The Miami Dolphins will take part in their first playoff game since 2008 when they face the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.
Miami clinched a playoff berth towards the end of the regular season, after a tremendous 9-1 run. The beginning of that surge can be found in the sixth week of the season when Miami beat this same Pittsburgh squad. The Dolphins entered that game with a 1-4 record, and seemed destined for a losing season.
While the Dolphins may know they can beat the Steelers, there are some differences going into this one. For one, that aforementioned win came at Hard Rock Stadium. In addition, the Dolphins had Ryan Tannehill behind center for that game and he posted 252 yards in the air. This time around, it will be Matt Moore running the offense.
The Steelers and their quarterback Ben Roethlisberger have a good deal of playoff experience. Pittsburgh is also a terrific team when playing at home this season. The Steelers went 6-2 at Heinz Field, while Miami was a respectable 4-4 in road games. Roethlisberger has led the Steelers to two Super Bowl titles in his NFL career. Moore had not started a game in several years, before taking over for Tannehill in the final weeks of the season. This game will also mark the first time that Moore ever takes a snap in a playoff game.
Pittsburgh is entering the playoffs on a seven-game winning streak. Miami meanwhile is coming off a lopsided loss to the New England Patriots in the final week of the season. Momentum and history is clearly on the side of the Steelers, but the Dolphins have proven they can succeed in the underdog role.
The quarterbacks get most of the focus, but there is another man that could be more critical to Miami's success on Sunday. Jay Ajayi rushed for over 200 yards when the Dolphins beat the Steelers in October. That was just the first of multiple 200-yard days for the running back. Ajayi has turned into one of the NFL's best backs this season, and will have his first chance to shine in the postseason in this one.
While there may be a clear contrast in playoff experience between the two clubs, there is still some on the Miami sideline. Ndamukong Suh for instance has been to the playoffs twice in his career. While with the Detroit Lions, Suh had 2.5 sacks in his two postseason games. The veteran also had three tackles during Detroit's 2014 playoff loss.
Head coach Adam Gase also has some experience in the NFL's second season. The first-year head coach was part of the staff for the playoff-bound Denver Broncos in 2011-2014. The time in Denver also included a trip to the Super Bowl where the Broncos fell to the Seattle Seahawks. Gase has seen some success and some failures in sudden death games, and that experience could pay off for Miami on Sunday.
Suh grabs headlines for his aggressive play, but Miami also enjoyed a spectacular season from Cameron Wake on the defensive line. Wake is headed to the Pro Bowl after picking up 11.5 sacks this season. Roethlisberger is not easily rattled, but Wake and Suh have been known to change games with their play. Getting Pittsburgh's quarterback antsy early could lead to an upset victory for the Dolphins. It will be up to Wake and Suh to set the tone quickly and give Miami that chance.
Playoff games often come down to the kicking game and Miami has to feel somewhat confident with what it has. Andrew Franks had a solid season and ended things on a high note. Franks drilled a 55-yard field goal with the clock winding down in Buffalo in Week 16. That kick sent the game to overtime, and Miami eventually won on another kick from Franks. Miami's coaching staff will likely not hesitate to turn to Franks for a pressure kick in Pittsburgh after that experience.
While Miami made the playoffs in 2008, it has not actually won a postseason game since 2000. The franchise has endured many losing seasons and 2016's regular season was a step in the right direction. Beating Pittsburgh would be a tremendous leap forward for the Dolphins.
Sunday's AFC Wild Card contest will begin at 1:05 p.m.