With first-down yardage in hand, John Riggins turned the corner and looked into the gloaming for a world championship. He found cornerback Don McNeal in his way.
"I was at a disadvantage, I was alone on him," said the Miami cornerback.
Riggins forced his advantage--his powerful upper body--right through his adversary and ran 43 yards for a touchdown and a 20-17 lead for the Redskins with 10:01 left in the game.
"I had a pretty good hit on him, but he just ran on through. His feet never stopped churning," said McNeal. "But I'm a professional, I should have had him."
The Dolphins had called time out before the play. With fourth down and less than a yard to go, Miami Coach Don Shula stacked the line with a short-yardage defense.
McNeal, following the motion of tight end Clint Didier, slipped, regained his footing, cut back across the field and tried to stop Riggins.
But on a day that saw Riggins breaking out of the grasp of gang-tackling linemen and linebackers, a 5-foot-11, 192-pound defensive back was not about to deny the 6-2, 235-pound fullback one of the most important moments of his career.
"It hurts when you hit him," said safety Glenn Blackwood.
Riggins, with his 166 yards on 38 carries, hurt the Dolphins all day.
Nevertheless, the Dolphins looked as if they had both the score and momentum on their side when they went into the locker room at the half leading, 17-10.
After the Redskins caught up at 10-10 with 1:51 left in the half on Joe Theismann's four-yard touchdown pass to Alvin Garrett, the Dolphins had the stuff to strike back one play later.
On the kickoff, Fulton Walker caught the ball on the two, cut to his left, then back inside to shake kicker Jeff Hayes, and raced 98 yards for a touchdown. Shula was shaking his fists and the Dolphins were ahead anew by seven points.
"We had a blocking wedge on the left," said Walker. "I made it look like I was going to the right and went the other way. Once I was at the 30-yard line, I turned around to see if there was anyone behind me or any flags. It was a great feeling at the time.
"I flashed back to the Buffalo game in 1981. I had an 88-yard return for a touchdown in that game and we lost that one, too."
The Redskins, for their part, failed to beat the clock and score even a field goal on the following possession even though they drove to the Miami seven.
In the second half, however, the Redskins won the game with ball control. Maintaining possession nearly twice as long as the Dolphins, the Redskins gave Miami quarterback David Woodley little time to move on offense.
And when Woodley did have a chance, nothing worked. He did not complete any of the eight passes he threw in the second half; relief quarterback Don Strock was none for three.
"We were just stopped in the second half," said Woodley. "They played great coverage behind the rush. It's frustrating to not get anything done.
"You work so hard. It's frustrating when you get shut out completely."
Shula said, "At the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth, I considered changing the quarterbacks, but (the Redskins) used up a lot of time and (Don) Strock never had a chance to get started when he got in."
Strock did not replace Woodley until there was only 1:48 left in the game--far too late to overcome a 27-17 deficit.
"They just stopped what we had to accomplish in the second half," said halfback Tony Nathan, who gained 26 yards in seven attempts. "They didn't change a whole lot really from the first half. We just stopped."
Despite their frustration, none of the Dolphins complained about the play that preceded the Redskins' final touchdown. Riggins was hit by Vern Den Herder and Larry Gordon for no gain on the Dolphin six and appeared to fumble. Miami appeared to recover, but the ball was called dead.
Linebacker A.J. Duhe, the star of last week's victory over the New York Jets for the AFC championship, said, "They challenged us and we challenged them. Today they won the challenge."
Duhe was asked what he was going to do after the game.
"I'm going to find my wife and cry," he said.
Indeed, many of the Dolphins looked stunned and mournful. Defensive end Kim Bokamper sat slumped in a metal folding chair, staring motionless at a cinder block wall for at least 10 minutes. Not a single reporter dared interrupt him.
Shula's eyes were red and brimming.
"Since the middle of last season, the Redskins have been the best team in pro football and they proved it today," he said.
Shula took the traditional call from the president of the United States.
"Hello, Don Shula?" said Ronald Reagan.
"Yes," Shula answered.
The president told Shula he knew "there isn't a thing anyone could say to make you feel better."
"You're right," said the coach.