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Steelers continue building momentum in 30-12 playoff win over Miami Dolphins

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Dominating the game from the opening kickoff, the Steelers showed the offensive and defensive firepower to match up with any NFL opponent.

Wild Card Round - Miami Dolphins v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

On a bitterly cold January afternoon at Heinz Field, the Pittsburgh Steelers played what surely must be considered as their breakout game of the 2016-17 season. Whipping the Miami Dolphins in nearly every phase of play, the true measure of the Steelers’ dominance wasn’t reflected even by the final, 30-12 score. Getting off to an uncharacteristically fast start, the Steelers unleashed the Ben-Bell-Brown triumvirate of offensive weapons in the first quarter, sprinting out to a 14-3 lead after the first 15 minutes of play. Their early advantage was gained on the wings of two electrifying catch-and-run TDs by the amazing Antonio Brown, who finished the game with 124 yards receiving on five catches, good for a 24.8-yard average.

By the end of the first half, the Steelers still held a 14-point margin, thanks to a 10-play, 83-yard drive in the second quarter, capped by a one-yard Le’Veon Bell TD run. Bell notched another monster game, piling up 167 yards rushing and a 5.8-yard average per carry. No. 26 and his offensive line were so dominant that, by the time the second half rolled around, you had to truly pity the Dolphins’ weary linebackers and secondary, some of whom, by that stage, likely were wearing cleat marks on various and sundry body parts. At the same time, the Dolphins’ banged-up secondary was completely clueless in handling No. 84, regardless of their defensive alignments.

While the Steelers sealed the win by adding 10 more points in the third quarter, it seemed obvious as early as halftime that, on this frigid day, Miami was destined to see its postseason hopes bounced unceremoniously out of Heinz Field. For their part, the Dolphins committed three very costly turnovers which killed most of the offensive momentum they were able to generate. The Steelers’ defense played inspired football throughout most of the game, forcing and recovering two fumbles by Dolphins QB Matt Moore and allowing Miami’s running sensation, Jay Ajayi, a paltry 33 yards rushing for the entire game. After beating up Ajayi for more than three quarters, the Steelers’ defense ultimately delivered the knockout blow with 8:45 remaining in the final quarter, sending Ajayi to the sidelines with a shoulder injury.

Ben Roethlisberger didn’t throw a lot of passes on Sunday but, overall, he had the kind of performance that Steelers fans expect in a must-win game. While Ben threw two interceptions, he also completed 13 of 18 passes for a total of 197 yards and a 10.9-yard average per pass. Ben’s QB rating for the game was 91.8 compared to Moore’s rather abysmal 40.3 rating. But many in Steelers Nation wish that Ben hadn’t thrown his final pass of the game and his second interception. Pulled down by the Dolphins’ Cameron Wake as he tossed one up for grabs, Ben was seen wearing a walking boot following the game.

Capturing their eighth consecutive win against a Miami team with their starting QB on the sidelines, it’s perhaps tempting to downplay the significance of this victory. But when you look at the job the Steelers’ defense did in stifling Ajayi, while harassing Moore and snatching three turnovers, these are precisely the capabilities many fans were doubting as the Black-and-Gold headed into the playoffs. And the fact that some of the key defensive plays were made by Pittsburgh’s veteran leaders James Harrison and Lawrence Timmons seemed to be a fitting exclamation point following what might have been the team’s best defensive performance of their 2016-17 campaign.

As things now stand, the Steelers might have the best linebacker unit in the NFL. Lining up beside Harrison and Timmons, Pittsburgh has two of the brightest young stars in the league in Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree. This foursome is the heart and soul of what recently has become a swarming Black-and-Gold defense. For their parts, Shazier intercepted a Moore pass over the middle, while Dupree hounded Moore unmercifully throughout the game, nearly knocking him senseless with a vicious hit near the sideline just a split-second after Moore released a pass.

Not overlooking the talented Kansas City Chiefs by any means but, if Pittsburgh is fortunate enough to wind up facing the Patriots in the AFC Championship game in two weeks, they’ll need to notch a similar performance versus LeGarrette Blount, a pile-driving back who has gashed opponents for 1,161 yards and a 3.9-yard average during the 2016 regular season. They’ll also need to beat New England’s pass-blocking schemes and not allow Tom Brady, arguably the NFL’s most lethal passer, to get too comfortable in the pocket.

As they begin preparations for their showdown next Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium, the Steelers can take considerable pride in the knowledge that, following a regular season in which neither their offense nor defense performed consistently well, the team now appears to be gelling on both sides of the ball, and without the untimely rash of injuries affecting some other playoff teams.

Thus, the offensive explosion we witnessed in the first half against Miami might be only the beginning of this team’s production moving forward. Likewise, the aggressive, gang-tackling defense that abused Ajayi, Moore and other Dolphins throughout an icy Sunday afternoon looks as though it’s being forged into hardened steel under the heat of playoff competition.

Perhaps best of all, the Steelers have been able to gradually and inexorably build momentum during their current winning streak, as key players on both sides of the ball have stepped up to claim their places in the NFL spotlight. While the past eight games certainly haven’t been artistic triumphs, each one has revealed aspects of a Steelers team that has the kind of intensity and desire necessary to power a January drive to the Super Bowl. Sunday’s impressive playoff win over the Dolphins suggests that the momentum Pittsburgh has been building since mid-November might now be approaching its crescendo.