It was a microcosm of the Miami Dolphins' dire situation, and of Dan Marino's losing battle against time. It was third and 17 under the shadows of the Dolphins' goal posts, their season down to one play, Marino's career perhaps down to its last eight minutes, and 66,170 fans who didn't care one bit were screaming for the death blow.
But then Marino whipped a long pass completion, then another and another, returning life to the Dolphins. Soon, they had marched down the field for the winning touchdown in a 20-17 victory over the Seattle Seahawks in a first-round AFC playoff game, Miami's first road playoff victory in 27 years.
Instead of a final farewell to Marino--who, it is widely speculated, might retire after this season, the worst of his 17-year career--today's game became a farewell to the Kingdome, which will be demolished and replaced by a new, football-only stadium.
"There was so much going on in the game, I never had time to even think that this might be my last game," said Marino, 38, who completed 17 of 30 passes for 196 yards and a touchdown. "I'm not that smart, to be able to think about all that other stuff, especially not here with all the crowd noise. The only thing I could think about was the game and our strategy to win."
The Dolphins still will have to win two more road games--the first of which will be Saturday at Jacksonville--to get Marino back to the Super Bowl for the first time since a loss in 1984. But they no longer seem the unconfident, dysfunctional bunch that closed the regular season with a thud.
On the third-and-17 play, from their 8-yard line, the Dolphins ran a play they call "eight sixty-six," with O.J. McDuffie running a short square pattern and Tony Martin, lined up on the same side, running a long square pattern. Marino's throw to Martin was a tad high, but Martin pulled it in for a 23-yard gain, the biggest play of the game.
It was the third play on what became an 11-play, 85-yard, game-winning drive, capped by a two-yard touchdown run by running back J.J. Johnson with 4 minutes 48 seconds left in the game. Between Martin's catch and the touchdown, Marino completed passes of 20 and 24 yards.
"I knew the way the defense was playing, it was going to come to me," Martin said about the third-and-17 play. "I want the ball in my hands in that situation. Put it on my back, and let's go."
On Saturday night, in their final meeting before the game, Dolphins Coach Jimmy Johnson, whose future with the Dolphins is as uncertain as Marino's, spoke to his team with unwavering confidence, considering the Dolphins were in such turmoil.
"I said, 'Don't worry about winning the game. We are going to win the game,' " Johnson said. " 'Worry about winning one play at a time. Don't worry about the final score, because we're going to win it in the fourth quarter.' "
In the days leading up, Johnson put together a conservative game plan designed to protect the football--a major problem for the Dolphins during a 1-5 skid to close the regular season--and pound away on the ground. Marino threw the ball only nine times in the first half.
"We knew if we kept pounding and pounding, those safeties were going to have to come up and we're going to get some man coverages," said Dolphins wide receiver Oronde Gadsden, who caught the 24-yarder on the winning drive. "That played right into Dan's hands."
At halftime today, the Dolphins' conservative game plan--which included a pair of running plays in third-and-long situations--had stuck them in a 10-3 hole, with only 28 passing yards.
In other words, Johnson had them right where he wanted them.
"We talked all week that we were going to change our approach a little bit," he said. "I know Dan would like to go back there and wing it a little bit more. But it's nice when you can run for over 100 yards. It helps him, as far as getting receivers open. He did a great job."
With the Seahawks suitably cognizant of the run, Johnson began opening things up in the third quarter. Turned loose, Marino led the Dolphins to a 10-play, 60-yard drive to open the second half, culminating with a rifled one-yard touchdown pass to Gadsden, pulling the Dolphins even. It was the 31st career postseason touchdown pass for Marino, who trails only Joe Montana (45) all-time.
Soon after Miami tied the score, Seattle's Charlie Rogers untied it, first fumbling the ensuing kickoff, then--as Miami's coverage team swooped in--scooping it up and darting 85 yards up the Seahawks' sideline for a touchdown.
"Our guys could have very well crumbled at that time," Johnson said. "It's not the bad [plays] that get you beat, it's how you react to them."
In scripting a conservative game plan, Johnson was counting on a swarming defense--led by intense middle linebacker Zach Thomas--that ranked fifth in the NFL this season. And that defense was spectacular, sacking Jon Kitna six times, holding running back Ricky Watters to 40 yards on 19 carries and keeping Seattle's offense off the field for all but about 90 seconds of the third quarter.
"I have no idea how they were able to push us around like they did," Watters said. "They made us look pretty bad."
"It was a great game plan," Thomas said. "Coach Johnson said, 'We're going to play it conservative and put it in the defense's hands.' "
But at the end, it was back in Marino's hands, the way it has been seemingly forever in Miami, the way it will be for at least one more week.