Greg Cote

If this is to be Dolphins’ ‘showcase to the world,’ it must start with upset win Sunday

Miami Dolphins Jay Ajayi at practice, Friday, Jan. 6, 2016, as they prepare to play the Pittsburgh Steelers this Sunday in the wild card round of the NFL Playoffs.
Miami Dolphins Jay Ajayi at practice, Friday, Jan. 6, 2016, as they prepare to play the Pittsburgh Steelers this Sunday in the wild card round of the NFL Playoffs.

It never seems to be easy for the Dolphins, does it?

This franchise in its recent history has rarely had available a map to the path of least resistance, and so the challenge that confronts the team on Sunday makes perfect sense: Eight years since the club’s last playoff appearance and 16 years from its most recent postseason victory, all the Fins have to do now is find a way to win in freezing Pittsburgh, among a blizzard of Terrible Towels, without their starting quarterback, as the biggest underdogs of this Wild-Card Weekend.

As a matter of fact, the Dolphins winning on Sunday would be the single biggest upset of this entire NFL season.

Let that preceding sentence marinate a moment. Hard to believe, but it is quantifiable, at least by the gauge of odds and betting. Miami is an 11-point underdog. That’s rare enough for the regular season but closer to unheard of in the playoffs. This season only 5.5 percent of all games (14 of 256) had betting point spreads of 10 or more. The favored teams were a perfect 14-0 and 10-3-1 covering the spread. Hence, Miami must now do what no team has done all season — win outright as a double-digit underdog — in order to end that 16-year drought and move on.

Oh, and the team’s reward if that unlikelihood happens? Playing at New England the following weekend, where the rested Patriots of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick might make Miami a 10-point-plus underdog again — something that rarely happens in the playoffs and most recently happened six years ago.

Did I mention who the two hottest teams are entering the playoffs? The teams with the longest winning streaks of seven games each? Steelers and Patriots, of course.

Miami won at home over Pittsburgh 30-15 in October, but it’s as if that never happened, or as if the oddsmakers reflecting public opinion are certain that was a fluke surely not to be repeated. Notably, the betting line moved from 10 to 11; in other words, the country expects Pittsburgh to cover.

It is the perfect scenario for Dolphins players to perceive disrespect, to feel insulted and to turn that into fuel. What else can you do?

“It is what it is. We see it in the media,” Dolphins running back and newly named team MVP Jay Ajayi said on Friday of the nobody-gives-you-a-chance storyline. “That’s kind of the narrative being told leading into Sunday. But we understand the opportunity to showcase to the world who the Miami Dolphins are.”

Alas, it becomes about more than intangibles such as the dubious one that disrespected, overlooked Miami might enjoy an edge in motivation. Or the notion that all of the pressure will be on the heavily favored home team (as if veteran two-time Super Bowl champion Ben Roethlisberger might somehow be rattled?).

At least the young Dolphins, for what’s it worth, seem genuinely loose. At Friday’s final practice before flying north, players were visibly enjoying the live DJ coach Adam Gase invited to camp to play music during the 70 minutes of on-field work. Later, in the locker room, there was raucous, collegial laughter as cornerback Lafayette Pitt came wheeling across the room in a big blue laundry cart into which he’d been playfully stuffed.

That’s an outward sign of a team feeling no particular weight or tension about this game, but there are more tangible reasons for that gaping point spread beyond “at Pittsburgh” when it might be as cold as 10 degrees out, constituting a bigger-than-typical home-field advantage for the playoff-seasoned Steelers.

Four key Miami starters instrumental in beating Pittsburgh in October will be missing for the playoff rematch. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill, his knee injured last month and ruled out for Sunday (though he did practice on a very limited basis Friday). Pro Bowl safety Reshad Jones. Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey. And the Fins’ best cornerback, Byron Maxwell, who in the first meeting heroically (and surprisingly) held Steelers star Antonio Brown to a meager four catches for 39 yards.

Pittsburgh, by contrast, is healthier now than then, notably fortified by the return of inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, whose absence in October was a big reason why Ajayi choo-choo’ed for 204 yards rushing.

Gase dismisses the heavy-underdog role as business as usual, while also hinting it conveys disrespect for his team and the fact it overcame a 1-4 start to end 10-6.

“It’s like every other week,” he said. “I don’t know how many games we’ve actually been favored.”

Well, I do. The Dolphins have been favored in only six games this season, by a total of  27 1/2 points. Counting Sunday they have been underdogs in 11 games, by a total of 68 points. That’s a consensus opinion that conveys a lack of trust in Miami as a quality team. It is made worse now by the starting QB missing, but there also is recent history at work. The low regard is the residue of a franchise that hasn’t been nationally relevant in a long time, one whose most recent postseason victory came on Dec. 30, 2000.

Ajayi spoke of a chance to “showcase to the world” who the Dolphins really are.

That change in perception has to start sometime.

It has to start someplace.

It has to start Sunday, in freezing Pittsburgh, in see-your-breath weather, with what would be the biggest upset not just of the weekend, but quantifiably of this entire season.

Related stories from Miami Herald