Miami middle linebacker Zach Thomas sat slumped on his stool in the nearly deserted Dolphins locker room today and could only shake his head and marvel about what he had just witnessed. "That Peyton Manning is something else," he said with a wan smile. "He's got so much poise, and he just kept making big plays all day."
None was bigger than back-to-back quick slant passes completed to wide receiver Marvin Harrison in the final 30 seconds. The two throws covered a total of 34 yards and set up Mike Vanderjagt's 53-yard field goal with no time remaining, allowing the Indianapolis Colts to escape Pro Player Stadium with a 37-34 victory over the Dolphins.
"Anyone see that vertical leap I had?" Manning said of his jump for sheer joy when Vanderjagt's club-record 18th straight field goal split the uprights. "That's the highest I've ever jumped in my life."
On a day when it became obvious that recent reports on the demise of Dan Marino's 38-year-old passing arm had been greatly exaggerated, the same could not be said for Miami's fading hopes of winning the AFC East title. The first-place Colts (10-2) have a two-game lead in the division over the Dolphins (8-4) and idle Buffalo Bills (8-4) with four games left.
That the coming-of-age Colts were able to accomplish the victory despite a vintage Marino performance in front of a hostile South Florida crowd made it that much sweeter. This also was a game billed by some as a passing of the torch from aging 17-year veteran Marino, still not totally recovered from a nerve injury in his neck, to second-year star Manning.
Instead, Marino, after five interceptions against Dallas on Thanksgiving Day, his worst ever performance, clearly demonstrated there's still plenty of fire left in his own torch to last through this and perhaps several more seasons. He was so upset with the loss, he stormed out of a postgame news conference after a routine query about how difficult it was for him to watch the Colts kick the game-winning field goal.
"These questions are ridiculous," he fumed. "I'll tell you how tough it is. You work your butt off all week and then you lose a game like that by three points with two seconds left. That's how tough it is. But you wouldn't know, would you?"
This much is known. Both quarterbacks were brilliant, as was Colts rookie running back Edgerrin James (130 yards with touchdown runs of 41 and one yard). The Colts opened an early 17-3 lead and a 31-17 advantage in the third, but Marino brought his team back to a 34-34 tie on Olindo Mare's 32-yard field goal with 36 seconds remaining.
Marino, who has rallied his team from behind or a tie in the fourth quarter to win 48 times, completed 24 of 38 passes for 313 yards and three touchdowns. But Manning may have been even better. He completed 23 of 29 for 260 yards and a touchdown. He made only one poor throw, an out pass intercepted by cornerback Sam Madison and returned 21 yards for a touchdown early in the third quarter, getting Miami back to within seven and re-igniting the crowd of 74,096.
The Dolphins tied it at 31 on Marino's one-yard scoring throw to fullback Stanley Pritchett with 13 minutes 7 seconds left. The Colts regained the lead on Vanderjagt's 48-yard field goal with 4:24 to play, but Marino moved his team down the field to a first down at the 20 with 1:54 left with five straight completions. Now, the stadium was rocking in anticipation of yet another Marino miracle in the closing seconds.
It never happened.
On third and four at the Colts 14, Marino's first-down pass was batted down by leaping defensive end Mark Thomas. "Just the right place at the right time," Thomas said. "That's what this team has been doing. We do whatever it takes to win. It may not always look perfect, but we fight to the last second."
At that point, Mare came in and made a 32-yard field goal to tie the game at 34 with 36 seconds left. Colts return man Terrence Wilkins used six seconds to take the ensuing kickoff 30 yards to the Colts 32, and only 30 seconds were left to play.
Manning, known for spending hours in the film room watching opposing defenses, said he noticed in his team's 34-31 loss to Miami in October that the Dolphins seemed more concerned about the Colts throwing deep in the final minutes and were willing to give up short routes over the middle. When he saw the Dolphins in a two-deep zone today, he thought that still was the case.
"They were taking away the deep stuff," Manning said. "We just thought the short slants would work. Marvin is so good at catching the ball and going right down the field. He made some great plays."
Meanwhile, back on the sideline before the drive started, Vanderjagt told his offensive teammates if they could get the ball to the Miami 35, he would win the game for them.
In pregame warmups, with a stiff breeze at his back, he'd been hitting 60-yarders kicking in the same direction. By the time he trotted out with six seconds left, the wind had subsided, but there was never any doubt about the kick.
"Pressure doesn't bother me that much," he said. "I was kind of joking with the fans before we got down there. You just have to go out there and kick it. They were loud. I could definitely hear them. I was kind of zoned in. I hit it pretty good, and halfway there, I knew it was good. It was huge. I'm just thrilled to finish what Peyton and those guys started."