By NICOLINO DIBENEDETTO
(AP) — The Pittsburgh Steelers feel Mike Wallace and the Miami Dolphins are in the way.
Coach Mike Tomlin will certainly try to avoid doing that again.
Tomlin hopes the Steelers can put his bizarre antics behind them as they welcome Wallace back to Pittsburgh on Sunday in a meeting against the Dolphins with major playoff implications.
Pittsburgh (5-7) and Miami (6-6) are trying to improve their respective playoff chances, but a defeat Sunday could be the final blow to the Steelers’ hopes after falling 22-20 at Baltimore on Thanksgiving.
The importance of the matchup certainly overshadows the return of Wallace, who left the Steelers for the Dolphins via free agency after spending his first four seasons in Pittsburgh.
The coach was fined $100,000 earlier this week for stepping on the field and in the way of the Ravens’ Jacoby Jones on a 73-yard kickoff return last week. Tomlin wasn’t flagged for a penalty despite Jones having to swerve to avoid him, possibly causing him to be tackled from behind.
“I apologize for causing negative attention to the Pittsburgh Steelers organization,” Tomlin said in a statement. “I accept the penalty that I received. I will no longer address this issue as I am preparing for an important game this Sunday against the Miami Dolphins.”
The Steelers have won five straight meetings with the Dolphins dating to a loss at Miami on Sept. 20, 1998. They haven’t lost to them at home since Sept. 30, 1990, winning three in a row.
The Dolphins are hoping Wallace can help them end those streaks by continuing his recent success, while eventually helping them to their first playoff berth since 2008. The wide receiver, who Pittsburgh deemed too expensive during the offseason, has 12 catches for 209 yards and two touchdowns over the last two games after grabbing just one through the first 10.
“I’m feeling more comfortable every week in the offense,” Wallace said. “It’s time to hit my stride. No more warming up. It’s time to go. It’s December. You’ve got to make plays now. You don’t have time to wait.”
A return to Heinz Field may provide added motivation.
“It’s going to be exciting,” Wallace said. “I don’t want to get caught up in too much hype about a personal battle with these guys, because it’s not really about that. It’s about moving forward. These guys stand in the way of our playoff hopes. They’re another team in the way that has to go down.”
Wallace helped the Dolphins take care of another one of those teams last weekend with a 28-yard catch-and-run touchdown in a 23-3 road victory over the New York Jets. He finished with seven receptions for 82 yards.
Miami is tied with Baltimore for the sixth and final playoff position in the AFC, winning two of three in the wake of a bullying scandal that threatened to derail its season.
Now, the schedule may play into the Dolphins’ favor since three of their remaining four games are against teams currently owning a losing record.
“We are in the playoff hunt, and we have to win every game,” said linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, a member of Baltimore’s Super Bowl championship team from last season. “But it’s very important to not look too far down the road.”
Another big performance from the offense could get the Dolphins rolling. They gained a season-high 453 total yards – 328 passing – last week, as Ryan Tannehill turned in his best performance of 2013.
The quarterback, who has an 83.2 rating, had 331 yards with two touchdowns and one interception while completing 28 of 43 passes against the Jets.
Brian Hartline had his own season high with 127 yards and caught Tannehill’s other TD pass.
They could be in for another strong effort since the Steelers are allowing an average of 287.6 passing yards with nine TDs over the past five games.
Pittsburgh may have running back Le’Veon Bell in the backfield after he suffered a concussion against the Ravens. He’s returned to full practice this week, and leads the Steelers with 528 yards while accounting for all five of their rushing touchdowns.
He had 73 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries in Week 13 before being knocked unconscious on a blow to the head while trying to dive for his second score of the fourth quarter.
Ben Roethlisberger has completed 64.2 percent of his passes for 841 yards and eight touchdowns with no interceptions and a 105.8 passer rating over the last three games.
Roethlisberger has only been sacked once in that stretch, but is facing a Miami defense that has 10 in the past three games.
Olivier Vernon has accounted for six of them, giving him a career-high 10.5.
“We’ve talked about how the performance level on the field has to be better in December, and part of that now is consistency,” coach Joe Philbin said.
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