Bruce Smith couldn't wipe the smile off his face early Tuesday morning in the Buffalo Bills locker room. "I had a lot of fun tonight," the perennial all-pro defensive end said. "I had the most fun out there tonight than I've had in a long time."
Smith and his giddy defensive mates put all of south Florida into a deep funk Monday night after the Bills stifled the 2-1 Dolphins with some inspired play in a 23-18 victory. The Bills won their third straight after losing the season opener to Indianapolis on the road, and quarterback Doug Flutie had no reservations about pointing out the main reason for an emotional victory over the team the Bills despise more than most.
"Our defense played their tails off," he said. "They won the game for us."
The Bills kept the struggling Dolphins out of the end zone for almost 55 minutes until a 93-yard kickoff return by Miami's Brock Marion set up a four-yard touchdown drive. It ended with a third-and-goal, nine-yard touchdown pass from Dan Marino to O.J. McDuffie with 5 minutes 13 seconds left in the final period.
But the Bills stopped fullback Stanley Pritchett a yard short on the attempted two-point conversion. When Miami got the ball back at its 30 with 2:59 to play, a fierce pass rush and tight coverage in the secondary forced Marino into four straight incomplete passes.
Buffalo's defense held the Dolphins to one third down conversion in 14 attempts -- that Marino to McDuffie scoring pass, the only Miami touchdown in its last six quarters. The Bills held the Dolphins' running-back-by-committee rushing offense to 59 yards and benefited from three turnovers.
The biggest defensive play came late in the first half, when blitzing linebacker John Holocek hit Marino from the blind side, forcing a fumble. The loose ball was picked up by linebacker Gabe Northern, who slipped out of an attempted tackle by running back Cecil Collins and ran 59 yards for a touchdown and a 13-6 lead. The Bills never trailed again.
"I came around and saw Marino holding the ball out," Holocek said. "The coaches tell us over and over again to knock the ball out, too. I was in the right place at the right time. I think we caught them a little off guard. They had two weeks to prepare and may have been a little rusty. Championship teams need to win on the road, and that's what we did."
After a brilliant performance in beating the Denver Broncos on the road in Week 1, the Dolphins have had difficulty scoring. Coach Jimmy Johnson has alternated three backs -- Karim Abdul-Jabbar, J.J. Johnson and, the last two weeks, Collins -- though Collins got most of the playing time in the second half and could start Sunday against Indianapolis.
Marino looked strangely out of sync all night, despite completing 22 of 44 passes for 251 yards. Holocek intercepted one of his throws: "I was unbelievably shocked when it came to me. He just threw it right at me."
Jimmy Johnson was particularly upset with Northern's touchdown and criticized Marino in his postgame comments, saying, "He held the ball a little longer when they came on the blitz. We have to get rid of it."
Asked afterward to assess his play, Marino said: "What do you want to know about it? If you lose, it's bad, and if you win, it's good. That's how I assess it."
Unlike Bruce Smith, he wasn't smiling.