We kinda knew the Pittsburgh Steelers were going to beat the Miami Dolphins. Miami was starting backup QB Matt Moore on the road on a beautiful 17-degree day in Pittsburgh. Dolphins do not exist in 17-degree temperatures; there is a reason SeaWorld is not in Erie, Pennsylvania.
But man, Pittsburgh didn’t have to do Miami like this. For most of the Steelers’ 30–12 win, they were just being mean.
In the one corner: Antonio Brown, the NFL’s best route-runner, a square-haired blaze whose only downside is that his touchdowns often come with 15-yard penalties because of his elaborate, kinky celebrations. In the other corner: A Dolphins secondary that lost safety Isa Abdul-Quddus and cornerback Byron Maxwell to injuries in Week 15. (It had also lost safety Reshad Jones to a season-ending injury earlier in the year.)
The result: Pittsburgh’s first two drives ended with 50-plus-yard touchdowns to Brown. On this play, Brown found himself matched up with Tony Lippett, a second-year cornerback who played wide receiver at Michigan State. Backup safety Bacarri Rambo, known more for big hits than for his consistent play, was in single-high coverage, the only person who could help if something went wrong. Lippett ended up flailing at nothing, Rambo took an awful angle, and Brown simply sprinted by en route to the end zone.
It was a pretty simple slant, and it ended up being a 62-yard touchdown. Brown also went for 50 yards on a screen, a perfectly blocked play on which Lippett showed the tackling skills of a college wide receiver.
Ben Roethlisberger completed his first 11 passes. None were that difficult: He just made easy passes to open guys, and when that open guy is Brown, amazing things can happen. These plays shouldn’t have been highlights, but Brown’s remarkable acceleration combined with comically poor play by Miami’s second-choice defenders made them highlights.
Unfortunately for Miami, it didn’t stop there.
In the one corner: Le’Veon Bell, a patient, pounding runner who might be the NFL’s most versatile back; a player who finished fifth in the league in rushing despite missing the first three games of the season due to a suspension. In the other: A Dolphins defense that gave up 4.8 yards per rushing attempt, tied for worst in the NFL.
The result: On their third drive, the Steelers handed the ball off to Bell 10 consecutive times, and he ran for 83 yards and a touchdown. The Dolphins never even forced a third down. Bell always got past the sticks in either one or two carries. It was the first playoff TD drive of 10-plus plays without a pass since at least 2000. There were no highlights: Just repeated, consistent gains.
Pittsburgh’s first three drives all went for at least 80 yards and a touchdown, putting the Steelers up 20–3 by early in the second quarter. Brown had 125 first-half yards, Bell had 99. As Pittsburgh looked to salt the game away, Bell carried most of the load in the final two quarters, and finished with 29 carries, 167 yards, and two touchdowns. Brown caught only one pass (for a negative yard) in the second half, but he didn’t have to do anything more.
Some people find trick plays embarrassing. But if you have to son me, I’m fine with you scoring on a flea flicker or a behind-the-back pass by a punter. What’s truly embarrassing is what happened to Miami. Pittsburgh did completely normal things over and over again, and Miami was simply helpless. The Steelers knew their average play was better than the Dolphins’, and they beat Miami by being average in extravagant ways.