Miami Dolphins (10-6 SU, 9-7 ATS) vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5 SU, 9-6-1 ATS)
AFC Wild Card Playoff
Date/Time: Sunday, January 8, 2017 at 1:05PM EST
Where: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
By Loot, NFL Football Handicapper, Lootmeister.com
Betting Odds: MIA +10/PIT -10
Over/Under Total: 47
The Miami Dolphins come to Heinz Field on Sunday to face the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Wild Card round of the AFC playoffs. The Steelers ended the season in style, winning 7 straight after a 4-6 start to end the season at 11-5 and as NFC North champs. They host a Miami team that did well to get here, overcoming a 1-4 start to forge a 10-6 season. Heading into last Sunday, they had won 9 of 10 games. But with the loss of quarterback Ryan Tannehill, their shortcomings at QB were exposed to some extent in a week 17 loss to the Patriots, 35-14. This is a tough road spot for a Miami team that looked to sag at the regular season finish line. Can they give Pittsburgh a run for their money?
These teams played already this season, with Miami taking a 30-15 home win over the Steelers back in week 6. With the different forms these teams have assumed over the course of the season, one wonders how critical that result really is for the purposes of breaking down this game. Miami was just beginning to cruise, launching a long run of success after a 1-4 start. The Steelers were mired in a funk at the time. Neither team is really the same right now.
The Miami season took a big hit with the season-ending injury to Tannehill. They turned to Matt Moore. It looked to be going pretty well, as he helped Miami beat Arizona, before going on the road to pin losses on the Jets and the Bills. At home against a Patriots team that had nothing to play for, the 'Fins were not made to look very good. That could be a takeaway that leads us astray, as Miami's playoff spot was already locked up. But it did offer a glimpse into the limitations of the Miami offense with the Tannehill-less Dolphins.
In three games, Moore has actually been a little better than expected perhaps. He has thrown 8 touchdowns in three starts along with three picks, but it's obvious he's been getting ready for this opportunity, despite seeing very little time recently with Tannehill having been so durable. He has connected well with Jarvis Landry, who caught 94 balls this season. Wide receiver DeVante Parker was big this season with 744 yards, while Kenny Stills added 726 yards through the air. Running back Jay Ajayi ran for 1272 yards this season, though half of that came in three games and he's not always consistent. Still, one of those big games came against this Pittsburgh team, as he ran for 204 yards against them earlier this season. While not very good against New England in week 17, this is a group that can do damage, even with Matt Moore. And if they can run the ball like they did against the Steelers in their first game, the lack of a cemented starting QB will be even less of an issue.
The Miami defense faces a big challenge this week against this Steelers offense. They didn't look very good last week against New England and have now allowed 66 combined points in their last two games heading into this matchup. They are alarmingly leaky against the run, ranked 30th in the league. Cameron Wake gets after quarterbacks and Ndamukong Suh is still a force in the middle, but the run-stop has been weak for the most part. They are better against the pass and will need more of that this week. In the first game against the Steelers, they held Ben Roethlisberger to less than 200 yards, while picking him off twice. Jelani Jenkins, Byron Maxwell, and Mario Edwards have all missed time and are questionable for this week, with some other key injury losses late in the season. It makes you wonder if the Miami "D" is falling apart at the wrong time. While the loss of Tannehill has garnered most of the attention, this unit has gotten banged-up heading down the stretch of the regular season.
The thing about Miami is that they started off 1-4, before completely reversing form and taking 9 of their next ten games. Under first-year coach Adam Gase, they appeared to find something and it was more than just good QB play, not to undersell Tannehill's overall contribution. They did it without really having any outstanding characteristic. They can run the ball some, though that doesn't always fire, either. And overall, their aerial attack is less-than-scintillating. Combine that with the league's 29th-ranked defense and it becomes hard to identify exactly what got them here. And teams like that can be very dangerous from a betting standpoint, as their true worth lies a bit under-the-radar in terms of what we generally look for when evaluating teams.
As we admire Miami's ability to turn things around, let's not forget about what Pittsburgh was able to do by ending the season with 7 straight wins after appearing lost at sea at 4-5 after a 4-game losing streak. Making it more-impressive is that they were able to take on a different look than what was expected. The high-wire aerial attack never materialized with a slew of personnel issues plaguing the offense. They relied more on the run, in addition to an improving defense that was able to do more of the heavy lifting later in the season. And still, Roethlisberger can air it out.
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Big Ben didn't have the weapons to his avail that he anticipated. A slew of different aerial weapons have either been sidelined by injury and suspension, with some just not able to contribute consistently. Antonio Brown is still the top dog in the air, with RB Le'Veon Bell a valuable weapon in short passes. Still, with so many options and some guys back in action like Darrius Heyward-Bey, this remains a dangerous offense. WR Eli Rogers has become a strong option lately. Bell has really made it come together, with 1268 yards on the ground and 616 aerially. But still, the guys on the injury/suspension list would be a big help in this postseason run.
The Steelers' defense has been big over this latest 7-game stretch. While not invulnerable, they have been pretty clutch. The pass-rush comes from many different sources, as they have 38 team sacks with the team leader having just five. The front has been serviceable, with the middle a dominating group with Ryan Shazier, Jarvis Jones, Lawrence Timmons, and James Harrison. And the secondary can be quite good in the right spots, led by Ross Cockrell, Artie Burns, Mike Mitchell, and Sean Davis. One thing they need to safeguard against in this situation is to make sure Jay Ajayi doesn't run wild like he did the last time these teams played.
The pessimism surrounding Miami is understandable. It was going to be hard enough in the postseason without suffering a season-ending injury to their starting quarterback. It's just not an ideal time to be on the road facing a red-hot team in a playoff spot. But Moore has shown some moxie with two road wins already under his belt. Something tells me to expect a scrappy Miami effort where they stay in the game and cover the spread in Pittsburgh.
Loot's Prediction to Cover the Point Spread: I'm betting on the Miami Dolphins plus 10 points. Tired of your credit card not working for sportsbook deposit? End that problem today and bet the Miami vs. Pittsburgh AFC Wild Card Playoff game from the comfort of your own home by signing up at Bovada Sportsbook where your credit card WILL work and where you'll receive a generous 100% sign-up bonus!