Six hours before knowing the identity of his team's opponent in the AFC championship game, Miami Coach Don Shula was far more interested in talking about his own football team than he was about the Pittsburgh Steelers or Denver Broncos.
After all, the Dolphins had just posted a convincing 31-10 victory over the Seattle Seahawks Saturday, and are playing as well as they have all season, Shula said today.
"Coming out of the Dallas game (Miami's 28-21 victory over the Cowboys two weeks ago), I said I had a good feeling about our team," Shula said. "Yesterday was an outstanding performance, so we have to feel good about where we are and we also have to realize we have to win two more."
Playing in front of the usual madhouse sellout at the Orange Bowl, the Dolphins will be favored over the Steelers, who beat the Broncos, 24-17, in the other AFC semifinal. The Dolphins are as healthy as they have been all season, their defense has put together superior back-to-back performances after a slump down the stretch, and the offense merely is the best in the NFL behind record-breaking quarterback Dan Marino.
The Dolphins beat the Steelers, 31-7, in Pittsburgh on Oct 7. Marino completed 16 of 24 passes for 226 yards and two touchown and the Dolphins held Pittsburgh -- quarterbacked that day by David Woodley -- to 76 yards rushing.
Tonight, after watching the Steelers win, Shula said, "They really impressed me with the way they hung in there. Their defense is one of the toughest you'll ever face.
"Offensively, they're in a lot better shape than when we played last time. They've got Bennie Cunningham back at tight end and Louis Lipps was injured when we played (and Mark Malone has replaced Woodley at quarterback). The other thing that's impressive is their road record. They won at Los Angeles against the Raiders to get into the playoffs; they won at San Francisco, and today they beat Denver."
But the Dolphins also have been impressive. Earlier in the week, a headline over a story in the Miami Herald proclaimed, "Dolphin defense still has doubts." But, after the performance against Seattle, there can be no doubt that Miami, as safety Lyle Blackwood put it, "is back where we're supposed to be."
Consider that a Seattle offense that had gained 205 yards rushing the previous week against the Raiders was held to 51 by a Miami team that confused the Seahawks occasionally by using four down linemen instead of the usual 3-4 defense.
The Seahawks had 13 offensive possessions Saturday, and on six of them were forced to punt after three plays. Miami put excellent pressure on quarterback Dave Krieg, and its young inside linebackers, rookie Mark Brown and second-year man Jay Brophy, were active in the middle and sealed off Seattle's cutback lanes. The two combined on 19 tackles.
"It was an excellent effort in all areas," Shula said, "and it came at the right time. The defense was a real concern going in. When you think about 51 yards rushing, that's fantastic, knowing what they did to the Raiders last week. They would have liked to do the same kind of stuff job on us, but they couldn't do it."
Miami had problems in a six-game stretch from the ninth through the 15th game of the regular season, due largely to injuries that sidelined or slowed key performers, particularly linebacker A.J. Duhe, cornerback Don McNeal, nose tackle Bob Baumhower and defensive end Kim Bokamper.
There also was a new defensive coordinator, Chuck Studley, who replaced longtime Shula aide Bill Arnsparger, now head coach at LSU. There were different schemes to master, a different personality to deal with. And, Studley says, during the slump his players seemed to be on cruise control.
"The thing we have not done is play with emotion," Studley told the Herald last week. "And to perform at our maximum, we must enter a game in the proper frame of mind. We have talent, smart players, a good system -- all the ingredients are there. But emotion is the adhesive that brings it all together."
The Dolphins got the message Saturday. Their defense was introduced at the start of the game, and from all the jumping and screaming and high-fiving, these old pros looked like peach-fuzz college boys.
"We came here to smack some people around," Miami nickel back Mike Kozlowski said, "and that's what we did."
Shula once again heaped lavish praise on the second-year quarterback known here simply as Miamarino.
"Somebody once described him," Shula said, "and I think they hit the nail on the head, as a guy who's a winner because he's not afraid to lose. You can get a lot of guys who are just afraid to make mistakes and not challenge anybody. Not Dan, and that's why he's successful."