AFC Wild-Card Playoff Preview 2017
by Rivers McCown (OAK-HOU) and Scott Kacsmar (MIA-PIT)
When it comes to the AFC wild-card round, expect the unexpected. The Saturday game features two subpar quarterbacks, meaning a bigger chance of the game turning on one or two big turnover returns or special teams plays. The Sunday game features this year's two least consistent teams. Both games are rematches from the regular season, but things could end up very different in the second go-around. For example, this time it is safe to order room service.
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Game charting data appears courtesy Sports Info Solutions, unless noted.
Oakland at Houston
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It's not uncommon to get a 4-5 matchup wherein the fourth seed is the worse of the two teams. This is the NFL playoff system we have signed up for: division winners get beneficial treatment, even if they are the winners of a garbage division.
Unfortunately, the easy "Oakland is a much better team than the Texans, this game should be over by halftime" preview went down with Derek Carr's broken leg in Week 16. The Raiders backed into this game after getting trounced by the Broncos 24-6 in Week 17. With Carr out of action, the Raiders have announced that Connor Cook will be their starting quarterback against Houston this weekend. That's because Matt McGloin, the nominal backup quarterback, left the game against the Broncos with a shoulder injury and was limited in practice this week. Meanwhile, left tackle Donald Penn has missed Wednesday and Thursday practices and should be considered doubtful. Left guard Kelechi Osemele has been sick, hurt, or playing hurt for weeks. In a way, the Raiders are carrying on the AFC playoff tradition of last year's Bengals and the early 2010s Texans: really good teams that just couldn't make it to January healthy enough to realistically challenge the Patriots.
The Texans are laughable on two of the three units that comprise a football team, but they have a damn good defense -- a defense that gets after quarterbacks, has good cornerback play, and is getting healthy in time for this game. How do you create an offense with rookie quarterback Connor Cook, and what are the right buttons to push? Is this a field-position game, or will the Raiders be able to at least run most of their regular offense? That's the difference between a win or a loss.
WHEN THE RAIDERS HAVE THE BALL
It's the million dollar question. What kind of game plan do you install around rookie quarterback Connor Cook? The rookie came in at the end of the second quarter against the Broncos and put up decent statistics given the situation, even if the Broncos were down quite a few defensive starters.
As for how he actually looked, well, he was about how you would expect a fourth-round rookie pressed into service to look. He short-armed some throws, he stuck a few throws in the middle. His touchdown pass involved him stepping up and almost all-arming the ball to a well-covered Amari Cooper. The Raiders ran a lot of six-linemen sets with him in the game, and that tells you a lot about how they feel about Cook under pressure at this exact moment in time. You'll see a lot of short passes, screens, and misdirection plays with Cook under center. This will be offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave's greatest challenge yet.
The Texans have one of the best pass rushes in the league, even without J.J. Watt. Whitney Mercilus has developed into a stellar edge-rusher, and Jadeveon Clowney joined him this year in his first healthy season. Clowney and Mercilus combined for 50 hurries and 13.5 sacks. Clowney also finished the year as the highest-rated outside linebacker in the Bleacher Report 1000 project, despite playing just 14 games. He has been a dominant run defender. With Penn out, this will be a challenge. Austin Howard and Menelik Watson are decent enough tackles in the grand scheme of things, but they may need help on the outside.
Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree at the two focal points of this offense. Crabtree has been playing with a bum finger all year, which helps explain how he led the league in drops per Sports Info Solutions' charting. Despite that, they're both pretty dangerous. The Texans got a terrific year out of corner A.J. Bouye, who jumped into the starting lineup with the injury to former first-rounder Kevin Johnson and never looked back. Bouye finished with the fourth-highest success rate of any qualifying cornerback, and allowed only 5.4 yards per pass to boot. That should at least help quiet a bit of the Oakland receiving corps. I think you can pretty safely expect the Texans to ask Cook to make contested throws to beat them. I also think Cook will gladly oblige, for better or for worse.
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Houston's run defense finished about average, but they had their best game of the season against Oakland in Mexico City in Week 11, holding Latavius Murray to 12 carries for 33 yards. I secretly like Oakland's chances to do better here, especially when you consider that with Penn's injury, we might see more of UDFA Denver Kirkland, who helped the Raiders own the line of scrimmage against the Broncos on Sunday Night Football.
Where teams tended to do the most damage against Houston's defense was in throwing to running backs. The Texans allowed a 23.1% DVOA to opposing running backs on pass plays, which ranked 28th in the league. And a lot of that happened when these teams met in Week 11. Between Murray, Jalen Richard, and Jamize Olawale, the Raiders targeted backs against the Texans 11 times and got 11 catches for 199 yards and two touchdowns. And we're not talking about difficult targets here. Middle linebackers Benardrick McKinney and Brian Cushing are not new-breed cover linebackers, and the Houston underneath tackling gets sloppy at times. So, that thing about screens a couple paragraphs ago? Expect even more of those.
I think a major question of this game is the philosophy behind Oakland's offense. Do they run the Derek Carr ball-control offense and hope Cook can hold up in the short passing game, or do they try to put more on the plate of the run offense and bully-ball the Texans? This is something that's simply difficult to forecast. I would recommend the latter, but I think Musgrave tends to get his quarterbacks enough easy yards out of shotgun and empty sets to at least make an argument for continuing to play that way.
WHEN THE TEXANS HAVE THE BALL
…they will quickly get rid of it. A true Texans offensive player sees the football as an obstacle, something to be hidden from DeAndre Hopkins at all costs. Oh, I guess we should elaborate.
Brock Osweiler has some odd splits this year as far as his targets. The last three weeks really make Hopkins seem like he's coming alive, but the truth is that as long as the Texans have a prepared quarterback (i.e. not in Week 15 or 17) or don't hit garbage time, Hopkins has been relatively uninvolved in the offense. When Houston and Oakland squared off in Mexico City, and Houston had a 0.4 game script, he was targeted just six times.
Instead, the Texans featured tight ends C.J. Fiedorowicz and Ryan Griffin on quick, easy throws up the middle with Osweiler. It was a bit of an odd departure from last year's offense. Houston went from targeting their tight ends 77 times in 2015 to 163 times in 2016. It's a very safe offense, but it matches up pretty well against the Raiders, who finished 23rd in DVOA against tight ends and allowed 15 targets to them in Week 11, with Fiedorowicz and Griffin combining for nine catches for 114 yards. It's worth noting that, as a whole, the game in Mexico City was probably Osweiler's finest performance this season. It's also a pretty damning indictment that 243 yards and merely one interception are enough to earn that title.
Oakland's defense, a darling of the offseason, hasn't quite lived up to the hype. Bruce Irvin has been exceptional as run defender, but most of the other players in the haul have been solid-to-middling producers. There are two decided statistical things that can swing this game in their favor. One is that they should be able to bottle up Hopkins. Over the course of the season, No. 1 receivers against Oakland posted a minus-14.5% DVOA and a below-average 65.6 yards per game. The other is that they have Khalil Mack, destroyer of worlds. Mack finished the year with 11 sacks and 37.5 pass pressures per Sports Info Solutions' charting. Oakland's best chance of getting to Osweiler will be through right tackle Chris Clark, who blew more blocks than Houston's other two main tackles combined after taking over for the injured Derek Newton in Week 3. Of the main corners, neither Sean Smith nor David Amerson had remarkable seasons, though Smith looked pretty good when he wasn't being forced into Cover-3 early in the year. T.J. Carrie has been an upgrade over deposed acronym-mate D.J. Hayden.
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The Texans will be able to feature recently healthy Lamar Miller for as much of the load as he can shoulder, and him shouldering plenty of load is the smart bet in this game. Houston would be wise to go against what they normally do – run it right up the gut. Sixty-four percent of Houston's carries were to the middle or at a guard, well above the 56 percent league average. Miller has looked much less effective on those carries (169 carries for minus-28 DYAR, as compared to 99 carries for zero DYAR to the ends and at tackles), and Dan Williams at nose tackle is a size mismatch over lanky center Greg Mancz. Oakland's run defense finished the year on a hot streak, with three of their best five games of the season by DVOA coming in the last four weeks.
Oakland limits the deep pass fairly well, giving up a 42.0% DVOA on passes marked as deep as compared to the league average of 51.1%. The best chance Houston has for a big play is targeting Will Fuller the Ginnth on a deep ball and hoping his hands are capable of catching a ball or two. But that has been pretty against the Houston M.O. this season, so don't expect much of it. This will be a constant battle for 10 yards at a time, with Houston hoping to keep manageable checkdowns and short passes in the arsenal on third down.
Here, let me introduce you to the Houston special teams:
The Texans are dead last in special teams. They were dead last in 2015, when they gave up a touchdown return to the Chiefs to open up last year's playoff game. In 2014, they were merely 28th! The last year this unit was above-average was 2011. It is a black hole that consumes any who try to fix it, including new special teams coordinator Larry Izzo. This year's Texans finished dead last in touchback percentage -- an idea that sounds great in theory, given the new rules that put touchbacks at the 25 -- but they were also dead last in our kickoff rankings because they can't cover to save their lives. Same thing on returns. Rookie returner Tyler Ervin has alternately fair caught or looked like a deer in the headlights on the vast majority of his punt returns. This team literally had linebacker Brian Peters do some kicking off this year for reasons nobody has ever adequately explained. ("It's something different" is not a good reason.)
The Raiders have a decided advantage here, should they choose to accept it. If this becomes a field position game, they stand to make a killing on punts and kickoffs. Jalen Richard seems to have some breakaway ability. I can easily see this game coming down to a big special teams play or two in Oakland's favor.
Listen, this game has the lowest Las Vegas over/under of the season at 39.5 points. There's a high probability of defensive and special teams scores completely altering this game. To throw out a prediction on who will win this game in the face of the randomness we're spitting into is foolish. Especially without knowing exactly how the Raiders will scheme Cook in a game that matters.
However, we are fools, and Cook's first game wasn't exactly the next coming of Dak Prescott. I like the Texans to survive a squeaker and become the latest terrible division winner (2010 Seahawks, 2011 Broncos, 2014 Panthers) to survive the first round and then get blown into oblivion by an actual good team.
Miami at Pittsburgh
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Welcome to the Variance Bowl. Pittsburgh (24.9 percent) finished 2016 with the highest variance in weekly DVOA, but Miami (20.3 percent) was right behind. While the Steelers enter the playoffs on a seven-game winning streak and the Dolphins have won nine of their last 11 games, these teams are anything but consistent, or reliable for that matter. But the starting point that led them to this matchup as No. 6 and No. 3 seeds is an obvious one.
Let's flash back to a mid-October Sunday in Week 6. A hopeless Miami team sat at 1-4, its only win coming after the winless Browns missed a late field goal in an overtime game in Week 3. This was not the start Adam Gase had in mind for his head coaching career, and his running game in particular was nowhere to be found. The Dolphins were touchdown underdogs at home to the Steelers, who started to look unstoppable on offense with the return of running back Le'Veon Bell and emergence of wide receiver Sammie Coates.
As is often the case, the Steelers took a non-Ohio road trip to a team they were expected to beat handily, and things did not go well, especially on the health front. Coates only played 17 snaps after a hand injury suffered in the previous game, and Cameron Heyward and Ryan Shazier were out for the defense. No injury was bigger than the torn meniscus that Ben Roethlisberger suffered in the second quarter while Pittsburgh led 8-6. He returned in the third quarter, but was ineffective, leading to a four-game losing streak that threatened to end the Steelers' season at 4-5 before a strong finish.
Meanwhile, on that Sunday afternoon in October, Miami introduced the NFL world to Jay Ajayi, a back we once projected to have a 1,000-yard rushing season, only to see the team sign Arian Foster and leave Ajayi home as a healthy scratch in Week 1. Ajayi exploded for 204 rushing yards and two touchdowns in Miami's surprising 30-15 win over Pittsburgh. For the season, Miami has gone 1-4 against teams that finished with a winning record, so this was really their crowning achievement so far. However, no team can count on Roethlisberger to get injured again, and Ryan Tannehill has since gone down for the Dolphins, though replacing him with Matt Moore has gone well enough to keep the team at 10-6.
But this really is not a typical 10-6 team. Miami is 17th in DVOA and has actually been outscored by 17 points on the season. The 2016 Dolphins are just the sixth playoff team to win at least 10 games with a negative scoring differential. The first four won at least one playoff game, but the most recent, the 2012 Colts (11-5 with a minus-30 differential), went one-and-done on the road in Baltimore. Miami has won games this year with a kickoff return touchdown (Jets) and a pick-six (at San Diego) as part of its six games won with a late score, including a very late 10-point road comeback in Los Angeles, the first time the Dolphins had done anything like that since 2005.
The soft schedule (ranked 26th), the abundance of close wins, and a lack of a track record will make Miami a sexy candidate for 2017 regression, but what about this week's chances of completing a season sweep of the Steelers? After all, 30-15 was the final score in Miami in Week 6, Pittsburgh's second-lowest scoring output of the season. (The Steelers scored three points against Philadelphia in Week 3.)
Pittsburgh being a 10-point favorite is a bit of a surprise given that the team has trailed by double digits in each of the last three weeks before rallying for a win each time. However, if you look at the talent difference between the players taking the field in each game this weekend, then it starts to make sense why this is viewed as the most lopsided contest. According to Pro Football Reference, double-digit favorites in the playoffs are 32-9 (.780) straight up and 17-23-1 (.427) against the spread since 1990. Mike Tomlin is 9-12 (.429) against the spread in his career as a double-digit favorite. Having avidly watched this team throughout his tenure, I feel like 42 percent is a very reasonable level of confidence in Pittsburgh covering this week, but this is the playoffs. You take the win any way it comes, and these two teams are good examples of that this season.
WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL
While Miami may want Jay Ajayi to be the focal point this week, we have to start with the quarterback. I ruffled some fan feathers last month on Twitter when I said the drop-off from Ryan Tannehill to Matt Moore is one of the smallest in the league at quarterback. Through his 87 passes this season, Moore has 259 DYAR and a 34.8% DVOA. Tannehill finished the season with minus-12 DYAR and a minus-11.6% DVOA (ranked 25th). Compare that to MVP candidate Matt Ryan, who has a league-best 40.2% DVOA and 83.4 Total QBR. Moore's QBR is 82.5, and while this small sample does not mean that Miami is getting MVP-caliber quarterback play right now, it does mean that Moore is more than capable of playing well in this game, the biggest of his career. Sunday will be Moore's 29th overall start in the NFL.
Moore has typically been one of the better backups in the league, but like most good backups, his skills are limited when put on display. Moore is 4-13 as a starter when his team allows more than 17 points, so the Dolphins can ill afford to get involved in a shootout on the road. Pittsburgh was the only team to not allow a game-opening touchdown drive this season, so a hot start is not to be expected from the Dolphins, who ranked 28th in first-half offensive DVOA. Pittsburgh's defense ranked fifth in the first half. The high variance between these teams was prevalent on both sides of the ball, but was especially true on this side of the matchup. Miami's offense is 30th in variance compared to 31st for Pittsburgh's defense.
Jarvis Landry has 43 more targets than Miami's second-leading receiver. Pittsburgh's defense ranks 32nd against No.1 wideouts, but Landry is still not used as a prototypical No. 1. He works the slot, so he could be matched up with William Gay, the more experienced cornerback in Pittsburgh's secondary, which also ranks third against No. 2 wideouts and first against all other wideouts.
The specific matchups will change throughout the game, but Landry, Kenny Stills, and DeVante Parker drive this passing game, and will look to make plays against Gay, rookie Artie Burns, and Ross Cockrell. Stills has once again been the big-play threat he was in New Orleans to start his career, and he quietly has nine touchdowns, including one in four straight games. He had 162 receiving yards as a member of the Saints in his last appearance at Heinz Field back in 2014. Parker can also make some big catches down the field, and all three of Pittsburgh's cornerbacks have a success rate of 51 to 52 percent, which ranks them 44th to 51st according to SIS charting (subscription required). It is a group that can be had, though the defense does rank ninth against those short passes thrown fewer than 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
Miami does not get much from tight end Dion Sims, though he did finish 20th in DYAR and DVOA this season. Still, he's not a player likely to turn this game around. Ajayi is just 47th in receiving DVOA and averages 5.6 yards per catch, so his value is almost purely on the ground.
And so, the question on everyone's mind going into this game: can Ajayi come anywhere close to the rushing success he had in Week 6? Clearly, the Steelers will be better prepared this time, though Ajayi did burn Buffalo twice for 200-yard rushing games this season. It's probably not good when 49.1 percent of your season's rushing yards came in three games, but if you burn the same opponent twice, then great. Ajayi's 62-yard touchdown to ice the game in Week 6 was actually not necessary since he could have just gone down after the first down, but that pushed him to 204 yards. He had success from both sides that day, and it's not like the Steelers have gotten Cameron Heyward (injured reserve) back. However, Tuitt is returning after missing the last two games, which should help a front seven that has mostly held up well against the run outside of that poor showing in Miami. The Browns rushed for 231 yards on Pittsburgh last week, though some of the effort level could be questioned in that "playoff rest game."
Ajayi has had the monster games, but his season has not been a pillar of consistency. He ranks 13th in rushing DVOA and 32nd in success rate, for example. Big runs late in games have really propelled Ajayi's stats, as he averages 6.2 yards per carry in the fourth quarter compared to 4.3 yards per carry in the first three. Miami's offensive line is actually 28th in power situations and 31st in stuff rate, which is poor. However, if Ajayi can break through the initial line, then Miami is third in second-level yards and fourth in open-field yards this season. Pittsburgh is 29th in the open field, and tackling has been an issue at times.
Miami's pass protection has allowed an average rate of pressure this season, and this is true no matter whether Tannehill or Moore was at quarterback. The Steelers have had an average pass rush this season, ranked 19th in pressure rate according to SIS charting (subscription required). At 38 years old, James Harrison remains the team's best pass rusher. He leads the Steelers with 5.0 sacks and is tied with Stephon Tuitt with 18.5 pressures. Moore has only taken one sack in 88 dropbacks this season, but his career sack rate of 7.3 percent is nothing to write home about. Pittsburgh only pressured Tannehill twice on 32 dropbacks in Week 6, which is unheard of for his career. If Moore enjoys similar protection, then this might be a higher scoring game than expected.
Week 17 against Cleveland was the first time this season that the Steelers recorded more than two takeaways in a game. Part of what has allowed Pittsburgh's defense to survive this season without much pressure or takeaways is first-down success, where it ranks first in DVOA. Miami's passing offense has been really good on first downs this season, ranked fourth in DVOA for the year. For Moore in particular, he is 20-of-28 for 294 yards and a touchdown on first down. Miami cannot afford to fall behind in the down-and-distance, as this offense has often relied on the big play instead of sustaining long drives. Miami averages a league-low 5.03 plays per drive and has the fifth-highest rate of three-and-out drives (.292).
The Miami offense and Pittsburgh defense each rank fourth in DVOA in the red zone, but there's a different story to be told on scoring efficiency. Miami's offense is only 18th in points per red zone trip (4.77), while the Steelers rank second in points allowed per red zone trip (4.19).
As for what has changed in personnel in this matchup since Week 6, health definitely favors the Steelers. They have the healthy QB1 this time. Hell, they even have the healthy Pouncey brother (Maurkice), as Mike has been on injured reserve and replaced by former Pittsburgh lineman Kraig Urbik. The Pittsburgh defense is certainly different too. Burns has taken on a bigger role in the secondary, and while the rookie does occasionally live up to his name, he has made a few key interceptions and pass breakups too. Fellow rookie Sean Davis has taken over at safety for Robert Golden and improved that position. Ryan Shazier was certainly missed in the first matchup. However, while he is one of Pittsburgh's best defenders, his tackling has left a lot to be desired this season. Shazier is credited with 25 broken tackles against, six more than any defender in 2016 according to SIS charting (subscription required). The Steelers will also have back Bud Dupree, who missed the first matchup.
Essentially, this matchup comes down to Miami's defense surviving the first quarter so that the offense can keep a balanced attack. Do not hide Moore in this game just because it's his first playoff game. If the Dolphins expect to pound Ajayi early, the Steelers should be ready for it, so an early play-action bomb to Stills could be a huge call. The longer the Dolphins hang around, the more Ajayi can stay involved, but Moore is going to have to make enough plays in the passing game to score at least 24 points to get this win. Miami is 9-0 when scoring more than 24 points this season.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
In writing Pittsburgh's chapter for Football Outsiders Almanac 2016, one of the first things we stressed was just how unfortunate this team has been in the health department come playoff time. In four of Mike Tomlin's six playoff appearances since 2007, the Steelers lost their top running back late in the season. In the two years that the back stayed healthy (2008 and 2010), Pittsburgh reached the Super Bowl. Now correlation is not causation there, but the Steelers have been really snake-bitten in this area.
In 2014, Le'Veon Bell hyperextended his knee in Week 17. Last year, Bell tore his MCL at midseason, and his very good backup, DeAngelo Williams, injured his ankle in Week 16 and never returned to action. Ben Roethlisberger sprained his AC joint in the Cincinnati playoff win, and Antonio Brown suffered a concussion and did not play in Denver. In that game, Pittsburgh watched backup Fitzgerald Toussaint fumble in the fourth quarter with a 13-12 lead on the way to a 20-13 loss.
This season, there has been another annual Roethlisberger injury (suffered in Miami), another Bell suspension, and some other injuries, but forget all of that. This is not the time to cite many season statistics for this offense, because they are just not that telling of the current lineup.
The Steelers are healthy going into Sunday's game. Roethlisberger, Brown, and Bell will be together in the playoffs for the first time. They have some company too. Williams returned to action last week and scored two touchdowns, giving the Steelers two fine options at running back again. Tight end Ladarius Green is expected to return from a concussion. He did not play in Week 6 in Miami, and he gives the passing game an added dimension down the field that simply is not found among the trio of Jesse James, Xavier Grimble, and David Johnson. For example, Green is averaging 16.9 yards per catch compared to 8.7 for James this season.
Sammie Coates is expected to play after missing a few games with a hamstring injury. He may not do anything again this week, but Coates is the best deep threat this offense has this year with the Martavis Bryant suspension. Through Week 5, Coates actually had 421 receiving yards, or 26 fewer yards than Brown at that point. However, injuries have derailed Coates' season. Since Week 6, he has two catches on 18 targets for 14 yards, an almost unfathomable drop in production from his hot start when he was making a 40-yard reception every week. Eli Rogers has been very productive from the slot as of late, and Cobi Hamilton has also gained some confidence this season after his game-winning touchdown catch in overtime against the Browns last week.
Pittsburgh can go deep at all of the skill positions, and should have a plethora of options on Sunday to choose from. The regular-season numbers over 16 games simply do not do this unit justice. Starting with the Dallas shootout in Week 10, Pittsburgh has scored at least 24 points in eight consecutive games, and only that late game-winning drive by the Cowboys has denied an eight-game winning streak for the Steelers. In that stretch, Bell's usage has gone way up. He had 16 touches in Miami in Week 6, but Bell is averaging 31.8 touches per game over his last six games. When Roethlisberger played one of his worst games ever in Buffalo in Week 14, Bell was right there with 236 rushing yards and three touchdowns in a game the Steelers controlled from start to finish.
Pittsburgh's offensive line has been strong this season, ranking second in adjusted line yards, and defenses have blitzed Roethlisberger the least of any quarterback in 2016. His pressure rate is again one of the lowest in the league, but Miami's defense, led by Cameron Wake (11.5 sacks), could be a good challenge since it ranks eighth in pressure rate this season.
If any defensive matchup stood out from Week 6, it was cornerback Byron Maxwell shutting down Brown, who had four catches for a season-low 39 yards. That is unlikely to happen again, but Maxwell has to get on the field first. He did not practice Thursday with an ankle injury. Maxwell took a lot of heat for his performance in Philadelphia last season, but this year in Miami, he ranks 14th in success rate. Containing Brown goes a long way in slowing down the Steelers, but again, there are a lot more options available for Pittsburgh this week.
If there is a troubling number for Pittsburgh, it would be the amount of risky, near-interception passes that Roethlisberger has thrown this season. He threw 13 picks in 14 games, but also led the league with 13 dropped interceptions, according to SIS charting. The Steelers ranked 21st in interceptions per drive, but were thankfully the best at fumbles per drive to keep the overall turnovers down to 18. Only in Buffalo did the Steelers turn the ball over three times this year, and that was the three picks by Roethlisberger (including two in the red zone).
We can dig deeper into the recent "Road Ben" phenomenon if the Steelers make it to Kansas City, but the fact that this is a home game is definitely noteworthy for Pittsburgh. In six home games this year, Roethlisberger has tossed 20 touchdowns to five interceptions, compared to nine touchdowns and eight interceptions in eight road games.
With the ability to thrive on the ground or through the air, the Steelers have too many options for Miami to shut them down again. Turnovers are the obvious way for Pittsburgh to get upset at home here, but expect a much different performance from Week 6, when Pittsburgh's only scores were a 60-yard touchdown run by Darrius Heyward-Bey and a late touchdown pass that carried a little odor of garbage time.
These are two middling special teams units, but don't discount the weather playing a factor here on those wild kicks where the ball can bounce unexpectedly. It was 81 degrees when these teams met in Week 6, but the forecast is looking at 17 degrees and possible snow on Sunday. Long field goals are always an adventure at Heinz Field, but anything over 50 yards might be extra difficult.
Chris Boswell has been an excellent find for the Steelers, and including a 7-for-7 postseason last year, he has made 57 of his first 64 field goals (89.1 percent). Pittsburgh is one of five teams to not miss an extra point this season. Miami's Andrew Franks is also a second-year kicker, but he has not been nearly as efficient, and the Dolphins only ranked 27th in place-kicking value this season. They also ranked dead last in field goals per drive (.086), so Franks has not been tested as much this season. However, Franks did nail a career-long 55-yard field goal in Buffalo to send the game to overtime in Miami's Week 16 win.
Miami was one of three teams (along with Minnesota and Kansas City) to have at least one touchdown on a punt return and a kick return in 2016. Backup running back Kenyan Drake could be a name to watch, as the Pittsburgh defense ranks 29th in starting field position following a kickoff. Boswell led the league with three kickoffs out of bounds, though two came against Baltimore in Week 16. The kickoffs in general should favor Miami, but neither team has been anything to write home about in the punting department.
The pressure is on Pittsburgh to perform as a big home favorite with its three offensive stars all healthy. The Steelers averaged 24.9 points per game, more than five points short of offensive coordinator Todd Haley's 30-point goal. The goal now is to score a lot of points this month, and Haley's offense has yet to crack 18 points in any of its three playoff games in the last two years. Injuries to the stars have been an excuse for that, but with a healthy cast, there is no excuse this time not to perform at home and avenge the Week 6 loss in Miami. While Pittsburgh's defense is not stellar, it has played well enough down the stretch (seventh in weighted DVOA) to reasonably keep the score down on Sunday afternoon.
Meanwhile, the Dolphins are simply looking for validation of their season. They can prove that Week 6 was not a fluke, and make an even bigger statement by taking care of the Steelers on the road. It is not that improbable to think that Ajayi can find rushing success again, or that the defense can create a couple of takeaways to pull off the upset.
In the end, Pittsburgh is an easy choice for a winner here, but 10 points sure feel like a lot for a team that has been down by that margin in the last three weeks. The high-variance Steelers cannot afford such sloppiness against a scrappy Miami team that has found numerous ways to win this season.
DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.
Team DVOA numbers incorporate all plays; since passing is generally more efficient than rushing, the average for passing is actually above 0% while the average for rushing is below 0%.
SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense. Those numbers are explained here.
Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list red zone DVOA and WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here).
Each team also gets a chart showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to total DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a rolling average of the last five games. Note that even though the chart appears in the section for when each team has the ball, it represents total performance, not just offense.