(Reuters) - The stars appear to be aligning for the Denver Broncos in their quest for a second Super Bowl appearance in three years, but big questions remain as the AFC’s top seed heads into Sunday’s Divisional playoff game against Pittsburgh.
The Steelers (10-6) suffered a double dose of bad injury news on Friday with their leading receiver, Antonio Brown (concussion), and leading rusher DeAngelo Williams (foot) ruled out for the game.
Listed as questionable was two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who might be restricted by a sprained joint and torn ligaments in his throwing shoulder even if he is able to suit up.
That would seem to shift the odds heavily in Denver’s favor, but the defensive-minded Broncos (12-4) have their own questions to answer.
None looms bigger than what 39-year-old quarterback Peyton Manning, a five-time league most valuable player, can deliver in what may be his last campaign.
Manning, who has given no indication he plans to retire, returned from injury just in time to steer the Broncos to victory over San Diego on the final day of the regular season to earn a first-round bye and home field advantage.
But the 14-times Pro Bowler has been a shadow of his former elite self on the field.
After missing seven weeks with a foot injury before coming off the bench against the Chargers, he displayed his veteran savvy, though still did not throw with his old power.
Even before the injury, Manning was enduring his worst statistical season with nine touchdown passes and 17 interceptions.
“Having a bye week certainly helped to get back out there and practice,” he told reporters. “This year has been a unique year with injuries.”
Manning admits he has thought about whether this could be his final season.
“I’d be lying to say I’ve never thought (about it),” he said.
By the time they take the field in Denver, the Broncos and Steelers will know which team awaits the winner, since the New England Patriots (12-4) and Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) play on Saturday.
The Patriots have also been hit by injuries, limping rather than sprinting into the playoffs in losing their final two games to surrender top-seeding in the AFC.
Quarterback Tom Brady sprained an ankle two weeks ago, but is expected to be fit to play the Chiefs, while wide receiver Julian Edelman (broken foot) is listed as probable after missing seven games.
But the Patriots have another injury worry in tight end Rob Gronkowski, a main offensive weapon, who missed practice on Thursday due to a knee injury raising concerns about his readiness for Saturday’s game.
Pro Bowl defensive end Chandler Jones is expected to play, six days after being admitted to hospital with a “medical emergency” that media outlets reported to be a bad reaction to synthetic marijuana.
The Chiefs, riding an 11-game winning streak, also have injury concerns, most notably wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, who sprained an ankle during last weekend’s 30-0 playoff demolition of Houston.
Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina; Editing by Larry Fine