Miami Dolphins (10-6 SU, 9-7 ATS) vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5 SU, 9-6-1 ATS)
NFL Wild-card Weekend
Date/Time: Sunday January 8th, 1:05 PM EST
Where: Heinz Field
by Mike M, Expert Football Handicapper, Predictem.com
Point Spread: MIA +10 / PIT -10
Over/Under Total: 47
The Miami Dolphins travel to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers in a Sunday afternoon Wild-card weekend matchup at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh earned the 3rd seed by winning the AFC North and finishing the regular season with a record of 11-5, while the Dolphins claimed the 6th and final AFC postseason spot by finishing a game ahead of the Tennessee Titans and Denver Broncos at 10-6.
This will be the second meeting of the year between the two teams with Miami having beaten Pittsburgh 30-15 back in October. In that game Ben Roethlisberger put up the worst single game QBR of his career (4.1), though much of that could be attested to the torn meniscus to his left knee that was suffered in the second quarter of the game. Roethlisberger wasnít alone in his struggles against the Dolphins, as Antonio Brown was limited to his lowest reception total of the season with only four catches and due to the passing game issues, LeíVeon Bell was held to just 10 carries. While the Steeler offense struggled throughout the matchup against the Miami defense and ended up with their third lowest point total scored of the season, it was a Dolphin running back that stole the show that day and catapulted himself to possible NFL stardom.
After getting caught up in the coaches doghouse for poor preseason play, second year back Jay Ajayi played sparingly through the first month of the season and was stuck behind Arian Foster on the depth chart. Foster eventually got injured, to the surprise of no one considering his body is seemingly made up of a combination of balsa wood, bubbles and porcelain, which opened the door for Ajayi who took full advantage of his opportunity and blew up for 204 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries. On the season Ajayi would eventually run for over 200 yards in a game three separate times and overall put up 1,272 yards rushing along with 8 touchdowns on the ground. While there are many other members of the Dolphins that have a great effect on the teamsí success, none compare to Ajayi, as Miami is 8-0 on the season when he has more than 16 carries, but just 2-6 when he has 16 or less.
The youth movement continues for Miami in their receiving corps, with three wideouts all age 24 or less putting up impressive stats throughout the 2016 season. Jarvis Landry is their clear number one, and on the season has caught 94 passes for 1,136 yards and 4 touchdown and finished the year ranked 7th in the NFL in receptions. He is joined by DeVante Parker (56 receptions, 744 yards and 4 touchdowns) and Kenny Stills, who ranks 6th in the league amongst wide receivers with 9 touchdowns on the year, including a score in each of their last four games. The combination of Landry/Parker/Stills along with Ajayi will be much needed for Miami come Sunday against Pittsburgh, as while those four continue to pay dividends for the Dolphins, who will be getting them the ball remains a troubled area.
With Ryan Tannehill still unable to practice through Wednesday of this week due to the lingering effects of his ACL/MCL sprain of his left knee, it appears as though Matt Moore will be starting at quarterback for the Dolphins on Sunday. Moore has performed better than expected in Tannehillís absence, leading the team to a 2-1 record with road wins against the Jets and Bills while completing 55 of 87 passes for 721 yards and a TD-INT ratio of 8/3. Performing well against two teams that had already quit on their season is one thing, how Moore handles his first career playoff start in front of a hostile Heinz Field crowd will likely be on the of the key determining factors in the outcome of Sundayís game.
While the Dolphins face questions at the quarterback position, the Steelers have no such issue with Ben Roethlisberger leading the way for them, especially when he has arguably the best wide receiver in the league has his favorite target, Antonio Brown. The 7th year wideout from Central Michigan again finds himself near the top of the three major statistical categories for his position, ending the regular season ranked second in both receptions (106) and touchdowns (12), along with coming in fifth in receiving yards (1,284). If the Roethlisberger-to-Brown combination wasnít enough to strategize against for opposing coaches, they get exponentially more difficult to plan for when you consider they also have one of if not the best running back in the league with LeíVeon Bell.
Who knows what more Bell could have accomplished if not for having missed the first four games of the season due to suspension, as despite having September off he still managed to put up a 5th in the league total of 1,268 yards rushing, this along with 75 receptions for 616 yards receiving and 9 touchdowns scored. After a 21-14 loss to the Ravens to start November, Bell found himself in the midst of an eight game scoreless streak, but since he has righted the touchdown ship and has gotten into the endzone nine times in his last seven games. He also managed to end another surprising streak in November, as after going five straight games without gaining over 81 yards rushing, Bell has truly found his stride with 835 yards on the ground over the past six while also averaging 180 yards of total offense per game. Sunday will be the first postseason game of Bellís career, and he will be looking to continue his offensive momentum and hopefully turn the tide of what has been an unfortunate recent playoff history for the Steelers.
It seems odd to say a team has struggled in the postseason when they have been to three Super Bowls over the past eleven seasons, including two of which they won in both 2008 against Arizona and in 2005 when they were handed a title against the Seahawks thanks to some of the most egregious officiating in league history. In 2010 the Steelers got back to the championship game after beating the Jets to win the AFC, but from that point on things havenít gone nearly as well as they have posted just a 1-4 record in the five postseason games since with an average loss of just under seven points per game. While one playoff win in the past five seasons isnít anything to brag about, that is still light years better than their opponent this week, as the Dolphins have been to the playoffs just once in since 2001, havenít won a playoff game since 2000 (a streak of 16 years that is 5th worst in the NFL) and have won a divisional postseason only one time since 1985.
While the Steelers and Dolphins enter Sundayís game attempting to offset recent postseason inadequacy, both head into the playoffs riding winning streaks of their own, with Pittsburgh having won eight in a row and Miami getting the victory in nine of their last eleven games. If you look deeper in these late season runs, you will notice a stark difference between how the teams were able to accomplish their success. During the Steelers recent eight game-winning streak, minus the finale against Cleveland when Roethlisberger/Bell/Brown didnít play, they outgained their opponents by an average of over 115 yards per game while scoring at least 24 points in ever game. On the other side of the spectrum is Miami, who have been outgained in seven of their last eight games, and while going 9-2 during any eleven game stretch in the NFL will always be impressive, the last eight teams Miami has gotten a win against ended the season with a losing record.
Pittsburgh is currently listed as a ten point favorite against Miami, which is the highest spread of any of the four games this weekend. While playoff lines are usually inflated and giving double-digit points in an NFL game may be a cause for concern for some, I would have no issue doing so on Sunday. Since the year 2000 at least one team has won by double-digit points amongst the two AFC Wild Card games, with a total of 20 of 32 teams getting a victory by ten or more. Historical conference precedent is only an ancillary reason to take the Steelers this weekend though, as they also not only rank significantly higher than Miami in the four major statistical categories (total offense (7th compared to 24th), total defense (12th to 29th), offensive scoring (10th to 17th) and defensive scoring (10th to 18th)), but also enter the game with an offensive triumvirate that is amongst the best in the league and now draw a team at home starting an inexperienced backup quarterback that threw a grand total of eleven passes from 2013-2015 and hadnít started a game since 2011 before three weeks ago. Pittsburgh has played especially well this year at Heinz Field, averaging over 28 points per game and going 6-2 with their only losses coming the two top seeds in the league, Dallas and New England, and I expect that hey will continue that success on Sunday against a dilapidated Miami team, putting the Steelers one step closer to their inevitable showdown with New England for the AFC Championship in two weeks.
Mike Mís Pick to Cover the Point Spread: Pittsburgh -10
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