Dan Marino pays little attention to the cacophony on local talk radio these days suggesting that perhaps it is time for him to think about retirement. He doesn't put much stock in recent speculation in newspapers and on television in South Florida that maybe he's lost his fastball, that his legs are too old and too battered for him to make even the most routine handoff to a running back.

Most of all, no one has to tell Marino, 38, that Sunday's game against the AFC East Division-leading Indianapolis Colts (9-2) at Pro Player Stadium has become what amounts to a referendum on his future as the quarterback of the Miami Dolphins (8-3). Never mind that he's given 17 years of his life--not to mention various body parts--to the franchise and its often fickle fans.

"I love [this type of situation], I want to play the best I can all the time," Marino said in an interview Friday. "That's more of a factor for me than what people are talking about. You can't let that affect you. It's a shame that it's like that, but you accept it. It is what it is. I've proven myself as a player, so I don't have to worry about that other stuff.

"What I have to prove now is to play well, win the division and have a chance for the championship. People who know football, that's who I'm worried about. I'm not worried about the radio or what other people's opinions are about me."

At the moment, most of the focus has been on Marino's horrendous performance in the Dolphins' last game, against the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving day. Playing for the first time since missing six weeks because of a nerve problem in his neck that affected his legendary right arm, Marino threw five interceptions in a nationally televised 20-0 loss.

He looked like someone who hadn't played in a month and a half, but it was worse than that. Usually a master at dissecting defenses, Marino often performed like a raw rookie. There were poor reads, badly off-target passes, forced throws into double coverage. He was trying to make things happen with his less-than-100 percent arm and not with his head, acting as if he'd never felt pass-rush pressure in the pocket and panicking at all the wrong times.

Friday, Marino sat on a bench overlooking the Dolphins' practice field and admitted he probably returned a tad too soon for his own--and the team's--good. He said he thought he felt all right in the two days of practice leading up to the game, and that his arm would come around after the pregame warmups.

He also insisted that he wanted to keep playing and had no problem with Coach Jimmy Johnson's decision to stay with him until the final two minutes, when his team was down by 20 points.

"I don't ever want to come out," Marino said. "That's always been my mind-set from the time when I was a little kid. In that game [against Dallas], I made bad decisions early that hurt us. To be as honest with you as I can, I didn't feel as comfortable to perform at that kind of level as I should have. I had felt pretty decent in practice. I thought if I felt pretty good, I should try to play.

"I've played hurt before, ankles, knees, but never when it affected the way I throw. [Friday] was the best I've felt. Because of the nerve problem, it closed off the strength in my tricep, the elbow and two throwing fingers. It makes it difficult to throw. Right now, it's pretty close. I thought it was pretty close before the Dallas game. Strength-wise, as far as lifting weights, it's not 100 percent, but it's close."

Although Marino and Johnson probably are not on each other's Christmas lists after what has been a rather contentious season between them, Johnson will stick with Marino as a starter for now--a move the Dolphins players universally applaud. Johnson also knows that Marino has a long history of following poor performances with classics.

Johnson will give Marino a semi-long grace period against the Colts, but if Marino is still struggling in the second half, Johnson has said he will have no hesitation switching to third-year man Damon Huard, who had a 5-1 record as a starter in Marino's recent absence.

Johnson, always on edge the week after a loss, has been mostly tight-lipped about Marino this week. Asked Thursday about the public criticism of Marino since the loss to Dallas, Johnson, in what became a one-question interview, said: "Even Dan admitted he didn't play well. I can't say why people are saying these things. I don't know if any of it's fair. The media scrutiny now, I don't know if anything is fair." Then he walked away.

Inside the Dolphins' locker room, questions have been raised privately about whether Johnson should have let Marino play against the Cowboys, considering the long layoff and that the Dolphins had only two days of preparation for a road game against a team that was desperate for a victory. "That's the only thing I wondered about," one veteran said. "Why not just wait, let Dan get a full week of practice and then go with him?"

Johnson mostly has evaded the question all week. Asked about Marino again Friday, he said: "We're going to do whatever it takes to win the ballgame. I make decisions based on what's going to give us the best chance to win."

Marino's teammates believe he still gives them that best chance. They have been asked all week if they have seen any diminution in arm strength or anything else that would lead them to believe Marino should not be on the field. The answer has been an overwhelming no.

"Everyone around here will tell you we want Dan in there," starting guard Kevin Donnalley said. "He deserves it. He deserves a chance to get that ring. He's got all the records. He's helped so many other guys have great careers. Everyone is playing for him and pulling for him to get it. It's more than just wanting to win the Super Bowl. There's a real urgency around here."

Wide receiver Tony Martin, who began his career in Miami and has returned via free agency, insisted the other day that he has seen no drop-off in Marino's arm strength this week in practice or in his burning desire to win.

"He is still a great competitor," Martin said. "He's still got that fire in his eyes. He's still out there yelling and screaming, and he'll get on you if he thinks you've messed up. That's just the way Dan is. He's also a guy who will help you with anything. All you have to do is ask.

"All this criticism, I don't think it's fair at all. The guy can still throw the ball real well. He can put it in there as hard as he needs to, and he still has the touch pass, too. He's been sitting six weeks. He didn't have a good game. The whole team didn't have a good game, but I don't think it's fair just to single him out. Personally, I think he's still got a couple of years left. I know he's the guy I want throwing me the ball."

Colts Coach Jim Mora also knows first-hand about Marino's presence in Miami's huddle. In the teams' first meeting this season, the Colts twice held a nine-point lead in the fourth quarter, but Marino rallied the Dolphins to a 34-31 victory in Indianapolis. Marino drove the Dolphins 64 yards in the final 1 minute 51 seconds, including a 48-yard completion to Gadsden on a fourth-and-10 play from the 50.

"He's still the same Dan Marino I know," Mora said. "He had a tough game against Dallas. He hadn't played. He's not Superman. He experiences some difficult times just like everybody does. But he's a great player. The first time we played him, it was just after they lost to Buffalo and everybody was critical of him. So he comes out and has a great game against us. He's going to want to show everybody that the Dallas game was an aberration. We've gotten him both times this year after tough games for him. With the type of competitor he is, he's going to come out and play great. I know he is."

All Marino knows is that he and the Dolphins, who have lost two of their past three games, are facing a very important matchup Sunday.

"It's as big a game as we've had the last three years," he said. "To accomplish the things we talked about at the start of the year, we need to have it. It is personally, too. Playing as long as I have, coming off the injury, that game we played last week, I'm just excited about the opportunity."