broncos another possible advantage that could make Manning's anticipated introduction a cause for celebration.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Broncos 24, Steelers 19