There were the Dolphins, down 21-3 early in the third quarter. Dan Marino was muttering and playing worse than terrible. Defeat was in the Dolphins' eyes. Victory was in the hands of the Cleveland Browns.
The unvarnished truth is that for three quarters the Dolphins, arrogant and riding a seven-game winning streak, deserved to lose—maybe even deserved to get blown out by the 8-8, unrespected Browns, who were in the playoffs thanks only to the mediocrity of their AFC Central Division.
But before a howling crowd of 75,128 Saturday in the Orange Bowl, Miami staged the second-biggest comeback in NFL playoff history—behind only Detroit's 20-point rally over the 49ers in 1957—to win 24-21.
What happened was that the Dolphins won in spite of themselves. Coach Don Shula got it right on Friday afternoon when he wearily flopped down in his office, propped his feet up on a nearby chair and said, "We have struggled this year. We have been so busy trying to figure out ways to keep our heads above the water that we couldn't even begin to think of getting better."
Consider, for example, that Miami was ranked 18th in the NFL in rushing offense; the Dolphins kept it up against the Browns, getting only 92 yards. Consider that the Dolphins were fifth-worst in the league—or, to put the best face on the matter, 23rd-best—in rushing defense; on Saturday they gave up 251 yards and smashing touchdown runs of 21 and 66 yards by the Browns' Earnest Byner.
So the Dolphins can't run the ball and can't play defense. Big deal. But how they can pass. Alas, against the Browns, the Dolphins—they are the second-best passing team in the league—couldn't even pass. Marino was 25 for 45 for a ho-hum 238 yards. Even more amazing, he completed no passes to wide receiver Super Duper and only one to the other big-play wideout, Mark Clayton. During the regular season, they combined for 105 catches, even though Duper missed seven games with a broken left tibia.
All afternoon the Browns played their cornerbacks up close on Duper and Clayton, getting as physical as the law allows. Then, after the macho stuff, the cornerbacks would be joined in the coverage by another defensive back.
But devoting four defensive players to two offensive players had to leave something open, and on this day it was running back Tony Nathan, who came out of the backfield to make 10 receptions. Nathan said of the near Dolphin demise, "We started diggin' our own grave. But then we looked down in there and said, 'Hey, we're not ready to go there just yet.' "
And there's the crux of the matter. The Dolphins prevailed because of winning tradition perhaps more than anything else. After all, Cleveland has not won a playoff game in five tries since 1969; Miami has won 14 and lost nine over the same span. And a winning tradition may be the best explanation of why Miami has now won eight straight after starting the season 5-4.
The best team did, however miraculously, win the game. Miami clearly had a big advantage at quarterback, Marino over the rookie Bernie Kosar, who had starred on the same field so many times for the University of Miami. Cleveland seemed to come into the game hoping it would win and Miami knowing it would. And there was a lot of pressure on the Browns to play the elusive perfect game.