This is it. Make no mistake where you are. The Pittsburgh Steelers are in the Wildcard Round of the NFL playoffs.
They face the Miami Dolphins, a team pretty much everybody except for T.D., their official mascot, expects to lose to the Steelers.
After all, the Dolphins are uni-dimensional on offense and are vulnerable to RB Le’Veon Bell’s prolific running game. That’s not to mention QB Ben Roethlisberger’s impressive arsenal of weapons at his disposal.
The Dolphins are also having to travel away from their warm, sandy beaches to play in Sunday’s projected North Pole climes in Pittsburgh.
This is all setting up as a simple stepping stone to Steelers post-season glory.
Warning Will Roger! Warning Will Roger!
These are exactly the games that have frustrated Pittsburgh fans to the point of apoplexy as they watch Coach Mike Tomlin’s teams struggle in these quintessential “gimme” games.
In fact, it was just a few months ago when the Steelers—then trumpeting a 4-1 record—lost one of these gimme games to the then 1-4 Dolphins, who were gasping at the blowhole.
Pittsburgh managed to permanently gild the resume of formerly unknown RB Jay Ajayi as he slapped more than two C-notes of yardage on the Steelers in a shocking 15-30 loss. This also launched the Dolphins on a six game winning streak.
The truth is, the Dolphins have won nine out of their last eleven games and have nearly as much momentum as the Steelers heading into this game.
Here’s where it stands. This will be a significant challenge for Pittsburgh in front of their home crowd. Will Miami shock the world again? Or will the Steelers put them in the Frozen Fish section of the 2016 NFL season? Let’s Spin the answer:
A Critical Brownout
There was much grumbling about Tomlin’s decision to keep a majority of his starters in the game last week during the team’s 27-24 squeaker against the Cleveland Browns. Many considered it a meaningless game. However; this may end up being one of Tomlin’s best decisions of the season. Sure, he kept his Big 3 in QB Ben Roethlisberger, WR Antonio Brown and Bell on the shelf, as well as C Maurkice Pouncey, but practically everyone else was full go. The result was the team can boast a seven-game win streaking heading into the playoffs. That’s MUCH better momentum than being on a one-game losing streak. Trying to get a team’s mojo rolling once again can be as difficult as cranking up a Ford Model T. Well played Coach Tomlin.
Tuning The Defense
Even more importantly, the Steelers defense got some much needed additional work against the Browns. In truth, this young squad could use another four or five games prior to the playoffs to continue its gradual improvement, but getting an extra match in against the Browns was critical for iron sharpening steel.
Above The Line
Getting DE Stephon Tuitt back in the starting lineup may be the headline leading into Sunday’s game. He was having an exceptional season before getting injured several games back and he will provide the team with a significant boost. Another player finally getting the opportunity to shine is DT Daniel McCullers who had his best game as a pro last week. One of the significant improvements in his game is his hand-to-hand combat. John Mitchell’s tutelage in transforming this “project” player into NFL grade has been impressive. The Steelers will face a run-heavy Dolphins team, and if they are successful, a run-heavy Kansas City Chiefs team in the following round. The obvious antidote is a heavy dose of a three man line featuring Tuitt, McCullers and DE Javon Hargrave. Tuitt and Hargrave will be significant keys to the Steelers success against the Dolphins, but let’s hope the Steelers keep Big Dan as part of their Big Plan.
Almost all pundits are forecasting the Steelers will dispatch of the Dolphins. At the same time, few are expecting the number three AFC seeded Steelers will be successful if they advance to play the Chiefs. Much has to do with the way Kansas is playing, and the difficulty of beating them on their home turf. Almost no one believes the Steelers will get past both the Chiefs and the New England Patriots in away games. Think those early season games don’t matter much? How much easier would this path be if the Steelers had home field advantage throughout? The difference? One regular season game against the Patriots. We said that game would matter. It did.
The Steelers took a big chance by keeping WR Darrius Heyward-Bey on the roster rather than putting him on injured reserve many weeks ago. The payoff is already evident as he had an excellent game against the Browns and looks in form. Before the playoffs are finished, cult favorite Heyward-Bey will make an impact on offense and special teams.
Plug And Play
The Browns game also was significant for RB DeAngelo Williams. The Steelers desperately need a back-up to Bell and with Williams injured for most of the season, this was a team liability. No more. After shaking off the first half rust, Williams excelled in the second half against the Browns and looks ready to answer to the call if needed. For the Steelers to be successful against the Dolphins, Chiefs, and potentially the Patriots, they’ll need to keep Bell healthy and fresh. With Williams, there is little drop-off when he totes the ball, which is a huge benefit for the team.
As noted last week, the Steelers have the unique opportunity to avenge all four of their regular season losses on their way to earning their next Lombardi Trophy. They’ve taken care of the Baltimore Ravens already. This is Part Two of the saga, with their opportunity to eliminate the Dolphins. Then, maybe the Patriots…and finally the Dallas Cowboys in the Super Bowl? The plot thickens.
There aren’t too many plausible pathways being imagined for an AFC team to get past the New England Patriots as the road to the Super Bowl surely leads through Foxborough this year. But if the Steelers continue in their winning ways the next couple of weeks they would face QB Tom Brady and Coach Bill Belichick on the winds of a 9-game winning streak. In the NFC, there is a sister story to the Steelers resurgence with the Green Bay Packers. Nobody wants to play Big Ben in the playoffs, nor do they want to face QB Aaron Rodgers. That is…except for the Steelers and Steelers Nation. The Steelers versus the Packers in a Super Bowl rematch? Yeah…that would be the sweetest revenge of all. Go Steelers…Go Packers.
The Spin forecasted the Steelers would end the season with a 13-3 record, minus a win for each time QB Landry Jones started. With an 11-5 ending and two Landry Jones starts, the Spin was spot on. Uh…of course…it was all because Jones pulled out the win against the Browns. I will always be grateful to Landry for making me look so smart. Will it be Jones’s last time throwing a ball in a Steelers uniform? Perhaps. He wouldn’t consider this a complement, but Jones could have a hugely successfully career as the team’s number three quarterback. He’s proven to be an off-the-charts team player and a great student of the game. That makes for a perfect squad team quarterback in practices, and it would also make him a terrific mentor for Big Ben’s future replacement. Jones will have loftier aspirations that may take him elsewhere on a journeyman journey. But, being a number three lifer Pittsburgh quarterback is a heck of a great occupation. It sure beats selling cars…or being a hack Steelers columnist like me.
So how will the Steelers fare against the Flippers? It may come down to another benefit of the Browns game as the Steelers got some much-needed practice at winning a close game for the second week in a row. Spoiler alert! The Steelers will win. The question will be…will it be a blowout or a nail biter? There is some argument supporting the blowout theory. If the Dolphins can’t run against the Steelers, it will be game over early. But if Ajayi gets his footing (which is always a challenge for a dolphin), this could be another hair pulling, teeth clenching, brick-chucking Steelers playoff game. Nah…as long as 93 gets some good playing time, the Spin is predicting a Wildcard blowout. Steelers 31, Dolphins 14.