MIAMI, JAN. 6 -- For the Miami Dolphins, more was won Saturday night than an AFC playoff game.

To be sure, the 17-16, come-from-behind victory over the highly regarded Kansas City Chiefs would have been enough.

But the Dolphins were a 12-4 team that some thought was soft: They lost to the best teams they played, except Philadelphia; their defense dropped off considerably the last month of the season; and they gave up on their running game whenever they got into trouble.

So, with two touchdowns in the final 12:18, and with a defense that smothered 1,000-yard back Barry Word and kept 260-pound Christian Okoye in check, the Dolphins earned a certain measure of respect, from themselves and from their peers.

"We answered questions -- from ourselves, mostly," said linebacker John Offerdahl. "We proved we can beat a physical team, a very good team. We played a good offense, a strategic offense, and we did well. We proved we belong here, fighting for the Super Bowl."

In a contest of mostly field goals, the Chiefs led after three quarters, 16-3. Considering that Miami had had little offense to that point -- Pete Stoyanovich's 58-yard field goal accounted for its only points -- and considering Kansas City's ability to run, most thought the game was over.

Quarterback Dan Marino directed the final two drives, completing nine of nine passes, but it was running back Sammie Smith, playing with injured ribs, who received much more praise. He carried 20 times for 82 yards -- and the most important two yards of the game when, on a second effort, he reached for a first down on fourth and two from the Chiefs 45 when the Dolphins were behind, 16-3.

On their final two drives, the Dolphins ran 12 times and passed nine times, a very uncharacteristic balance. In their four losses this season, the Dolphins gave up on their running game early and averaged only 11 runs (and 30 yards) per game. When they won, they averaged 31 rushes and 118 yards.

In the final two drives Saturday, Smith ran eight times for 30 yards.

"Outstanding," Miami cornerback Tim McKyer said. "That's what I'm used to seeing. He looked like Roger Craig out there. He was pulling, diving, scratching for every inch."

"He ran hard," said running back Tony Paige, who scored Miami's first touchdown on a one-yard reception. "He ran with a lot of desire. He ran with pain. He ran his butt off."

Smith, who escaped from the locker room before reporters could find him, had two 100-yard games this season and finished with 831 yards.

"Sammie knows we have confidence in him," Coach Don Shula said. "We've stuck with him, given him the ball. We would have liked these two years to have been better, but there were times it wasn't his fault, times he couldn't get to the line of scrimmage before he was hit. It's a very young offensive line."

And it's a very good offensive line. Kansas City linebacker Derrick Thomas, who came into the game with an NFL-leading 20 sacks, was held to three tackles and never got close to Marino. Rookie left tackle Richmond Webb was assigned to block Thomas, with help from rookie left guard Keith Sims. Those two were the Dolphins' first two draft choices in 1990.

"This has been a team that's answered the call all year long . . . fought and scratched until things went our way," Shula said. "I don't think I've been around a much more exciting game than this. I don't know that I've been much prouder."

"The Dolphins are an extremely improved team this year over last," said Chiefs cornerback Kevin Ross. "They run the ball better and their defense is greatly improved. In the second half, they just did a great job running and that gives them a balanced offense, which makes them tough to stop."

The Chiefs, on the other hand, were kicking themselves for losing -- and it had nothing to do with Nick Lowery's near-miss on a 52-yard field goal attempt with 49 seconds to play.

They had the game won and let it get away.

"This team needs to grow up a little bit," said quarterback Steve DeBerg, 36. "We've come a long way but I'm getting old growing up with this football team."

The Chiefs were stopped at the Miami 7 in the third quarter and settled for a Lowery field goal. Moments later, after a Dolphins fumble, they ran the ball three times for eight yards from the Miami 29 before kicking another field goal.

"What we did," DeBerg said, "was let the Miami Dolphins hang around because we were kicking field goals instead of getting touchdowns."