PLAYOFF PREGAME STRETCH: Miami at Pittsburgh
Bell, Steelers will try to flip the (frigid) script on Ajayi, Dolphins on Wild Card weekend
AFC WILD CARD PLAYOFFS: Miami Dolphins (10-6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5) at Heinz Field, capacity 65,050; Sunday at 1 p.m., CBS
Announcers: Jeeeeeeeeem and Pheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeel. Annoyance factor: Ugh. You know what’s really amazing about Phil Simms? He goes on national television 15 or 20 times and year and says things that are absolutely absurd and nonsensical (that’s not an opinion, either, that’s a fact using transcripts of his own words) and many very smart people point that out to his bosses on a weekly basis and they just shrug it off and keep writing him fat checks. Honestly, it should be a “30 For 30” someday. Information courtesy www.the506.com.
Weather – or not?: Mostly cloudy, 20. This will be the Dolphins’ first game this year played is sub-freezing temperatures, but does cold weather favor the Steelers? Mike Tomlin says no, but what else would he say? Tomlin’s reasoning is that his team features at least as many Florida natives as the Dolphins. Of course, that’s faulty logic because any perceived advantage would be about Steelers players being better acclimated because they live and practice in a cold climate. Take a player like Miami wideout Jarvis Landry. He’s from Louisiana and played at LSU, meaning he never played a cold-weather game in college. In his three years with the Dolphins, he’s played only a handful of cold-weather games and none where temps were below 20 as they will be in in the second half Sunday. Now, that seems like a guy who could be affected.That said, we tend to agree that cold weather’s overall influence is overblown unless it’s REALLY COLD, as in single-digits cold. We’ll be right on the brink of that Sunday. Information courtesy www.weather.com.
How they rank: Miami offense: 26th passing, 9th rushing, 17th ppg; Pittsburgh defense: 16th passing, 13th rushing, 10th ppg; Pittsburgh offense: 5th passing, 14th rushing, 10th ppg; Miami defense: 15th passing, 30th rushing, 18th ppg; Sacks: Miami 19th (33); Pittsburgh 9th (38); Sacks allowed: Miami 10th (30), Pittsburgh 2nd (21). Comment: Similar to the Bills, the Dolphins run the ball extremely well, but can’t stop the run to save their lives. Hopefully, Pittsburgh’s offense can match the performance they put on tape against the Bills and that started with throwing the ball regularly to Le’Veon Bell to open up the run game.
Referee: Craig Wrolstad. Competence factor: Solid. Wrolstad will be working his third Steelers game this year, having done the Redskins (yay!) and Patriots (boo!) games with his regular crew. This is a mixed crew, though, featuring only one other member of Wrolstad’s group and three members of Terry McAulay’s crew, which is good news because that’s an excellent unit. As an aside, Col. Triplette, who hasn’t worked a Pittsburgh game in forever, is the alternate R. Information courtesy www.footballzebras.com and www.profootballreference.com.
The last time: The Steelers were 4-1 back in October and on a trajectory to compete for a first-round playoff bye when then-unheard-of Jay Ajayi and the Dolphins brought them back to Earth with a 30-15 thrashing. Ajayi’s 204 yards against the Steelers turned out to be the first of many eye-popping rushing performances for the second-year back from Boise State. Ben Roethlisberger played his worst game of the year for Pittsburgh, just plain terrible in the first half then terrible and injured in the second half. Miami springboarded from this game to win eight of its next 10 while Pittsburgh spiraled to three more consecutive losses before righting the ship.
The line: Steelers -10. Smarts say: What in the world? Is there an Elias Sports Bureau for betting that can let us know if a team beaten by 15 points in first meeting has ever been favored by 10 points in second meeting in same season? That’s absurd, isn’t it? That’s three points for home field, two points for the Pittsburgh public betting factor and then five more? That’s something the Dolphins can and should use for bulletin board material. Anyway, the over/under of 47 would mean some like Steelers 28-19. Information courtesy www.dannysheridan.com and www.pregame.com.
Key matchup: Steelers receiver Le’Veon Bell vs. Dolphins LB Jelani Jenkins. Why: We know the eye-popping moves Bell has put on tape in the run game, but the Dolphins are equipped to contend with that with Ndamukong Suh and Kiko Alonso. It’s as a receiver that Bell could be the difference maker as Miami likely will entrust hobbled OLB Jenkins in coverage. We’d guess if Bell gets five catches and 60 receiving yards, Pittsburgh comes out on the right end of the final.
Players on the spot: Steelers DBs Artie Burns, Ross Cockrell, Sean Davis. Because: Tackling. When Pittsburgh’s defense has been bad, it’s largely been due to shoddy tackling that seems to strike multiple defenders at once, letting ball carriers take them for piggyback rides, as one Twitter cad put it, instead of hitting guys low. In the first Miami debacle, Burns and Cockrell both tackled poorly. Burns, especially, has improved since then, but don’t be surprised if the Dolphins attack him both in the passing AND running games. Davis is the wild card as he did not play much in the teams’ first meeting. He’s been a spark plug since replacing Robert Golden and a sure and a solid tackler. His presence, as much as the return of Stephon Tuitt, could flip the script against Jay Ajayi for the Pittsburgh defense.
+ The winner of this game will travel to Kansas City next Sunday for a 1 p.m. Divisional Round matchup. Just as the Steelers are a different and much better team than the last time they faced the Dolphins, the Chiefs are a much better team than the last time they faced the Steelers.
+ So, who has a better chance of shocking the world in Foxboro next week? The Raiders, who have a 15-year-old Tuck-Rule score to settle? Or the Texans, whose coach cut his NFL teeth tutoring Tom Brady under The Hoodie’s watchful eye? We think the Raiders are better equipped talent-wise if they can capture some lightning in a bottle with Connor Cook at quarterback, but we wouldn’t write Bill O’Brien off if the Texans get a shot. BOB’s teams have a way of uglying up games and being within a score at the end when anything can happen.
+ Ladarius Green’s return this weekend will be amplified if Dolphins CB Byron Maxwell can not go. Without Maxwell, Miami likely will need to give safety help consistently on Antonio Brown, opening the middle for Green. Or if those safeties stay home to guard that, AB could have a field day working the sideline routes.
+ Matt Moore will start this game at quarterback and he absolutely gives the Dolphins a better chance to win than a rusty Ryan Tannehill. Moore is akin to Charlie Batch during his vintage backup era. We would not be shocked at all to see Moore put up 20 completions, 250 yards and a couple touchdowns in this game. Moore has thrown eight TDs and only three INTs in his three starts since Tannehill’s injury.
+ Sports Illustrated ran a 6,000-word cover story on Ben Roethlisberger this week that was one of the strangest pieces of sports journalism we’ve ever come across. The story rehashed done-to-death topics, including allegations of rape against Roethlisberger, his reputation as a boorish punk during his early years in Pittsburgh and his estrangement from his hometown. All once newsworthy, all rehashed with no new ground covered and no comments from Roethlisberger. Strange.
+ The media vote last week for Steelers Rookie of the Year was closely contested and that’s very good news for a team that desperately needed an infusion of young talent on defense. Safety Sean Davis, drafted in the second round last May from Maryland, was the winner in the balloting and it’s hard to argue with that result. Coincidentally or not, the team is 6-0 Since Davis became a full-time player and what he’s been doing on the back end of the defense has allowed Pittsburgh to improve against the run since losing Cam Heyward. Davis edged out first-round selection Artie Burns, the Miami product who took on a starting cornerback role at about midseason. Burns has had his ups and downs, as you’d expect at that position, but he’s improved dramatically as a tackler and shown signs of becoming a playmaker, leading the team with three interceptions. Rookie nose tackle Javon Hargrave, the third-round selection from South Carolina State, also received votes for ROY. Hargrave has lived up to billing as the most NFL-ready of Pittsburgh 2016 picks, contributing virtually from Day 1 and taking on a biggest role as the season has unfolded, both as a player who can plug the A-gap and push the action into the offensive backfield. His performance last week against Jeremy Zuttah and the Ravens bordered on dominant. Considering most NFL players show the greatest improvement between their first and second year, there’s a chance we might someday look back at the 2016 Draft as a special one.
+ Of course, where Pittsburgh has largely failed in seeking an infusion of young talent is in pass rushing at that’s looming as a position of need again next May with Jarvis Jones headed for free agency, Arthur Moats and Anthony Chickillo locked in as reserves and James Harrison getting one year closer to the year when he really, truly, finally, for real this time can’t continue to perform like that. Don’t be surprised to see the Steelers go OLB/DE (again) at the bottom of Round 1 (again) next spring.
The pick: For the last four weeks, we felt like this was the best-possible first-round matchup for Pittsburgh and that the second meeting between these two teams would be a much different story, but now that EVERYONE, including the oddsmakers, thinks it will be a much different story, we started wondering if it’s not going to be a much different story. But when you look at the matchups in this game, with Mike Pouncey and Byron Maxwell out for the Dolphins and Stephon Tuitt and Ladarius Green back for the Steelers, it’s just hard to see a way the Dolphins win this game short of Ben Roethlisberger handing it to them. We don’t think he will … Steelers 24-17.
Last week: Another split to end the regular season as we had the Steelers winning and covering last week. That leaves us at 10-6 straight up and 8-8 against the spread.