In years past, a Colts-Dolphins game on the next-to-last Sunday of the regular season would have been a glorious matchup. So many seasons during the 1970s wound down to Miami and Baltimore meeting to decide the AFC East championship.
All today's 24-14 Dolphin victory did was assure Baltimore its third straight season without a playoff team.
It was a good game between teams each starting the day with 7-7 records. But only 30,564, believed to be the NFL's smallest crowd this year, half-filled Memorial Stadium to see it. Less than one third stuck around in the cold and wind to watch the Dolphins break a 14-14 tie in the fourth quarter and gain a split of this year's series.
Uwe von Schamann's 36-yard field goal midway through that period gave the Dolphins a 17-14 lead and David Woodley's 26-yard touchdown pass to Nat Moore with 6:13 left secured Miami's eighth victory, keeping the Dolphins' prayer of a playoff chance intact.
Miami Coach Don Shula said von Schamann has become one of the league's better pressure kickers, but he saved his best praise for running back Woody Bennett, who carried 20 times for 86 yards and caught one of Woodley's three touchdown passes.
"We've been pleased with everything Bennett has done since he's been here," the former coach of the Colts said of his midseason acquisition off New York Jet waivers.
Baltimore took a 7-0 lead in the first quarter on Curtis Dickey's 38-yard touchdown run, on a short yardage play up the middle in which the former Texas A&M speedster broke the grasps of two Dolphin linebackers to score.
Woodley's 19-yard touchdown pass to Bennett tied the game near the end of the first quarter, one play after Baltimore's Larry Braziel was penalized 32 yards for pass interference. The Dolphins went ahead, 14-7, one minute into the second period on rookie Woodley's third-down, 37-yard pass to Jimmy Cefalo, which was set up by Bennett's 19-yard run three plays earlier.
Baltimore tied midway through the third on Bert Jones' 16-yard touchdown pass to Reese McCall on a drive sustained by the Colts' afternoon-long tactic of running and passing into the middle of Miami's zone defense. Marvin Sims and veteran Don McCauley converted third and fourth downs in that 11-play drive, but the important running that series and all afternoon for the Colts was done by Dickey, who gained 92 yards in 18 carries.
Von Schamann was put into field goal range by Woodley passes to Tony Nathan and Moore and Bennett's running. With more than nine minutes remaining, the Colts still had a chance to at least tie (Baltimore's Steve Mike-Mayer already had missed on a 43-yard field goal attempt with the wind at his back), but Woodley's final scoring pass to a wide-open Moore dashed any hopes.
"It was a disappointing loss," said Baltimore Coach Mike McCormack, "because we didn't perform well in any phase of the game. Mental errors just gave Miami two touchdowns and I don't understand how this could happen this late in the season. I don't know if it's pride or not."
"I've spent a lot of great afternoons in this stadium," Shula said. "This (Miami) team is young, still looking for an identity, not like the power teams we had a few years ago that were so businesslike."
"We couldn't afford to think back to all those other games that may have been important to the standings," said Colt linebacker Sanders Shiver. "This contest was very hard fought. There were some pretty tough licks thrown. All the nostalgia about the great Colts-Dolphins games didn't mean anything today. It's not until Monday morning when you start rehashing that you think about what was."