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Five Key Matchups in Steelers vs. Broncos AFC Divisional Game

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The Pittsburgh Steelers and Denver Broncos are ready to do battle, see some key matchups in this Divisional game in the AFC Playoffs.

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Because of injuries on the side of the visitors, the AFC Divisional Playoff between Pittsburgh and Denver seems to be lopsided in the Broncos direction. However, heart can't be measured in an injury report and this game has a number of interesting battles. There are a lot more than five to document, but in no particular order, here is a list of the five most compelling of matchups to look out for on Sunday.

Key Matchup No. 1
LB Ryan Shazier vs RB C.J. Anderson and RB Ronnie Hillman

Last time out, the Steelers stopped the duo that ranks 17th in the league at running the football. Stopping Anderson and Hillman on first down is paramount in order to force Peyton Manning into second-and-long situations. The hope is that Manning will begin to press, thus forcing him into turning over the ball.

Hillman, at 4.2 yards-per-carry, leads the team with 863 yards and seven rushing touchdowns. He can run inside, but is more of the outside threat on the team. Meanwhile, Anderson can also run well on the outside, but he makes most of his money as a pounder between the tackles. Averaging 4.7 ypc, C.J. has collected 720 yards and five scores. Combined, the two men have 49 catches out of the backfield, so they are a threat there also.

The defender on the Steelers with the speed to stop them is Ryan Shazier. Shazier was a force to be reckoned with last Saturday in Cincinnati. The devastating hits on Bengal running backs forced two fumbles and rescued victory from the firm grip of sure defeat. With key, injured personell missing on the offensive side of the ball, a low scoring game is a must for the Steelers to win, Shazier, who is now calling defensive plays, is a key cog in making that happen.

Key Matchup No. 2
WR Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant and Darrius Heyward-Bey vs "The No Fly Zone"

Of course, Markus Wheaton's main objective tomorrow is to lead his team to the AFC championship game and beyond. However, a standout performance for Wheaton can lead to a huge contract in the off-season. Out of the shadows of Antonio Brown, the surehanded Wheaton will be a primary target for Ben Roethlisberger against the league's toughest defense to pass against. Wheaton, with two catches for 23 yards against Cincy, will have to step up this week. As will Bryant, who did in a major way last week in the WC game.

The fear here is that the presence of Brown made it easier for Markus and Martavis to get open and that they will struggle to do it without him. But Wheaton and Bryant are dynamic in their own, diverse right and will fight to advance themselves and AB into the next round.

Last time out, Big Ben and the Steelers receivers converted the "No Fly Zone" into the equivalent of an air show featuring the Blue Angels. But that was in Pittsburgh  and the "NSF" was without safeties Darian Stewart and T.J. Ward and their combined 16 passes defensed and 125 tackles.

Looking to avenge that game last month is Chris Harris Jr. Harris was torched by Antonio Brown for 16 catches, 187 yards and two scores. It was a rough week for a man that had not been scored upon all year.

With AB out, Harris Jr and fellow CB stalwart, Aqib Talib, get a break. However, Ben trusts Bryant, Wheaton and DHB and knows how to find them. Throw in Sammie Coates, an unproven but talented rookie, and this should be as compelling an air battle as the Battle of Yavin.

Key Matchup No. 3
RB Jordan Todman and RB Fitzgerald Toussaint vs LB Danny Trevathan and LB Brandon Marshall

Last week, TNT was dynamite as they helped bring balance to the offense to the tune of 183 total yards against the #7 rushing defense in the league. With another week in the backfield spelling Deangelo Williams, Todman and Toussaint face the NFL's #3 rushing defense and #1 overall. Trevathan and Marshall lead Denver in tackles and will be two of a swarm of Orange Crushers looking to downgrade TNT to a mere firecracker.

Key Matchup No. 4
QB Ben Roethlisberger vs LB DeMarcus Ware and LB Von Miller

Of course I preface this with an "if" Ben plays due to his being listed as questionable on the injury report.  However, everybody expects Roethlisberger to be behind center on Sunday. But how strong will his arm be and how far will he be able to go and throw? Ben lives for situations like this and will do everything he can to shine. But he is facing a #1 pass defense and will need to be aware that the most fearsome gang of pass rushers that play underneath the shield are lined up against him.

Von Miller (11) and DeMarcus Ware (7.5) have 18.5 combined quarterback sacks on the year and surely haven't forgotten that they were shut out last month in Pittsburgh. The likelihood of that happening again is that of a beloved celebrity not dying again in 2016. Marcus Gilbert and Al Villanueva need to be mobile boulders in Colorado to keep Ben upright.

Roethlisberger doesn't only have to thwart off the advances of Ware and Miller. Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson have 5.5 sacks each and come full bore. Plus there's the "NFS" secondary that he torched for 380 yards looking for retribution.

DE Antonio Smith doesn't even believe that Ben's shoulder is as bad as he says. Smith told USA Today Sports, "He kind of looks like Obi-Wan Kenobi. He tries to pull the Jedi mind trick. Oh yeah, I'm really hurt. I might not play. And then he comes in the game and tries to ball".

Smith's comments are a lot of Wampa waste, but he does have a point. Roethlisberger does look like the great Jedi Master, Obi-Wan was also known as Ben and the new Star Wars movie and Ben both boast the #7. Hopefully, the force may be with him and the Steelers on Sunday.

Key Matchup No. 5
LB James Harrison vs QB Peyton Manning

Peyton Manning has had a Hall of Fame career, but don't think for a minute that he doesn't feel that he has a lot to prove. At 39, Manning has endured some deterioration of skills, but his mind is sharp and he knows how to win.

Just a few weeks ago, it seemed like Peyton had permanently lost his job to Brock Osweiler. But now he is back behind center and is still very dangerous to defenses.

Fellow old-timer, James Harrison also has a lot to prove. He had been forced to retire after the 2013 season because teams did not think he had anything left. Since returning, Harrison has proved those teams and critics wrong by playing solid defense. Deebo has five sacks on the year and had a solid game in Cincy last week.

James still is dynamic and disruptive coming from the edge and could give Peyton fits. But Manning still has a quick enough of a release and knows how to pick apart a defense.

This battle of AARP and Al Jazeera targets will be fun to watch. The one with the upper hand will advance. Three words for the other...Early Bird Special.

Other Notable Matchups

RG David Decastro vs DE Derek Wolfe

Steelers Secondary vs WR Manny Sanders, WR Demaryius Thomas and TE Owen Daniels

WR Sammie Coates vs The Legend of "Next Man Up"

C Cody Wallace vs A Denver Defense Seeking Revenge