If this really was Dan Marino's final home game for the Miami Dolphins, he made it a Monday night to remember, for all the wrong reasons.
Marino threw two crucial interceptions tonight that will haunt the Dolphins and their frustrated fans for weeks to come. One was returned 98 yards for a touchdown, the other led to a second touchdown, and the New York Jets left Pro Player Stadium with a 38-31 victory that jeopardized Miami's playoff hopes.
The Dolphins (9-6) entered tonight's game knowing they could earn an AFC wild-card spot by beating the Jets and the Redskins in the season finale Sunday in Washington. Miami, which suffered its fifth loss in seven games, still can get in, but now the Dolphins must hope that either Seattle or Kansas City loses next week. The Dolphins' game against Washington has no bearing on their playoff situation.
The Jets improved to 7-8 with their sixth victory in their last eight games, but the major beneficiary of their victory was the 10-5 Buffalo Bills, who clinched a wild-card berth with Miami's loss.
Marino woke up to newspaper headlines and stories this morning questioning whether he would be back next season. Though he has said in recent weeks he has made no decision, his relationship with Coach Jimmy Johnson has been deteriorating all season, and Marino's performance tonight will not help his case to come back.
As he came off the field after throwing for 322 yards and three touchdowns, Marino waved toward the stands and Jets Coach Bill Parcells ran up to him and whispered in his ear as they headed up a stadium tunnel. Marino said he was waving to his children in the crowd and that Parcells had told him, "Good job, hold your head up."
Asked afterward if he thought this could have been his last home game in a Miami uniform, he said, "Last week could have been my last game here, too. I've got enough to do to worry about that. You never know what life brings."
Johnson's future also is being widely debated in these parts. And while the mercurial coach has not decided about coming back for a fifth season, few would be surprised if he retired from coaching to take what almost certainly would be a lucrative TV studio job next year.
The Jets, meanwhile, scoring their season high in points, came in with nothing to lose, having been eliminated from the playoffs last week.
Quarterback Ray Lucas, continuing his spectacular play since being made the starter in midseason, put the finishing touches on the triumph by throwing a 56-yard touchdown pass to Dedric Ward for a 10-point lead with 8 minutes 56 seconds left in the game.
Lucas had three scoring passes in all, including a four-yard touchdown pass to Keyshawn Johnson to open the scoring and a 50-yard pass to Wayne Chrebet to put his team ahead for good, 31-28, with 10:41 left in the game.
He completed 11 of 23 throws for 190 yards with no interceptions and has thrown for 10 touchdowns in his last four games.
The Dolphins managed to get within seven points on Olindo Mare's 37-yard field goal, but Marcus Coleman recovered an onside kick with 2:20 remaining and the Jets managed to keep the ball until the final gun sounded. Lucas completed a 12-yard pass on fourth and two from Miami's 31 with 1:07 left and the Jets ran out the clock.
Coleman made another huge play midway through the second quarter at a point when the Dolphins were driving to what would have been a go-ahead or game-tying score. On third and goal at the Jets 3, Marino was aiming a slant pass toward O.J. McDuffie. But Coleman jumped the play, caught the ball and ran 98 yards untouched into the end zone for a 17-7 advantage.
"I thought I was throwing a touchdown to O.J. McDuffie," Marino said. "The guy made a heck of a play. That's all I can tell you.
The same also could be said of Jets linebacker Roman Phifer midway through the third period. The Dolphins had third and 10 from their 4 when Marino was aiming toward running back Stanley Pritchett in the right flat. Marino threw to the spot Pritchett was supposed to occupy, but the back wasn't there. Phifer swooped in and made a diving interception, then rolled to the 1-yard line.
Three plays later, running back Curtis Martin scored off left tackle for a 24-21 lead.
Marino said he and his running back had a miscommunication on the play. "It was just one of those things," he said. "I didn't see him there. I thought I was throwing to Stanley on the outside. Obviously it was a bad play."
The game took another major twist with 9:05 remaining in the fourth quarter. Trailing 31-28 and facing fourth and seven at the Jets 36, Johnson called on Mare to attempt a possible game-tying 54-yard field goal. Mare, whose final kick was an NFL-record 38th field goal of the season, was well short on the attempt, and the Jets took over at their 44.
On their first play from there, Ward streaked down field and defender Terrell Buckley was a good 10 yards behind him when Lucas hit him in full stride with the pass, and the Jets opened a 10-point lead Miami never could overcome.
"Our guys played hard," Jimmy Johnson said. "But they made more plays than we did on both sides of the ball. They've got good players. Everyone wants to think they're a bad team because they lost one player [quarterback Vinny Testaverde] three months ago. They're going to make plays."
Summary on Page D9
CAPTION: Dolphins' Brock Marion (31) and Miami look strong in 1st quarter, but things fell apart, and team must hope for Kansas City or Seattle to lose Sunday.
CAPTION: Jets' Ray Lucas has fewer yards than Dan Marino, but he threw two fourth quarter touchdowns--50 and 56 yards--when the Jets needed them.