All week long, the Miami Dolphins talked about the empty feeling of losing to the Seattle Seahawks in the playoffs last year and the bitter disappointment of watching the American Football Conference championship game on television.
Today, as wide receiver Mark Clayton put it, was "get-back day." The Dolphins did just that, using the usual big-play offense and a rejuvenated defense to eliminate the Seahawks, 31-10, and advance to the AFC championship game against either Pittsburgh or Denver in Miami next Sunday.
"I feel a lot better than I did a year ago at this time," Miami Coach Don Shula said after his team broke open a four-point game with two touchdown passes by Dan Marino within a two-minute span late in the third quarter, the first to tight end Bruce Hardy, the second to Clayton.
The Seahawks could look back at those plays, their inability to take full advantage of two interceptions and a third interception that was nullified by an offside call, all in the first half, as critical reasons for elimination from the playoffs. "We did not make the plays, and Miami did, and that's the ball game," Seattle Coach Chuck Knox said.
Several vital, close plays in the third period were most responsible for the Dolphins' victory, particularly after Seattle had rallied from an early 14-3 deficit to get back in the game on a 56-yard touchdown pass from Dave Krieg to Steve Largent in the second period.
That pass and the ensuing extra point brought the Seahawks to 14-10 at the half, and they were driving smartly on the opening series of the third quarter, with a first down at the Dolphins' 24.
"In the (defensive) huddle, we just said to ourselves, 'Okay, let's stop 'em right here,' " free safety Lyle Blackwood said. "All of a sudden, we started making some great plays."
Krieg threw three straight incomplete passes and kicker Norm Johnson came on to miss a 41-yard field goal, wide left. "That really hurt us," Knox said. "We had scrapped and we battled, and then we lost momentum. We couldn't come out with anything after going down the field. It was a little frustrating."
It soon got worse. The Dolphins were off and flying, moving to a first down at the Seattle 33. Two plays later, Marino threw 13 yards to Joe Rose on the sideline, and the Dolphins got eight more yards on a personal foul call against Seattle's John Harris for continuing his tackle on Rose way out of bounds. Harris later disputed the call.
On third and goal from the three, Marino's pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage and fell incomplete, but Seattle was called for interference on cornerback Keith Simpson, for first and goal at the one. Two plays later, Marino passed three yards over the middle to Hardy for a touchdown the Seahawks contended never should have been allowed.
Kenny Easley, the all-pro safety, was furious at game officials for not calling what he thought was an illegal pick thrown by Hardy and wide receiver Nat Moore. His protest was rejected.
"No question, they ran two picks right into our guys that never were called," said Ralph Hawkins, the Seahawks' secondary coach. "Hardy and Moore set the picks, then just kept going. That's why the guy was so wide open. But they'll never call that, and that's not why we lost the game. They made the plays, we didn't."
The Dolphins, ahead by 21-10 after the 13-play, 76-yard drive, had the ball back after its defense held the Seahawks to three plays and a seven-yard punt by Jeff West into winds that gusted up to 25 miles per hour this glorious South Florida afternoon. West's kick looked as if it had hit a hurricane, and by the time the ball stopped rolling back toward the horrified Seahawks, Miami had possession at the Seahawks' 33.
Marino, who completed 21 of 34 passes for 262 yards, wasted little time taking full advantage. On second and 10 from the 33, Clayton was off and running down the right sideline, with Simpson right with him, step for step.
The ball and the players arrived at the same time. The ball hit Clayton in the hands, went up in the air, and as Simpson stumbled forward, Clayton was able to grab it for a touchdown that gave Miami a 28-10 lead, ending the Seahawks' comeback hopes.
"Just a lucky bounce," Clayton admitted. "I was well-covered and Dan just threw it in there. I tipped it and the ball just went straight up in the air. It was just a matter of grabbing it in. I was just battling for the ball."
"Oh yeah, I saw the play," Marino said. "If the ball's there, he's gonna get it. That's just the type player he is."
The Dolphins padded their lead early in the fourth quarter when slumping kicker Uwe von Schamann made a 37-yard field goal. It was his first field goal since the Dolphins played the Eagles Nov. 11, and he was cheered loudly when the kick lifted Miami into a 31-10 advantage.
The Dolphins firmly believe they once again can earn a Super Bowl berth. Their offense, which gained 405 yards and controlled the ball for almost 36 minutes, never has been better.
Their defense, which limited Seattle to 267 yards (only 51 rushing) and harassed Krieg all day, seems to have snapped out of the doldrums that characterized a six-game stretch late in the season.
"We're playing now the way we're supposed to be playing," Blackwood said. "We had a meeting before the Dallas game and really kind of got together. Now we have our confidence again, and we're back to doing what we should have been doing all year."
Do the Dolphins have a preference -- Denver or Pittsburgh -- for the AFC championship game? "Nah," said a cocky Clayton. "We're just gonna kick somebody's butt."