It came down to this: The Miami Dolphins' season, the Buffalo Bills' season and Jimmy Johnson's hairdo were all in Doug Flutie's hands with 17 seconds left in an AFC wild-card game at Pro Player Stadium last Saturday. How appropriate. Flutie had driven the Bills to an unexpected playoff appearance, and now he was frenetically trying to cap a rally from a 10-point deficit in the final two minutes. First-and-goal at the Miami five. No timeouts left. Memories of a previous Flutie visit to South Florida weren't lost on a soul in the joint, not even Dolphins rookie nickel-back Patrick Surtain, who flashed back to his days as an elementary school student in Mississippi.
As Surtain took his position, he thought of Flutie's miracle touchdown pass to Gerard Phelan that enabled Boston College to beat the Johnson-coached Miami Hurricanes in a 1984 game at the Orange Bowl. Surtain said later that he was thinking, He's going to do it again. He did it for BC, just nine miles from here. He's going to pull another miracle.
In the NFL's playground game of the year—bombs on first downs, four-and five-wideout sets almost as a matter of course, endless yapping between the two teams—it was Dolphins defensive end Trace Armstrong who made the last big play of the game. Armstrong brushed aside the block of running back Thurman Thomas, drilled an unsuspecting Flutie from his right side and jarred the ball free. When defensive tackle Shane Burton recovered, Miami had its first postseason win since 1994, Buffalo's resurrection season was over, and Johnson's hair had lost its lacquer.
The 24-17 victory sent the Dolphins to Denver for an AFC divisional playoff game on Saturday against the Super Bowl champion Broncos—a rematch of quarterback titans Dan Marino and John Elway, who had met only once in 13 years before the Dolphins' 31-21 upset of the Broncos on Dec. 21 at Pro Player.
Miami's defense, which held the Broncos to 219 yards in that game, will have to be similarly stout in the thin Colorado air if another upset is to unfold. Considering that Flutie threw for 360 yards and wide-out Eric Moulds piled up an NFL-playoff-record 240 receiving yards, it's strange to say that Miami's defense played a huge role in the win over the Bills. But it did. "In games like this, after you've worked 365 days to get into the playoffs, sometimes these games can turn on a dime, on one defensive play," Armstrong said.
Or a handful. Buffalo, which had only 31 turnovers during the regular season, committed five against a defense that allowed the fewest points in the NFL this year and is a typical Johnson-coached unit: speedy, tenacious, starless and opportunistic. The Dolphins stripped Moulds and fellow wideout Andre Reed, forced Flutie to cough up two other fumbles and egged him into throwing a costly goal line interception at the end of the first half, when the Bills had an opportunity to take control of the game. "What we did," Armstrong said, "was provide some huge momentum swings. We fought pretty well."
This is a defense built out of fighters, of tough guys with attitudes. It's a group that's still angry that only one of them, tackle Tim Bowens, was voted to the Pro Bowl. They feed off that anger, believing they get better when they get dissed—and they get dissed a lot. Bowens and fellow tackle Daryl Gardener are the only starters who were first-round Miami draft picks. Free safety Brock Marion was a free-agent pickup from the Dallas Cowboys and a relative bargain. ( Miami signed him to a three-year, $8.1 million deal.) Cornerback Terrell Buckley and outside linebacker Robert Jones were dumped by the Green Bay Packers and the St. Louis Rams, respectively. Strong safety Calvin Jackson was a rookie free agent signed in '94. The other five starters were drafted in the second round or later.
Middle linebacker Zach Thomas is one of the mutts, a 5'11", 235-pound fireplug who was a fifth-round draft choice in '96. Throughout his life Thomas has been hearing people tell him he's too small to play football. "It's made me better every step of the way," says Thomas, who was taken aback last week—and concerned it would affect his motivation—when he was named to the All-Pro team along with his idol from his college days at Texas Tech, Junior Seau of the San Diego Chargers. "When I was getting ready for the draft, my mom would mail me all the negative things the experts were saying about me," Thomas recalls. "I'd ask her why she was sending me all the negative stuff, but I knew. Hey, I know I don't look like a football player. I've always thought it's how hard you play, and how tough you are, that matters."
And how hard you work. On the four days of practice last week, Thomas didn't leave the office until after seven. "I like watching film alone," he says. When he finally took a breath, the day before the game at the Dolphins' practice facility, his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, walked in with a new cell phone for his client.
Thomas took one look at the tiny metallic-blue phone. "It's a little feminine, isn't it?" he said gruffly.