The punt traveled 61 yards in the air and should have been allowed to bounce into the end zone. Instead, a rookie mistake by Robert Holt severely damaged the playoff hopes of the Buffalo Bills and helped the Miami Dolphins win, 27-10, tonight in the Orange Bowl.
The victory should aid the Dolphins' quest for home field advantage in the playoffs. The defeat left the Bills (4-4) with some grim reality: they must beat or tie New England Sunday in Foxboro, Mass., to make the playoffs for the third straight year.
The muffed punt went a long way toward deciding tonight's game. It was one of Buffalo's four turnovers, three leading to second-half scores by the Dolphins (6-2).
The teams were tied at 10 when the Dolphins' Tom Orosz punted from his 37. The kick was aided by a brisk wind and drove Holt back to his two-yard line. He lunged awkwardly for the ball, then dropped it and it bounced into the end zone.
Miami's Ron Hester recovered in the end zone for what many in the crowd of 73,924 in the Orange Bowl thought was a touchdown. The play was ruled a muff, however, and a muffed ball on a punt may not be advanced by recovering team.
It hardly mattered.
Two plays later, Andra Franklin went up the middle on a trap play for a touchdown that gave the Dolphins their first lead, at 17-10, with 6:43 left in the third period.
That touchdown went a long way toward ensuring Don Shula's 200th regular season victory as a head coach, and was greeted with great joy in Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Buffalo's loss meant the Steelers had qualified for the AFC playoffs, the Browns very nearly.
It also helped keep alive the Bills' odious streak in the Orange Bowl. Not since 1966, when Jack Kemp was their quarterback, have the Bills won in Miami. Tonight's loss gave them an 0-15-1 record here over the last 16 years.
Buffalo's quarterback tonight, Joe Ferguson, was a bruised and battered man. He was sacked four times, intercepted twice and flattened from the blind side on a hit that forced him to fumble deep in Miami territory,
An ill-conceived throw into heavy traffic, two plays after Franklin's third-quarter touchdown, gave Miami the ball right back when Lyle Blackwood intercepted at the Buffalo 40.
That led to Uwe von Schamann's 30-yard field goal and the Dolphins' 20-10 advantage with 1:46 left in the third period.
Early in the fourth period, Ferguson dropped back to pass and was blind-sided by linebacker Bob Brudzinski. The ball kicked back and Buffalo's Joe Devlin appeared to have it in his arms. As he fell on it, however, it squirted free again and Miami's Glen Blackwood recovered at the Buffalo six.
Two plays later, Franklin went up the middle untouched to the end zone. Von Schamann's extra point gave the Dolphins a 27-10 lead with 8:58 left in the game, and the Bills could not recover.
It did not start out that way.
On Buffalo's first offensive play, Joe Cribbs, aided by Roosevelt Leaks' block, ran through a massive hole on the right side. He eluded two diving tackles and outran cornerbacks Gerald Small and Don McNeal for a 62-yard touchdown, the longest run of Cribbs' pro career.
Said tackle Bob Baumhower, "We came into the game thinking we had to stop Cribbs. When that happened, I said to myself, 'Oh my God, I can't believe it.' But the important thing is, we didn't panic or get flustered. We came back, and that's the mark of a good team."
Miami guard Ed Newman suffered cartilage and ligament damage in his knee and is out for the rest of the season.