A sense of history, along with a cold winter mist, hung over Seattle last weekend. For the home folks, Sunday's AFC wild-card playoff between the Sea-hawks and the Miami Dolphins would be the final football game in the NFL's loudest and ugliest stadium, the dump known as the Kingdome. The place is scheduled to be demolished in March, and a new football palace will be built in its place, ready for play in 2002. For the visiting team, the game had the potential to be even more momentous. Jimmy Johnson might have been coaching his last game, and more significant still, 38-year-old Dan Marino might have been licking his fingers for the last time, trying to pick apart a defense for the last time, glowering at the officials for the last time.
"Can you imagine what Marino must be thinking?" Seattle cornerback Shawn Springs said 24 hours before kickoff. "Here he is, the old lion, maybe suiting up for the last time. He's got this dream to win a Super Bowl, and this is probably his last chance. His coach is doubting him. The fans are doubting him. I'm dying to know what's going through the old lion's mind."
So last Saturday night, as he was heading into a team meeting, Marino was pulled aside and Springs's thoughts were relayed to him. What was going through his mind? "That I'm gonna play well," Marino replied.
It wasn't exactly Ted Williams homering in his last at bat or Michael Jordan hitting the last shot of his career to win a sixth NBA crown, but Marino gave a performance in the dreary Kingdome that he'll remember as long as he lives. In the middle of this star-crossed, contentious season, he played like the Marino of old.
The decibel level inside the Kingdome was something akin to dueling 747s on a runway at SeaTac when Marino stepped under center with about eight minutes to play, trailing by four and facing third-and-17 at the Miami eight. Unfazed, Marino lasered a 23-yard completion to wideout Tony Martin and commenced a clutch touchdown drive that was as sharp as any he has led in years. Call it "Ninety-two Yards to Jacksonville" because after their 20-17 victory over the Seahawks, the Dolphins—the AFC's sixth playoff seed—head north on I-95 to face the top-seeded Jaguars in a divisional playoff on Saturday. "I know we've got to take 'em one at a time," Marino said afterward, "but we win two more and we get a shot."
Of course, he's talking about a shot at a Super Bowl victory, the Holy Grail that has eluded him. Dare he dream? Jacksonville is banged up, and Miami beat the other two AFC semifinalists, the Indianapolis Colts and the Tennessee Titans, in midseason. Marino, who in a turn-back-the-clock second half against Seattle completed 12 of 21 passes for 168 yards and a touchdown, appears to be getting a second wind after missing five games and most of another in the middle of the year with a cervical nerve injury and after struggling for the rest of the regular season to get back into game shape. He said he felt as good throwing the ball in practice last week as he had all season. "I just needed to build my strength back up after the injury," Marino said.
Though he's going through a phase of his career not unlike the one Roger Clemens is enduring—Marino's lost something off the fastball, so he's got to hit spots and be smart—he showed in the fourth quarter that he can still be a playoff winner. Johnson, who hinted to SI last Saturday night that he might be finished coaching regardless of how the Dolphins fare in the postseason, also had a banner week. He told his assistants early on that he'd "be the best head coach you've ever seen." Johnson told his players they'd win the game if they ran the ball well, didn't panic if they fell behind and didn't let the crowd affect them. "Jimmy wrote the script," said Miami trainer Kevin O'Neill, "and these guys followed it to a T."
The Dolphins stuck with the run, grinding out 108 yards on 37 carries, and controlled the ball for 34:48. After Marino capped a 60-yard, third-quarter drive with a one-yard touchdown bullet into wideout Oronde Gadsden's gut to tie the score at 10, Charlie Rogers returned the ensuing kickoff 85 yards for a Seattle touchdown. But Miami remained calm and stayed with its game plan, and Seattle didn't threaten the rest of the game. Trailing 17-13 with 9:09 left, the Dolphins took possession at their 15 knowing one touchdown might be enough to pull out a victory.
The game-winning drive got off to an inauspicious beginning. Running back J.J. Johnson was stuffed for a two-yard loss, Marino threw incomplete, and then left tackle Richmond Webb was whistled for a false start. Just like that, it was third-and-17. The crowd got so loud that Marino had to hold his hands over the ear holes of his helmet so he could hear offensive coordinator Kippy Brown radio in the next play. "Sixty-six Ricky!" Brown said. "Sixty-six Ricky!" Good, Marino thought; Seattle was playing zone, and maybe he could find a crack big enough to throw through on the right, where Martin would be running a square-in.
Marino's teammates weren't as confident. "It's hard to say this," guard Kevin Gogan said later, "but at that point you're just hoping for a few yards to get you out of that hole." Springs played Martin soft, trying to avoid giving up a big play. Marino threw a rope, and Martin made a magnificent diving catch six yards beyond the first-down marker. Suddenly the crowd got so quiet you could hear a ceiling tile drop. Now Marino had his scalpel out. He hit Martin on a 17-yard out pattern, then handed off to Johnson for three. Marino cut the heart out of the Seahawks' defense on second-and-seven at the Seattle 49. Seven pass rushers came after him, but he stepped up in the pocket and, with Pro Bowl defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy bearing down on him, threw a sidearm dart to avoid having it blocked. Twenty yards downfield, the ball nestled into Martin's arms. "Incredible throw," Martin said. "I can't believe it got there." On third-and-10 from the Seattle 29, Marino hit Gadsden for a 24-yard gain. Two plays later Johnson's two-yard burst behind Webb put Miami ahead to stay.