The last time the Miami Dolphins won a playoff game Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Women” was the hottest song in the country and Jay Fiedler was under center for the team in a post-Y2K world. Fast-forward to present day where Beyoncé is dominating the pop scene without Kelly and Michelle and the Dolphins are without their franchise quarterback, Ryan Tannehill. Tannehill has been out since Week 14 after suffering a partially torn ACL and MCL sprain, leaving perennial backup Matt Moore as the starter.
The Steelers’ playoff history is one of the most storied in American sports with six Super Bowl wins, including two in the past 11 years. The continuity under head coach Mike Tomlin has proven to be a recipe for success as Pittsburgh posted its seventh double-digit win-season in 10 years under Tomlin, the NFL’s second-longest current tenured head coach. The Steelers, riding a seven-game winning streak and a red-hot offense, are one of the favorites to make it to Houston for Super Bowl LI.
AFC Wild Card: Miami at Pittsburgh
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 8 at 1:05 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Pittsburgh -10
Three Things to Watch
1. Matt Moore in the Spotlight
Moore has been in the starting lineup for three weeks now, posting a 2-1 record since Ryan Tannehill went down a partially torn ACL. Moore has actually played rather well in Tannehill’s absence, completing 63.5 percent of his passes for eight touchdowns and three interceptions. In order for the Dolphins to shock the Steelers on Sunday afternoon, Moore doesn’t need to be perfect and throw for a bunch of touchdowns; he doesn’t even need to be great — he simply needs to be good enough. To put it in a simpler term, Moore can’t turn the ball over.
Earlier in the season when the Dolphins topped the Steelers 30-15, Tannehill was good, not great, completing 24 of 32 passes with no touchdowns, but most importantly, no picks. In that game, Tannehill found his best wide receiver, Jarvis Landry, seven times for 91 yards. Expect the Steelers to focus on taking Landry out of the picture, pressuring Moore with a variety of blitzes, and forcing him to make uncomfortable throws to secondary receivers.
2. Steelers’ Defense vs. Jay Ajayi
The last time these two teams met, the Dolphins’ running back had the best game of his young career (at the time), gashing the Steelers for 204 yards on 25 carries, good enough for 8.2 yards per attempt (3.9 after first contact), and two touchdowns. Miami pummeled Pittsburgh’s defense to the tune of 474 total yards, 24 first downs, while dominating time of possession (36:30). And Ajayi’s productivity and the dominance of the offensive line had much to do with this success.
While Ajayi posted three separate 200-yard performances this season, he had just one other game with more than 80 yards on the ground – a 111-yard effort in Week 9 against the Jets. And while the Steelers’ defense won’t be reminding fans of the glory days of the “Steel Curtain,” it has been playing well during this current seven-game winning streak. Pittsburgh has held opponents to just 17.3 points per game during this stretch and given up more than 100 rushing yards just twice. And one of those came last week against Cleveland (231 yards on 33 carries), in a game that went to overtime and carried no significance whatsoever for the Steelers, who had already clinched the AFC North.
Look for Pittsburgh to load the box and focus its efforts on stopping Ajayi to force Moore to have to make more plays with his arm.
3. Steelers’ Offense Healthy and Ready
When these two teams met back in October, Miami left Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger battered and beaten, holding him to fewer than 200 passing yards and intercepting him twice. In order to win at Heinz Field on Sunday, the Dolphins will need another near-flawless performance from their defense — a much taller order against a now healthy Big Ben who gets his shot at a depleted secondary. Getting a push up front and disrupting Roethlisberger’s rhythm in the pocket will need to be a priority for Miami’s defensive line, namely Ndamukong Suh, Earl Mitchell, Cameron Wake and Jordan Phillips.
Roethlisberger and Co. are hitting their stride and getting healthy after the offense’s biggest stars sat out against Cleveland last week. The trio of Roethlisberger, running back Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown is the most prolific three-headed monster in football and gives the Steelers a decisive advantage against a Dolphins defense that has surrendered 79 points and nearly 900 yards of total offense the last two weeks. To make matters worse, Miami could be without defensive back Byron Maxwell, adding to the woes of an already paper-thin secondary.
If the Dolphins’ front can’t force Roethlisberger to the ground or into several turnovers — which is very possible — it could be a very long, and cold, Sunday afternoon in the Steel City.
The Steelers are playing their best football right now and are nearly totally healthy on both sides of the ball, while the Dolphins are without Ryan Tannehill and most of their starting secondary. Miami will need to play a perfect game, on the road, in the cold, against one of the NFL’s best offenses, and with a backup quarterback who has never taken a snap in a playoff game. That’s a tall order.
The Dolphins’ best shot against Pittsburgh is for Jay Ajayi to have something close to a repeat performance from earlier this season (when he ran for 204 yards), for Matt Moore to be very good and mistake-free, and for their defense to force Ben Roethlisberger into multiple takeaways. The way the Steelers are playing right now, I can’t see it happening.
Athlon Editors and Contributors Predictions
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.