Submitted by Jim Hurley on Saturday, September 8, 2012 at 9:48 PM
You knew when Peyton Manning was signed by the Denver Broncos that the TV networks would be fighting over his first regular season game. NBC owns the marquee “Football Night in America” package, which meant that the NFL was inclined to serve them a big game on a silver platter. That what we’ll all be enjoying Sunday Night when the Pittsburgh Steelers visit the Denver Broncos in the most anticipated game of the first weekend.
Yes, San Francisco at Green Bay may be a preview of the NFC Championship game (and it’s a nice consolation prize for FOX). And, there are important teams debuting up and down the schedule. But…PEYTON MANNING is back on the field after missing 2011 with a neck injury. And, he’s taking over the team that Tim Tebow inspired past this very Steelers squad in a playoff game on this very field. The Steelers get an immediate rematch off a playoff loss…but now have to face a much better quarterback!
Let’s run the matchup through a gauntlet of key indicators to get a sense of best expectations…
PITTSBURGH STEELERS AT DENVER BRONCOS (8 p.m. on NBC)
Las Vegas Spread: Denver by 1, total of 45
Pittsburgh went 12-4 last year, and only lost in the playoffs because of a rash of injuries. So, Manning and the Broncos are getting a lot of respect here as a home favorite. The market is saying Pittsburgh would be -2 on a neutral field, and -5 playing at home. Given the prices we’ve seen for the Steelers in recent seasons…those might strike you as low. Vegas oddsmakers have learned that the public likes to bet on Manning…and that Manning has made the public a lot of money through the years.
2011 WON-LOST RECORDS/SCHEDULE STRENGTH
Pittsburgh: 12-4 (28th ranked schedule according to USA Today)
Denver: 8-8 (10th ranked schedule according to USA Today)
You’ll need to make a mental adjustment through the review of 2011 data for what Manning is likely to bring to the table as compared to the combination of Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow. He is surely an upgrade, even if he doesn’t find his past form. Is he going to be a relatively small upgrade after such a long layoff? Or, will turn the Broncos into an 11-win team? Pittsburgh may only have been an 11-win team last year, or even a 10-win team had they played a more representative schedule. Denver made it to 8-8 with questionable quarterbacks even against a top 10 schedule.
2011 TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL
One of the biggest surprises in the NFL last year was the fact that Pittsburgh couldn’t force many turnovers even though they were playing an easy schedule. This just shouldn’t be a team that has that big a negative in turnovers. If that was a fluke…look out world…Pittsburgh is going to be scary this year. But, if that was a sign that the fire was gone from a defense that’s past its peak…then this game and the AFC North race could get very interesting. You can’t beat Manning without applying some pressure. Nobody goes 12-4 two years in a row with back-to-back negative turnover differentials.
2011 OFFENSIVE STATS
Pittsburgh: 372.3 yards-per-game on 5.9 yards-per-play
Denver: 316.6 yards-per-game on 5.0 yards-per-play
Don’t ever forget that Pittsburgh has an elite offense. They may not be quite as explosive as the New England and Green Bays of the league. But, anything near six yards-per-play is getting the job done. And, that happened with Ben Roethlisberger seemingly playing in a body cast most of the season. He’s got to stop taking so many hits! Denver didn’t impress at fie yards-per-play, and might have finished 5-11 if Tebow didn’t have a knack for late-game heroics against worn down defenses. The Tebow offense wasn’t designed to put up big stats…it was designed to win wrestling matches. We expect the Broncos offensive stats to be better even if they don’t improve on last year’s 8-8 record.
2011 DEFENSIVE STATS
Pittsburgh: 271.8 yards-per-game on 4.5 yards-per-play
Denver: 357.8 yards-per-game on 5.4 yards-per-play
Great stuff from Pittsburgh, who squashed teams on this side of the ball even if they weren’t taking the ball away. Forcing punts and field goals gets the job done well enough. Denver’s defense was better in reputation than it was in statistics. Allowing over 350 yards-per-game isn’t anything to be proud of, even if you played a top 10 schedule. Watch developments on this side of the ball very carefully. There’s a perception that Denver has added Peyton Manning to a team that already had a great defense. That defense may have been a bit fortunate last year.
IMPORTANT CHANGES IN 2012
We’ll use this as a category in early season previews as we transition from 2011 stats to 2012 performance. Obviously the only change of merit here is the one we’ve mentioned several times already. The head coaches are the same. Pittsburgh’s not going to change its DNA just because injuries kept them from playing to their fullest potential. The only important change of note is at quarterback for Denver. And, the true health and productivity of Peyton Manning will determine the scope of their season.
Manning looked pretty good in the Preseason. But, he bent over backwards to keep expectations low. There’s still a lot to learn. We still don’t have our timing down yet. Yada, yada, yada. That sounded to us like a guy who either wasn’t ready to carry the team on his surgical scars, or who knew that his new home city was getting too gung-ho too quickly. That’s NOT a team that should be favored over Pittsburgh.
That being said, Denver is a very tough place to play…and altitude can be particularly hard on visiting teams who aren’t in regular season shape yet. Fatigue could be a big factor in the fourth quarter Sunday Night…as guys who haven’t played more than two quarters at sea level are suddenly being asked to play four quarters a mile high.
JIM HURLEY is working very closely with his on site sources to get the best read on this game. This is definitely an “information” game because “Manning as a Bronco” has no stat footprint yet. NETWORK’S Sunday slate will be available a few hours before first kickoff Sunday. Be sure to check ad boxes on the home page and expanded details on the “buy picks” page for last minute details. Pittsburgh-Denver is likely to be part of the slate…and could turn out to be one of the biggest releases of the day.
Among the games we’re paying most attention to:
Indianapolis at Chicago (Luck’s debut)
Buffalo at NY Jets (news from our NY sources)
Washington at New Orleans (RGIII vs. Brees)
San Francisco at Green Bay (potential championship preview)
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Back with you Monday in the NOTEBOOK to preview ESPN’s season-opening doubleheader of Cincinnati at Baltimore and San Diego at Oakland. We’ll crunch the same numbers we did today…but for two games instead of one! For now…there’s no time to waste. Be sure you get all the SUNDAY MONEY with JIM HURLEY’S NETWORK!