The postseason has started early for several teams around the NFL. The Miami Dolphins (6-6) and Pittsburgh Steelers (5-7) are two of those clubs, and they will meet Sunday at Heinz Field in what could amount to a playoff eliminator.
Miami and Pittsburgh are fighting for the final wild-card spot in the AFC, which is currently held by the Baltimore Ravens (6-6). The winner of Sunday’s game will remain firmly in the playoff hunt, while the loser falls behind the pack.
ESPN.com’s Dolphins reporter James Walker and Steelers reporter Scott Brown weigh in on who will prevail in this important game.
Walker: Scott, I think much of this game will be determined by the matchup between Miami’s ninth-ranked pass defense against Pittsburgh’s eight-ranked passing offense. This is a strength vs. strength clash. The Dolphins are very wary of Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Miami defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle knows Roethlisberger well from his days with the Cincinnati Bengals and has a healthy respect for “Big Ben.” He’s unlike any quarterback Miami has faced this season because of his ability to extend plays to throw deep, not necessarily to run for extra yards. There is a lot of pressure on Miami’s cornerbacks and safeties to maintain their coverage longer than usual to prevent big gains on broken plays.
Speaking of which, Steelers receiver Antonio Brown is Pittsburgh’s best playmaker, and leads the NFL in receptions. What makes him so dangerous?
Brown: It’s funny that Brown still doesn’t get his due as a No. 1 wide receiver, even from some media types in Pittsburgh, despite the phenomenal numbers he has put up this season. Brown might not have the size associated with No. 1 receivers, and he does not have blazing speed, but he has excellent quickness, is a superb route runner, and Roethlisberger has said he’s never seen a receiver who is able to adjust to a ball while it’s in the air the way Brown regularly does. Above all, Brown works at it. I mean really works at it. He is maniacal about training, and it’s not uncommon for Brown to hit the gym for a workout after spending all day at Steelers’ headquarters.
James, you have been immersed in one the biggest stories of the season, and I’m sure Steelers’ fans would appreciate your take on how the Dolphins have dealt with the turmoil and distractions caused by the Jonathan Martin bullying allegations. Have the Dolphins settled into any semblance of normalcy, or is their a new normal in Miami?
Walker: Things have been as close to normal this week as it's been since Martin left the team Oct. 28. There was a huge dark cloud hanging over the Dolphins, and things intensified and became very uptight the week NFL lead investigator Ted Wells visited the team. I expect things to be relatively calm for a couple more weeks until Wells completes the report and releases his findings. After that, all bets are off. There will be no winners in this complex situation. I don't expect Richie Incognito or Martin to return to Miami. So the Dolphins have already taken a hit. More heads could roll if others are found culpable.
Scott, one Dolphin who is excited about this matchup is former Steelers receiver Mike Wallace. What type of reception do you think he will receive, and how will Pittsburgh's secondary defend Wallace?
Brown: I think Wallace will hear his share of boos. I think he is perceived, fair or not, by a lot of Steelers fans as selfish and a player who did not produce enough last season or help the team chemistry because of his contract situation. I’m real interested to see how the Steelers try to defend Wallace. His speed is going to be a problem for a defensive backfield that has lost a collective step given the age of its starting safeties, not to mention top cornerback Ike Taylor.
Taylor usually draws the assignment of shadowing the opposing team’s No. 1 wide receiver, but I’m not sure the Steelers will do that with Wallace, since coach Mike Tomlin has a lot of respect for Brian Hartline as well. Whoever draws Wallace will get help from a safety, but he could have a big game at Heinz Field. The Steelers have given up seven passing plays of at least 50 yards this season, and I’m sure Wallace would love nothing more than to add to his former team’s total.
James, what are the early reviews on Wallace? It doesn’t seem like the Dolphins are getting the return from the investment they made in him, though I know it’s early.
Walker: It’s still a work in progress, Scott. Wallace hasn’t put up the production many in Miami expected, but there is plenty of blame to go around. Starting with Wallace, the drops are on him. Wallace had too many drops early in the season, although he’s gotten better in the second half of the year. But other factors such as scheme and quarterback Ryan Tannehill's inability to throw a consistent deep ball has made it tough for Wallace to make the same plays he made in Pittsburgh. Tannehill doesn’t have Roethlisberger’s arm strength or ability to extend plays. Wallace thrived off broken plays that Roethlisberger created. Tannehill doesn’t have near the same elusiveness and ability to out-throw the coverage. Wallace is getting open, but many of Tannehill’s deep balls have been underthrown, which allows defenders to recover. There are some things involved that Wallace cannot control. But he does have momentum coming into this game. Wallace has totaled 12 catches for 209 yards and two touchdowns in his past two games. I expect him to be amped for Sunday.
Finally, Scott, what do you think of Pittsburgh’s playoff chances, and how it relates to this game?
Brown: In spite of the latest wave of injuries to hit the offensive line, I actually think the Steelers have a chance to win their final four games and make the playoffs -- if they get the help they are going to need with the Ravens. My outlook probably changes if Aaron Rodgers is playing quarterback in the Steelers’ Dec. 22 game at Green Bay. But if the Packers drop out of playoff contention, does Rodgers play against the Steelers? That is a big if as of right now.
Green Bay is the only remaining road game for the Steelers, so the schedule sets up favorably, especially given Rodgers’ uncertain status. Roethlisberger is really locked in right now, and I think he is capable of carrying the Steelers and masking a lot of problems assuming an offensive line that is held together by duct tape can do a reasonable job of protecting him.