The competition for the final wild card spot in the AFC will be fascinating to watch down the stretch of the regular season. The Miami Dolphins and the Pittsburgh Steelers are both hoping to outlast their peers at 6-6 and 5-7 through 12 games, respectively. With a win the Dolphins would thrust themselves prominently into the playoff picture. The Steelers are behind the eight ball at a game back, but they can stay mathematically alive with a timely win.
The Dolphins are coming off a blowout win over the New York Jets, while the Steelers are reeling off a tight loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Thanksgiving. Despite recent results, the Steelers are slight favorites at home. With both teams fighting for their postseason lives, expect a fun matchup at Heinz Field.
Meet the Dolphins
The Dolphins' defense is on a tear. They have gone three straight games allowing 16 points or fewer and just held the Jets to three points last week. The front seven has been making trouble for opposing quarterbacks this season with 37 sacks, the fifth-best total in the NFL. Defensive end Olivier Vernon was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week after taking down Geno Smith three times last week as part of a 10-tackle performance.
The Dolphins' offense has been less impressive. Their 21 points per game ranks 24th in the NFL. Both the running and passing games rank in the bottom half of the league in terms of production. It's fair to say that Sunday's bout is expected to be low scoring.
Meet the Steelers
The Steelers have fallen well short of expectations at 5-7 overall through 12 games. Worse, head coach Mike Tomlin has come under fire this week for his apparent attempt to disrupt Jacoby Jones' path along the sideline on Thanksgiving. The stunt earned him a $100,000 fine and perhaps a lost draft pick, and ultimately didn't give Tomlin the satisfaction of a win.
Besides the scandal and the loss, however, the Steelers have found their stride. They won three straight prior to their loss to the Ravens. It helps that the team is winning the turnover battle. The Steelers have forced eight turnovers and lost just one over the last four games. Unsurprisingly, they are outscoring opponents by an average of more than nine points per game over that stretch. The Steelers forced just six turnovers over their first eight games of the season and went 2-6.
Local Takes: Dolphins
DE Dion Jordan (1st Round Pick, 3rd overall). Grade: B
Though he was only in on about one third of the defensive plays, Jordan seemed to be all over the field on Sunday. He created pressure a couple of times, once in the second quarter to force a throw-away by Geno Smith on 3rd-and-long and again later against Matt Simms. He recorded three tackles as well, two coming in the running game at the line of scrimmage.
One of those plays really stood out to me, however. On a 3rd-and-3, the Jets call an off-tackle run to the opposite side, away from Jordan. Right after the snap, Jordan comes screaming around the backside edge and makes the tackle, forcing a fourth down and a punt.
Local Takes: Steelers
To those Sanders detractors, this was just another drop from a receiver that the Steelers counted on to be their No. 2 wideout behind Antonio Brown. Sanders is second on the club, behind Brown, with 54 catches for 604 yards and four touchdowns. But there have been several drops this season when he appeared to mishandle catchable passes for big plays.
"It's nothing that I'm worried about, nothing at all, because at the end of the day people are going to say what they want to say,'' Sanders said Wednesday. So, I don't really care. I'm just here to play football and win.''
Follow the Fun
Add these fine follows to your Twitter timeline:
.@HaterZach777 Tomlin WAS on the field during a live play. No one's disputing that. Saying he was there intentionally? On you to prove it.— BTSC Steelers (@btsteelcurtain) December 4, 2013
@OmarKelly -- Dolphins beat writer
"I hope so," Cameron Wake joked about team's starting to scheme for Olivier Vernon and not him.— Omar Kelly (@OmarKelly) December 4, 2013
@MarkKaboly_Trib -- Steelers beat writer
No kidding, Troy Polamalu asked me if Tomlin was fined and then asked me if it looked bad on replay. Yes, Troy's world is better than ours— Mark Kaboly (@MarkKaboly_Trib) December 4, 2013
You see the Steelers and assume that Ben Roethlisberger is going to get left for dead by his offensive line. That's where Pittsburgh is as an organization right now. Miraculously, he hasn't been sacked in three weeks, including games against tough defenses like the Browns and Ravens. If the Steelers line can keep Dolphins pass rusher Oliver Vernon (4.5 sacks in his last two games) at bay, they should have this one.
The pick: Steelers
The Steelers are favored by three points on most sports books after opening the week as four-point favorites, according to Odds Shark.