This time there would be no Monday night magic from Dan Marino, not on a night when Buffalo's defense dominated and a little wizard named Doug Flutie had just the proper potion to pull off a 23-18 victory over the Miami Dolphins at Pro Player Stadium.
Flutie had never started a Monday night game before tonight. But when he drove his team 80 yards in six plays and threw a six-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Eric Moulds early in the fourth quarter, the Bills had the game-winning points on the board for their third straight victory in four starts this season.
Buffalo's defense, led by perennial all-pro end Bruce Smith, put heavy pressure on Marino and forced four turnovers. That included a 59-yard touchdown run on a return of a recovered fumble by linebacker Gabe Northern after Marino was sacked from the blind side by linebacker John Holecek with 4 1/2 minutes left in the first half.
The Bills never trailed again on a night in which they also held the Dolphins to one third down conversion in 14 attempts and limited the home team to 59 yards rushing. Holecek also had a huge interception in the final minutes to set up Steve Christie's 31-yard field goal for an 11-point lead with 6 minutes 56 seconds left.
Flutie was not particularly spectacular tonight, but he made big plays at just the proper times. His one blunder was a fumbled snap in the first quarter that led to a Miami field goal, but he spent the rest of the night protecting the ball and letting his defense work wonders against a struggling Miami offense that has scored only one touchdown in its last six quarters.
"After that first one, we didn't turn the ball over, and I was trying to be real careful with the football," Flutie said. "Our defense played their tails off. They won the game for us. I was just trying to keep us in the game. It was guys making plays everywhere."
The Dolphins (2-1) had won their first two games and were entertaining their AFC East rivals after a bye week that allowed an extra week of preparation for a critical early season game. Instead, the Dolphins looked rusty and out of sync on offense early, and it took a 93-yard kickoff return by Brock Marion in the final minutes to set up their one touchdown of the night.
Marion's return was carried to the 4 before Christie ran him down from behind. Three plays later, on third and nine, Marino connected with O.J. McDuffie in the front left corner of the end zone for a touchdown that cut the lead to five points.
The Dolphins tried a two-point conversion, with Marino lining up in shotgun formation, then handing off to fullback Stanley Pritchett. But Buffalo's line saw the play coming and gang-tackled Pritchett a yard short of the end zone with 5:13 remaining.
The Dolphins got the ball back one more time, with 2:59 left -- normally an eternity for Marino, a past master of many fourth-quarter comebacks. His first pass of the drive went to rookie fullback Rob Konrad for 10 yards, but it was his final completion of the night.
Marino stood back in the shotgun four straight times after that initial first down, and four straight times he was unable to connect. On fourth and 10 from his 43, Marino overthrew McDuffie and never touched the ball again.
Flutie, and some sloppy Miami play, had a hand in that, as well.
The Bills got the ball back with 2:35 remaining and were faced with third and six at the Dolphins 39 at the two-minute mark.
Miami linebacker Robert Jones was called for being offside, setting up a third-and-one play. This time, Flutie scrambled to his left, cut up field and gained five yards for a first down that allowed the Bills to run out the remaining 75 seconds.
Flutie's numbers were not particularly impressive, with 12 completions in 25 attempts for 186 yards and a touchdown. Marino wound up with 22 completions in 44 attempts, but fumbled twice and had two passes intercepted.
Neither he, nor Miami Coach Jimmy Johnson, took the loss especially well.
"It's very simple," Johnson said. "If you turn the ball over and don't convert third downs, you have a hard time winning. We have got to protect the football."
He seemed particularly perturbed about the blind-side sack of Marino that produced Northern's 59-yard scoring run, putting the blame squarely on his quarterback.
"Dan got sacked and lost the ball and they scored a touchdown," he said. "He held the ball a little longer when they came on the blitz. We have got to get rid of it. The receiver was going to come open. But he held it a second long and he held it too long."
Marino cut short an already brief postgame session with reporters when he was asked if the Buffalo defense or problems with his own offense caused the third-down conversion problems.
"I think it was a little of both," he said, testily. "Is that a good answer? You can tell I'm not real happy."