AFC North: Final Word AFC 2011 Wild Card

Final Word: Steelers at Broncos

January, 6, 2012
1/06/12
1:30
PM ET
Wild-Card Final Word: Bengals-Texans | Lions-Saints | Falcons-Giants | Steelers-Broncos

Three nuggets of knowledge about Sunday's Steelers-Broncos wild-card game:

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarBen Roethlisberger's mobility has been limited since suffering a high ankle sprain.
Sitting target: Ben Roethlisberger's high ankle sprain is clearly affecting his mobility, which in turn has affected his ability to handle the blitz. Roethlisberger has frustrated defenses over the years by shrugging off pass-rushers to extend plays and hit a wide receiver deep downfield. In his first 13 games, he completed 61.2 percent of his passes against the blitz (according to ESPN Stats & Information), throwing seven touchdowns and three interceptions. Since the injury, he hasn't been able to escape the pressure. As a result, his completion rate against the blitz has plummeted to 28.6 percent (6-of-21 passing). The Broncos' pass rush is led by Von Miller (11.5 sacks) and Elvis Dumervil (9.5).

Playoff road block: No one ran the ball better this year than the Denver Broncos. With running back Willis McGahee and quarterback Tim Tebow leading the ground game, the Broncos averaged 164.5 yards rushing, which is 11.5 yards more per game than anyone else in the league. The Steelers ranked eighth in run defense this season, but they are first when it comes to the playoffs. Pittsburgh hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher in 17 consecutive postseason games, which is tied with the Redskins for the longest current streak. Teams didn't really test the Steelers' run defense this season. Opponents averaged 25 carries a game against Pittsburgh, which was the eighth fewest in the NFL.

Backup plan: The Steelers placed starting running back Rashard Mendenhall on injured reserve this week after he tore his ACL. Statistics say Pittsburgh's running game will be more explosive without him. Since the start of 2010, Mendenhall averaged 3.9 yards per carry, the fifth worst among the 28 players with at least 300 rushes in the past two seasons (according to ESPN S&I). Isaac Redman, who is expected to replace Mendenhall, is averaging 4.5 yards per carry over that span. Mendenhall also had the second fewest yards after contact (1.6 per carry) among running backs with at least 200 carries. The rest of the Steelers averaged 2.6 yards after contact.

Final Word: Bengals at Texans

January, 6, 2012
1/06/12
1:30
PM ET
Wild-Card Final Word: Bengals-Texans | Lions-Saints | Falcons-Giants | Steelers-Broncos

Three nuggets of knowledge about Saturday's Bengals-Texans wild-card game:

Ending playoff droughts: While the Texans are in the playoffs for the first time in their 10-season existence, the Bengals have endured a much longer wait. Cincinnati has the longest active NFL streak without a playoff victory, going 20 years, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Bengals' last postseason victory came in the 1990 wild-card playoffs against Houston -- and that's the Oilers, not the Texans. On Saturday, Cincinnati will look to end that drought, which has spanned 7,768 days. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis is trying to end his own losing streak in the postseason. If he falls to the Texans, Lewis would become the first head coach to lose his first three playoff games since Wade Phillips dropped his first four before earning a postseason win in 2009.

[+] EnlargeMarvin Lewis
Mitch Stringer/US PresswireMarvin Lewis is aiming to avoid seeing his personal playoff losing streak hit three games.
Making the tackle: If the Bengals can stop the Texans and the NFL's second-ranked running attack, they have a good shot at winning. To do so, Cincinnati has to fix a run defense that has crumbled down the stretch. In the first 10 games of the season, Cincinnati allowed 88.6 yards rushing per game. In the past six, the Bengals have given up 131.5. The run defense bottomed out in the regular-season finale when it got lit up by the Ravens' Ray Rice for 191 yards on the ground. The problem comes down to tackling, or the lack thereof. According to ESPN S&I, the Bengals are allowing 1.9 yards after contact per rush, seventh worst in the NFL. With running backs Arian Foster and Ben Tate, the Texans lead the league with 1,133 yards after contact this season.

Avoiding the swat team: Elias Sports Bureau confirms that this marks the first postseason game since the 1970 merger to have rookie quarterbacks starting for both teams (Andy Dalton for Cincinnati and T.J. Yates for Houston). Dalton rarely has to worry about getting knocked down. The Bengals allowed the fourth-fewest sacks in the NFL this season. His biggest concern is having his passes knocked down. Dalton had the most passes batted or defended this season (79), including eight against the Texans on Dec. 11, according to ESPN S&I. That's not unusual for Houston, which led all defenses in defending passes (94).

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