The Miami Dolphins were busy defending their fourth-and-inches gamble that failed today and were looking for help from elsewhere after the New England Patriots preserved a 14-10 victory.
Then came the news that Detroit upset the Baltimore Colts and threw the AFC Eastern Division race into a three-way deadlock at 9-4.
That means the victorious Patriots must depend on 3-10 Buffalo to win at Miami Saturday, or the Pats go into Sundy's battle with the Colts merely as spoilers.
If Buffalo beats Miami, New England can claim the title by vanquishing Baltimore. But if Miami defeats Buffalo, the Patriots are eliminated right then. A Baltimore win over New England would make the Colts division champions, based on their head-to-head point different over the Dolphins.
It all would have been so simple for New England had the Colts won, setting up a three-way 10-4 finish among the three contenders. In event of such three-way tie, the Patriots would have had the final edge in their seasonal round robin with Baltimore and Miami.
"It's very strange, rooting for the other team, and I'm sick of it," said New England tight end Russ Francis. "We were rooting for Miami last Monday night against Baltimore and today we were rooting for Baltimore."
The Patriots established a two-touchdown lead in the first quarter and appeared ready to demolish the Dolphins.
In the third quarter, Bob Griese took the Dolphins 56 yards and had them six inches away from the New England goal line. Instead of running the ball - in light of the Dolphins having gained only 25 yards on the ground for the whole game - Griese raised up and tried a pass to tight end Andre Tillman on fourth down. It eluded his upraised fingertips.
The Dolphins behind, 14-3, at the time and went on to score in the final period on a 23-yard pass, Griese to wide receiver Nat Moore.
But that fourth-down decision figures to haunt them if they do not make the playoffs.
Coach Don Shula said, "It is the easiest thing in the world, to second-guess. We came this far winning together and losing together. You give it your best shot.
"Bob had to lay the pass over top of guys (New England defenders) back there. It was a good defensive play.
Griese said he called the play in the huddle.
"I thought it was a good time for a pass," he said. "We have three receivers in the pattern. They covered it better that I thought they would.
"If I had waited for Nat Moore to come across, he would have been free. Tillman wasn't as open as I thought he was."
Steve Grogan, the Patriots quarter-back, sold he would have called another type of play.
"I'm a different kind of a ballplayer," he said, referring to his being more of a running threat than Griese. "If I were making the call, I'd have given myself a chance to pass or run. If the linebackers dropped off, I would run; if they came up, I would pass."
The Patriots' Francis said he and his offensive teammates discussed the strategy of the Dolphins on the sidelines.
"When Griese said 11 of our guys line up in the center, he released a pass. Luckily, we had a good pass rush. Griese threw a little high, but it was a well-thrown pass.
"Tillman was wearing gloves. It was cold out there."
Shula dismissed the weather, which prompted some of the Dolphins to wear "Big Mama" panty hose. "They coughed up the ball more than we did in the course of the day," he noted.
Coming back to the fourth-down call, Shula said, "Bob has made a lot of great calls over the years and I'm not going to get into the business of second-guessing him now."
Griese said, "It all comes down to this - we had the opportunities and we didn't make the plays."
In the critical third quarter for the Dolphins, Griese also got them down to the New England 16 yard line. But on a first-down pass. Griese was hit on the inside of his throwing arm by tacke Richard Bishop and the ball went end over end into the hands of linebacker Steve Nelson for an interception.
"That's just how critical an extra half second is," Griese commented. "Moore was open in the end zone. It was a touchdown four weeks ago, when I just got the ball off to Moore (for the clinching touchdown in a 173 victory). This week, the pass rusher hits my arm."
After scoring in the fourth quarter, the Dolphins later got a break when grogan fumbled while running and Miami recovered on the Patriot 27 yard line.
On a fourth and 12 at the New England 18 with 1:51 to go, Griese led running back Norm Bulaich too far with a pass that went incomplete.
"It was the right call," Griese said. "That play was there. We just didn't connect. I knew where Bulaich was the area had been cleared out by other recievers. But we needed 12 yards, and I didn't want to throw behind him I led him too far."
What the Patriots did was ram the ball down the Dolphins' gullets in the first half and then they played "gotcha" six times with Griese when he tried to play catch-up with 38 passes and 22 completions.