The Crystal Ball

The only other time the Dolphins have opened the season in prime time against the defending Super Bowl champion, they came away with a 38-21 victory at Denver in 1999. Can they do it again Thursday night at Pittsburgh? Here's how we see the game unfolding.

There are other similarities between the 1999 game at Denver and the Pittsburgh game. For one, it was the Dolphins' first regular season game at that stadium, just like it will be at Heinz Field. For another, both defending champs were without the quarterback who led them to the Super Bowl -- John Elway for Denver and Ben Roethlisberger for Pittsburgh.

But we digress.

What really will matter Thursday night is the Dolphins preventing Pittsburgh from dominating both lines of scrimmages because that's where the Steelers win games.

The matchup of the Steelers offensive line against the Dolphins defensive line is a tremendous one because both units rank among the best in the league.

The Steelers don't have Jerome Bettis anymore, and starting running back Willie Parker is a speed back who needs big holes.

We expect the Dolphins to control him because the combination of Keith Traylor and Dan Wilkinson in the middle will make the Dolphins tough to run against all year.

If the Dolphins do stop Parker, that puts even more pressure on Charlie Batch, Roethlisberger's emergency replacement.

Batch is an adequate-at-best passer and he's prone to turn the ball over if he has to pass too often. It won't help Batch that Hines Ward is playing with a less-than-totally-healthy hamstring.

Clearly, the Dolphins should be able to shut down the Pittsburgh offense and hold the Steelers to a reasonable score.

That means the offense won't have to put up big numbers, which would have been a tough task.

The Steelers defense traditionally is among the toughest in the league, and there's no reason to expect that to be different this year.

In particular, the run defense is tremendous, thanks in large part to nose tackle Casey Hampton, who will be difficult for the Dolphins' interior offensive linemen to handle.

Ronnie Brown will get his share of carries -- also expect newcomer Lee Suggs to get some attempts -- but we wouldn't expect the Dolphins to put big numbers on the ground.

Where the Dolphins need to succeed on offense is in the passing game, and that needs to start with picking up the Pittsburgh blitz.

The Steelers send an extra rusher on practically every play, whether it be LB Joey Porter or SS Troy Polamalu or even a cornerback.

The Dolphins offensive line will need to communicate and pick up the right guy, otherwise Daunte Culpepper will get hit.

Count on Culpepper getting sacked two or three times, but he also should be able to hit a couple of big plays, with Chris Chambers an obvious target.

If Pittsburgh has a weakness on defense, it is in the secondary -- just like the Dolphins. The Dolphins need to exploit that if they give Culpepper some time.

It's not going to be easy for the Dolphins offense, that's for sure, but it's a game they're more than capable of winning. In fact, we would have said exactly that even if Roethlisberger were in the game.

But he's not, and that makes the Pittsburgh offense less dangerous. But it won't be easy regardless. After all, these are the defending Super Bowl champions the Dolphins are playing.

The call: Dolphins 17, Steelers 13.


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