For the longest time today, Miami quarterback Dan Marino seemed to be throwing at mirages in the 84-degree heat.
He was intercepted three times by the Pittsburgh Steelers, twice in the fourth quarter, and his Dolphins trailed by three points with four minutes to play.
This is when he made a remarkable transformation: he resumed his unstoppable posture of 1984. He completed five of six passes for 71 yards on a cool, precise game-winning drive that ended with rookie running back Lorenzo Hampton's two-yard scoring run with 47 seconds to play.
Put the drive in a Football Handbook and put Miami in the books with a 24-20 NFL victory over the Steelers before 72,820 in the Orange Bowl, the fourth straight win for the 4-1 Dolphins.
"He reminds me of Roger Staubach and Terry Bradshaw," Steelers linebacker Robin Cole said. "Hold him down for the whole game and then Woom! Woom! Woom! Touchdown."
Only five minutes before Marino began the gallant game-winning drive, Cole had intercepted a pass at the Miami 17. It was a pass Marino never should have thrown.
"I wasn't patient," Marino said. "I was trying to make things happen . . . we were losing and everything."
Miami's defense held Pittsburgh's erratic offense on the next series and, when Gary Anderson kicked a 33-yard field goal, the Steelers led, 20-17, with 8:25 to play.
Eight minutes would have been enough time for Marino to throw six touchdown passes in 1984. Against these same Steelers last January, he had thrown for 421 yards and four touchdowns in a 45-28 bushwhacking in the AFC title game.
But he was having his problems today. The Steelers played in a zone most of the game, double-covering the wide receivers and rarely blitzing. They tested Marino's patience to see if he would accept the short gains.
He completed 27 of 45 passes for 277 yards, including a two-yard scoring pass to just-activated tight end Dan Johnson in the second quarter. But it was only the second time in Marino's 36-game professional career that he'd been intercepted three times (Buffalo did it in losing, 38-7, last year.)
"One of those days that all quarterbacks will have," receiver Nat Moore said. But Moore also said of this game, "The average quarterback would have been shook by what happened, but Danny Marino just has so much confidence in himself."
And Marino added, "What's important is that when we had to have it at the end, we did it."
Miami began its game-winning drive on its 25 with 4:10 to play, needing a field goal to tie and a touchdown to win.
All at once, Marino's passes transformed from feathers to darts. Sffft! Nine yards to running back Tony Nathan in the right flat. Sffft! Twenty-seven yards on a deep crossing pattern to Mark Clayton, to the Pittsburgh 39.
Sffft! A precise pass over the middle to tight end Bruce Hardy for 22 yards to the 16. This was the play that melted the Steelers. Linebacker Mike Merriweather covered Hardy well, but to no avail.
"Marino threw the ball in the only place he could have," said Hardy, who caught seven passes for 84 yards.
"He made a great throw to Hardy," said Steelers defensive coordinator Tony Dungy. "Most quarterbacks wouldn't have even thrown that. You can't get any closer (with coverage) and that ends up being the big play in the game."
Marino wasn't finished, either. Sfft! A seven-yarder to Clayton on the right, to the Pittsburgh nine with 1:26 to play. Marino then threw his only incompletion on the drive -- with all receivers covered, he threw intentionally over Moore and out of the end zone.
Sffft! Then he hit Clayton on the right side again, this time for six yards on a third-and-three play, to the Pittsburgh three. Two running plays and two timeouts later, the rookie Hampton ran wide left and not a Steeler soul was in sight.
Pittsburgh quarterback Mark Malone's attempt for heroics ended quickly. Cornerback Paul Lankford intercepted his second pass at the Pittsburgh 44 with 25 seconds left. The Dolphins sat on the ball and Pittsburgh fell to 2-3.
And for the third time in three tries, Marino, the kid from Pittsburgh, had beaten the team he watched win four Super Bowls on TV.
Not all is lost in the Iron City. The one constant for the Steelers during the season's first five weeks has been their league-best pass defense. Their average yield prior to today was 122 yards.
In fact, when Marino passed Miami to its first score -- a drive that ended with Nathan's one-yard run -- it was the first time the Steelers had yielded a first-quarter touchdown in 18 regular-season games.
By halftime, though, the Steelers led, 17-14, due in large part to second-quarter gifts from Nathan and Miami cornerback John Swain.
Nathan fumbled at his 18 and the Steelers converted it to Walter Abercrombie's one-yard scoring run. Swain was guilty of pass intereference on the Miami one and Malone followed that with his touchdown pass to Weegie Thompson.
But Marino's final drive -- it was his, really -- negated all of that.