Victory No. 10 came with a twist. No more of this easy stuff for the Miami Dolphins, the National Football League's only unbeaten team. No blowout. Not today. It was time for a scare, and the Dolphins got it.
They still won, 31-17, beating the New York Jets in front of 72,655 at Giants Stadium. But they were behind for only the second time this season, and didn't get the lead back until just 7:45 was left in the game, when quarterback Dan Marino threw a 47-yard touchdown pass to Mark Clayton over fallen Jets cornerback Davlin Mullen. That wiped out a 17-14 New York lead.
For a change in this perfect season, there was a halftime speech that had to be made. The Dolphins were losing, 10-7, when Coach Don Shula gathered them together in the locker room and told them that this was the season's "first challenge."
The Dolphins responded with 24 points in the second half, 17 in less than six minutes as the game neared its finish and they pulled away to a four-game lead in the AFC East over the Jets, who are 6-4. The Dolphins' 10-0 record equals the Minnesota Vikings' start of 1975.
Yet introspection, not jubilation, ruled Miami's locker room afterward. Marino, the top-rated passer in the league, said he "made a lot of mistakes," especially in the first half, when he was rushed heavily and threw two interceptions. Receiver Nat Moore said his quarterback "had a good day. He did not have a great day."
Yet Marino threw for 422 yards.
"I didn't realize he threw for that," Shula said. "That just shows what his capabilities are."
For the Dolphins, this was winning with a glance back over their shoulders. "We can walk away smiling and still have a learning experience," said offensive guard Ed Newman. "There's a lot of material for us to improve on. We don't want to start thinking we can get away with everything."
Just almost everything. New York running back Freeman McNeil rushed for 132 yards and had Shula shaking his head, saying, "How can you play any better than that guy plays?" The Jets' defense was its usual unrelenting self, forcing the Dolphins to keep the tight end and backs around for blocking help in the second half.
The pressure on Marino made him look almost mortal in the first half. Shula blamed defensive end Mark Gastineau for most of it, including two interceptions of Marino. He had just eight in the first nine games.
"Ninety-nine (Gastineau) does that to you," Shula said.
The Dolphins absorbed all the lessons, and had their share of luck, at the expense of the Jets' secondary. Four defensive backs -- Darrol Ray (sprained foot), Johnny Lynn (sprained ankle), Russell Carter (sprained ankle) and Fernanza Burgess (neck) -- left the game with injuries. It is no coincidence that the Dolphins' offense thrived as the Jets' defense sent in more replacements.
The first half was full of surprises. First was the fact that the Jets were winning, 10-7. Until 1:14 was left in the second quarter, the Dolphins had trailed a grand total of 67 seconds this season. That was when the Washington Redskins led, also 10-7, back on Sept. 2. The Dolphins won that game, 35-17.
Another was that the Jets scored at all. In their first nine victories, the Dolphins did not allow an opponent a touchdown in the first quarter. The Jets got on when quarterback Pat Ryan threw wide receiver Wesley Walker a 33-yard pass with 5:03 left in the first quarter, tying the score.
Then there was Marino. He completed just nine of 21 passes in the first half before recovering for a total of 23 in 42 attempts. "I told him not to worry about it," Shula said.
The Dolphins scored on their second possession, a 55-yard, four-play lightning strike that took just 1:28. On third and eight at the New York 37, after Gastineau jumped offside, Marino threw over the middle to Moore, who split defenders Ray and Kirk Springs and ran into the end zone for Miami's 7-0 lead with 7:38 remaining in the first quarter.
The Jets answered with their touchdown, and Pat Leahy kicked a 32-yard field goal after Marino's second interception.
In the third quarter, the Dolphins went back ahead, 14-10, on fullback Woody Bennett's three-yard run after William Judson blocked Leahy's 25-yard field-goal try, which would have made it 13-7.
Marino completed seven of nine passes in the drive, with a 20-yarder to Moore on a second-and-20 call at the New York 23. As Moore, an 11-year veteran, pulled in the pass, reserve safety Ken Schroy hit him, followed immediately by Springs, the starting safety. Moore did a 360-degree flip before landing at the Jets' three. He was not injured.
The Jets came back to take the lead, 17-14, with 9:31 remaining in the game on McNeil's six-yard run and Leahy's extra point. The 72-yard drive was kept going by fullback Tony Paige's 24-yard run on a fake punt to the Miami 26.
Behind again, the Dolphins took command of the game. In four plays, Marino found Clayton for the 47-yard touchdown and a 21-17 lead. On their next possession, they drove to New York's 12 before Uwe von Schamann's 30-yard field goal made it 24-17.
After linebacker A.J. Duhe intercepted Ryan at the Jets' 26 and got back to the 19, it took five plays for fullback Pete Johnson to score.
"This team isn't one, two, three people," Duhe said. "Everything works, the play-calling works, the plays work. I'll just keep my fingers crossed and hope it continues." Miami 7 0 7 17 31 N.Y. Jet