What a difference a few months make in the NFL. During their October 16th matchup against the Dolphins, the Steelers were thoroughly beaten on route to maybe the worst loss of the season. Miami ran wild to the tune of 232 yards rushing on their way to a convincing 30 -15 victory. Flash forward to this weekends wild card matchup and we see much has changed for the two teams. So much has changed that Vegas now has the Steelers as a 10 point favorite against the Dolphins. Let’s look at the key factors that have Pittsburgh such a big favorite.
Often the biggest deciding factor between NFL teams is health. The Steelers come into this game as healthy as they’ve been all season, while Miami is banged up at key positions. Both their original starting safeties will miss Sunday’s game. Isa Abdul-Quddus was placed on IR after last weeks loss to the Patriots, and Reshad Jones was lost for the season after the game against the Steelers. Jones in particular is a big loss, the former Pro-Bowler had an interception against Big Ben in the last game. Center Mike Pouncey is also gone for the season which is a blow to the Dolphins running game. Finally we come to the Ryan Tannehill injury question. The Miami quarterback has been out for weeks with a knee injury, but he is practicing this week and may play. Usually it’s a good thing that the opposing quarterback is hurt and not playing, but in this case it may not be so. One of Tannehill’s biggest strengths is his mobility and threat to run. With a not fully healed knee, he may struggle to be effective. Not to mention he hasn’t played in over a month so rust may also be an issue. Backup Matt Moore is 2-1 since taking over the starting role, and may be the more dangerous option at this point. Pittsburgh will be relatively healthy entering the playoffs. Cameron Heyward is the only impact starter who is sure to miss the game. Players like Ryan Shazier, Sean Davis, Marcus Gibert, Bu Dupree, and Ladarius Green all missed the first meeting, but should all play this time around.
This is a good segway to discuss the most important position on the field……quarterback. This is a big advantage for Pittsburgh, and in reality it’s not even close. In Ben Roethlisberger the Steelers have arguably a top 3 quarterback in the NFL. Miami’s quarterback, on the other hand, is quite a mess. In a perfect world Ryan Tannehill is an average QB at best. With his injured knee, and certain rust it’s a good bet he will struggle badly in this game. Matt Moore is a decent backup, but he’s a backup for a reason. Moore has never had any sustained success as a starter in the league. If Moore does end up starting, it will be his first playoff appearance of his career. In either case, this is a huge advantage for Pittsburgh.
Home field advantage is incredibly important in the NFL, even more so in the playoffs. This game will be played at Heinze Field where the Steelers went 6-2 this season. Ben Roethlisberger has been considerably better at home this season. Eight of his thirteen interceptions have come on the road this year, a good indicator of his struggles away from home. The Dolphins are 3-5 away from Hard Rock Stadium in Miami. The specter of playing a backup quarterback on the road in a playoff game does not bode well for them.
The current Steeler defense that will take the field this week could not be more different then the one that got trounced by Miami earlier this season. This unit has made a complete turn around in the second half of the season. Pittsburgh’s first three draft picks from the 2016 draft are now starting on defense and making huge impacts. Sean Davis for one, has become an impact player at safety. His play making in run support will be a big boost against Jay Ajayi and the Dolphins ground game. Javon Hargrave has really become a force on the defensive line and should also be a big help in this area. Another important reason for the turn around is the inside linebacker play. Ryan Shazier is a dynamic player who missed the previous game with an injury. When Shazier is healthy, the Steelers are a different team without question. We sometimes forget how good Shazier’s counterpart is as well. Lawrence Timmons has been on a tear lately and is playing as good as anyone on the team as. The ten year vet has 2 interceptions in the last 6 games, to go along with his usual top tackling talents. Miami should find it much more difficult to run on Pittsburgh this time around, which will spell deep trouble for their offense.
In the end this should end up a double digit win for the Pittsburgh Steelers. They are clearly the better team with home field advantage. Pittsburgh does have a knack for making games closer then they should be however, so it wont be shocking to see a closer then expected outcome. This time with a little revenge on their mind, I’m expecting a blowout at Heinze Field…… final score Pittsburgh 34 – Miami 3.