Both coaches called it one of the great comebacks in team history. Both talked about the grit and courage of their players. Both were soaking wet when it finally was over, spent as emotionally as the 90 players and 73,735 spectators in the Orange Bowl who tonight witnessed one of the most remarkable football games in NFL playoff history.
Almost four hours after it began, with 1:08 left in the first overtime, Rolf Benirschke, who had blown one chance to finish it earlier in the extra period, ended this epic with a 29-yard field goal, giving the San Diego Chargers a 41-38 victory over the Miami Dolphins. That advanced the Chargers to next Sunday's AFC final against either Cincinnati or Buffalo.
The Chargers won after blowing a 24-0 lead they built in less than a quarter. They won after trailing, 38-31, in the fourth quarter. They won after Miami's Uwe von Schamann had a field-goal attempt of 43 yards blocked by Kellen Winslow on the last play of regulation and a 34-yarder blocked with 3:42 left in overtime. They won after Benirschke, who had not missed from inside the 30-yard line all season, hooked a 27-yarder with 9:15 left in overtime.
"I've never been so proud of a football team in my life," said Charger Coach Don Coryell, his voice hoarse. "The Dolphins' comeback was unbelievable. The way we hung in and fought back afterwards was just as amazing."
Miami Coach Don Shula sounded just like Coryell. "I'm proud of the way we came back," he said. "It would have been easy to give up after the first quarter but we didn't. Don Strock did a remarkable job."
Strock, coming in to relieve David Woodley, threw for four touchdowns and completed 28 of 42 passes for 397 yards to lead the Dolphins to what could have been the biggest comeback in NFL playoff history. His counterpart, Dan Fouts, completed 33 of 53 for 433 yards and three touchdowns, the last with 58 seconds left in regulation. That nine-yard pass to James Brooks tied the score at 38 and broke the NFL playoff record for most points by two teams.
"I just kept looking at the clock all day as it went back and forth and thinking, 'If we have time, we'll get whatever points we have to,' " said Fouts. "I've played a lot of football, but I've never been in a game like that. Never."
It did not start that way. It began as a rout as the Dolphins looked more like the Keystone Kops in the first quarter. After Benirschke kicked a 32-yard field goal to open the scoring, Wes Chandler went 56 yards with a punt, skirting the Miami kick coverage, to make it 10-0 midway through the quarter.
On the ensuing kickoff, the Dolphins played Alphonse-Gaston with Benirschke's short knuckle ball and Hank Bauer fell on the free ball at the 29 for the Chargers. Seven plays later, Chuck Muncie swept right from one yard and it was 17-0. A deflected pass created an interception for Glen Edwards, who returned it to the Miami 11. This time Fouts passed eight yards to Brooks and, less than 14 minutes into the game, the Chargers led, 24-0.
"Even then you knew it would end this way," said the Chargers' defensive coordinator, Jack Pardee, the former Redskin coach. "We just got our breaks early."
Miami began making its breaks when Strock relieved Woodley early in the second quarter. It was the sixth time this season that the nine-year veteran has come on for Woodley; he was never better than today.
He drove the Dolphins to a 34-yard field goal, then threw a one-yard touchdown pass to Joe Rose after Bob Baumhower had recovered a Fouts fumble. That made it 24-10. Still, San Diego was in control.
Then, with 30 seconds left in the half, the Dolphins took over on their 38 after Benirschke missed a 55-yard field goal. Three plays got Miami to the San Diego 40 with six seconds left.
Shula sent in a play that has been in the Dolphins' play book for years but had never been used before. "We practice it every three weeks or so," said wide receiver Duriel Harris. "We hadn't worked on it this week. I was surprised when Strock came into the huddle and called it."
On the play, Harris runs a 15-yard curl pattern, coming back for the ball. Halfback Tony Nathan trails him and when Harris makes the catch, he laterals back to Nathan.
The Dolphins ran the play just as it is diagrammed. Strock hit Harris in front of cornerback Alan Ellis, the ball was flipped to Nathan, who ran untouched to the end zone as the clock hit zero. Suddenly, the San Diego lead was just 24-17.
The Dolphins kept right on rolling in the second half. They drove 74 yards after the kickoff, finishing with Strock's 15-yard pass to Rose over the middle that tied the score at 24. Considering that no team in NFL history ever had recovered from more than a 20-point deficit to win a playoff game, the Dolphins already had overachieved for the day.
But this was just beginning. Fouts passed to Winslow for 25 yards to make it 31-24 and Strock quickly answered, 50 yards to a wide-open Rose to tie it again. When Lyle Blackwood intercepted Fouts at the 45 and lateraled to Gerald Small, who got to the 15, Miami suddenly had a chance to go on top.
It did, on the first play of the fourth quarter, Nathan sweeping right from 12 yards out. Little more than two quarters after they had trailed by 24, the Dolphins led, 38-31.
The Chargers were gasping in the humidity now. When they couldn't move again, the Dolphins took over at their 20 and methodically began moving for the clinching score. They ran 14 plays, but the last, from the San Diego 21, ended in Aundra Franklin's fumble. Pete Shaw recovered and, with 4:39 remaining, the Chargers had another chance.
They capitalized. Coolly, Fauts moved them down the field, hitting Charlie Joiner on one third down and Winslow on another. From the nine, the usually immobile Fouts scrambled, looked and found Brooks in the corner of the end zone. It was 38-38.
Benirschke shanked the kickoff and the Dolphins took over on their 40. In keeping with the eerie tone of the affair, Willie Buchanon intercepted Strock, fumbled and Tommy Vigorito recovered for Miami at the 48. Strock to Nathan moved the ball to the 25 and, with four seconds remaining, von Schamann, who had won seven games with field goals in two years, came on.
The spot was between the 32- and 33-yard lines. Bob Kuchenberg, one of three Dolphins who played on the last Super Bowl team, snapped. It was high. "I just snapped it high," he said. "I was worried about Louis Kelcher getting penetration on me. But that's no excuse. My rhythm was the same as ever. It's a rotten way to end things."
The snap high, Strock had to rush the hold and the kick was slightly low, just low enough for the leaping Winslow to block.
Benirschke had the first chance in overtime after Fouts had moved the Chargers to the Miami nine following the kickoff. He hooked it left. "We were late getting on and I rushed it a little because I thought the 30 seconds would run out. I should have called time."
"When he missed," Coryell said, "I was stunned."
He was not alone. Back and forth they went. The Dolphins' chance came when Vigorito's punt return to the San Diego 46 set them up and they moved to the Chargers' 17. On came von Schamann again. As the teams lined up, Coryell turned his back, then turned to look at the last second.
What he saw was von Schamann's foot hitting behind the ball, the ball never getting far off the ground and Leroy Jones batting it down. "I was conscious of getting height because of the first block," von Schamann said. "I was thinking about getting under it and my foot hit the ground behind it. I have to live with that."
Given what seemed to be their ninth life, the Chargers moved again. Fouts passed to Wes Chandler for 19 yards to midfield. Chandler was tackled hard and helped off. Then Fouts passed to Joiner for 40 yards to the 10. Coryell sent Benirschke on again.
"I was just glad for another chance," Benirschke said. "I felt so awful after the first one because of what all these guys had done. Half of them shouldn't even have been out there in overtime. I had to make it."