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Posted at 04:10 PM ET, 01/08/2012

NFL Playoffs: Steelers vs. Broncos

The Denver Broncos hope Tim Tebow can help them snap out of their late-season swoon when the AFC West champions welcome the banged up Pittsburgh Steelers to Sports Authority Field at Mile High for Sunday’s wild-card weekend finale (4:30 p.m. EST, CBS).

The most talked about player during the regular season, Tebow helped orchestrate a series of fourth-quarter comebacks — with more than a little help from the Broncos’ defense — to help Denver back to the postseason for the first time since 2006. But Tebow faltered down the stretch, throwing four interceptions and only one touchdown as Denver backed into the division crown with three straight losses.

Pittsburgh comes in as the heavy favorite, but injuries on both sides of the ball will have the defending AFC champions well below full strength when they take the field on Sunday. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is nursing a sprained ankle, but he has always seems to be playing through an injury of some sort and this week will be no different. But running back Rashard Mendenhall’s torn ACL forces Isaac Redman into the spotlight while center Maurkice Pouncey is questionable with an ankle sprain of his own.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Steelers opted not to risk further organ damage to Ryan Clark by sidelining their strong safety, who lost his spleen and gall bladder the last time he played at altitude in Denver due to sickle cell trait. Clark’s absence will increase the responsibilities of perennial Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu as Pittsburgh’s top-ranked defense.

With Tebow’s recent struggles, rumors surfaced this week that backup quarterback Brady Quinn was receiving additional first-team snaps. But the Broncos appear willing to stick with the horse they rode into the playoffs. That means a continued reliance on the running game — the Broncos lead the league with 164.5 yards on the ground per game — and play-action passing, which has been erratic of late, to say the least.

But while Tebow got all the headlines, Denver’s defense did the heavy lifting during the team’s eight-game winning streak. Rookie linebacker Von Miller and company need to get after Roethlisberger who will be targeting big-play threats Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown downfield.

The Steelers beat Denver 34-17 in the 2006 AFC title game en route to the Super Bowl XL championship. The Broncos are making their first playoff appearance since, and hope Tebow has enough magic left to keep their surprising season alive.

More NFL playoffs coverage from Washington Post Sports:

What Tebow and Roethlisberger reveal about evangelical politics

Steelers, Broncos have taken divergent paths since 2006 AFC title game

Ryan Clark accepts Pittsburgh’s decision to not play him in Denver

NFL Playoffs: Schedule and game previews

Post Sports Live: NFL wild-card weekend predictions

Darkhorses: First round has produced four of past six Super Bowl winners

By  |  04:10 PM ET, 01/08/2012

 
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