Spinning, spinning, spinning inside a neon-green circle, Jay Fiedler surveyed the mass of humanity around him and searched for his mom and dad. This wasn't a dream or a hallucination; it was merely the surreal aftermath of the Miami Dolphins' emphatic 33-6 victory over the Bills in Buffalo on Sunday. As Fiedler, the Dolphins' quarterback, emerged from a tunnel leading to the players' parking lot outside Ralph Wilson Stadium, he was engulfed by autograph seekers, bundled-up visitors from South Florida and, finally, a half-dozen stadium security guards in reflective-green jackets—everyone but Donna and Ken Fiedler, who, unbeknownst to their son, were 50 yards behind him.
The rest of the AFC East can relate to the elder Fiedlers, for right now their son has Miami out in front in its run for its first division crown since 1994. In the season following the dissolution of the four-year marriage of necessity between Jimmy Johnson and Dan Marino, the Dolphins (10-3) have taken charge of football's most demanding division, with the New York Jets (9-4) in hot pursuit. The unsexy partnership of retread coach Dave Wannstedt and cast-off quarterback Fiedler has created a team hell-bent on boring its opponents into submission. "Everyone on our offense would love to open things up and show what we can do," says Fiedler, who confounded the weary Bills by completing 13 passes in 21 attempts for three touchdowns, "but we know we have a great defense and strong special teams. So the smart thing to do is keep things close to the vest. It's not exciting, but everyone's satisfied with winning."
In the AFC Beast, you do what you have to do, for life in this division amounts to a series of Survivor episodes. Banished from the island on Sunday along with the Bills (7-6), a 1999 playoff team, were the defending division-champion Indianapolis Colts (7-6), whose 27-17 defeat by the Jets at Giants Stadium continued a plunge from expected Super Bowl contention. Both Buffalo and Indianapolis will most likely miss the playoffs, and after the two teams meet next Monday night at the RCA Dome, Colts fans could be looking at an indoor Indy .500. "Life in this division is brutal, man," Indianapolis tight end Ken Dilger said on Sunday. "All we do is beat each other up every week, and I think whichever teams survive and make the playoffs get hurt by it, because they're so drained. I can't wait for realignment."
The top four teams in the AFC East have a combined 18-8 record outside the division, and the New England Patriots (3-9 entering Monday night's game against the Kansas City Chiefs) are probably the league's most physical last-place team. However, the ruggedness of the division alone doesn't explain the demise of the Colts, who last year raced to a 13-3 record behind their trio of young offensive stars: quarterback Peyton Manning, halfback Edgerrin James and wideout Marvin Harrison. This season Indianapolis has gotten sloppy, suffering defeats to the lowly Chicago Bears and the struggling Green Bay Packers. The Colts' defense bends and breaks with glaring regularity; on Sunday, Indy trailed 14-0 before it had run its fourth offensive play, and Jets halfback Curtis Martin (page 52) was on his way to a career day. Then, after the Colts fought back from a 20-0 deficit, an errant shotgun snap by center Jeff Saturday killed their chances to tie or win the game.
It may be revisionist history, but the Colts say the preseason projections that had them in the Super Bowl were unwarranted. Smiling through his gold teeth as he lit a stick of incense at his Indianapolis town house last week, James said, "I never looked at us as division favorites, because last year we had a fifth-place schedule, and I knew that playing a first-place schedule would be a lot tougher." That glossed over the losses to the Bears and the Packers and the fact that Indianapolis's eight games within the division haven't changed. "But, hey," James said, "we're all right. It's not like we suck."
The Bills are sucking wind as they embark on a feeble stretch limp. Last year Buffalo came within a Music City Miracle of making some noise in the postseason. Then they commanded attention in this year's opener by winning their rematch with the Tennessee Titans. But a series of injuries to starters put the Bills in a tailspin, and the absence of four regulars on defense had them in an especially dark mood going into Sunday's game against the Dolphins, who hadn't won in Buffalo since 1996. Standing at the awesome precipice of Niagara Falls after a trip across the Canadian border last Saturday, Bills linebacker John Holecek made the inevitable metaphorical connection. "I hope we're not headed over the falls in a barrel," he said, "but with so many guys out, it's going to be a challenge." Then Holecek, a run stopper who's slower than a manual recount, turned to his three older brothers, Rick, Dave and Jim, and added, "I mean, I'm playing in a nickel package tomorrow for the first time since high school. How crazy is that?"
If you want crazy, check out Miami, whose recipe for success following last January's 62-7 playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars was this: Replace a two-time Super Bowl-winning coach with a guy who had a 41-57 record; then dump one of the best passers of all time for an undrafted journeyman who played at Dartmouth and got cut by the Cincinnati Bengals.
Yet the unflashy Wannstedt and Fiedler have helped turn the Dolphins into one of the league's feel-good stories. Wannstedt, criticized as overly demanding during his six-year stint as the Bears' coach, has taken on the role of hip substitute teacher in Miami. The team has had two field trips to movie theaters, an intrasquad softball game and, most significant, a measured reaction to a disastrous defeat. In late October, after the Dolphins had blown a 30-7 fourth-quarter lead to the Jets and lost 40-37, Wannstedt resisted the urge to rip his players. Instead he scaled back practice and told them the loss was "not even worth talking about." Miami has won five of six since, losing only their rematch with the Jets, in which Fiedler (pinched nerve in his neck and right shoulder) and halfback Lamar Smith (strained right hamstring) went down with injuries.
Another banged-up Dolphin, All-Pro linebacker Zach Thomas, is playing with a sprained right ankle that won't heal until long after the season, but the defense stood tall during Thomas's recent four-game absence. While he was sidelined, Thomas was especially heartened by the pass-rushing heroics of rejuvenated end Jason Taylor. The 6'6" Taylor, who looks like a model, is engaged to Thomas's comparably tall and beautiful sister, Katina. "I guess I was adopted," says Thomas, who's generously listed at 5'11". "Jason will definitely help the family's gene pool."
Fiedler's gifts—intelligence, grit and deceptive mobility—are far less conspicuous. On Sunday he executed offensive coordinator Chan Gailey's game plan to perfection, exploiting Buffalo's inexperience at linebacker with a power-running attack and timely play-action passes. Rather than quake at the specter of replacing a legend, Fiedler, 28, who dresses near the glass-encased locker that is a shrine to Marino's 17 years as a Dolphin, has evolved into a respected leader. He's still rankled by the series of rejections that preceded this opportunity, especially his release by the Minnesota Vikings late in the summer of 1998, an experience he calls the low point of his career. "It really pissed me off," he says. "I had a great preseason, but they kept another quarterback [Todd Bouman] who even the coaches had told me I should have beaten out. He was one of Denny Green's projects, I guess."