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"This season is a great opportunity for us," says Miami Coach Don Shula. "Now the things that we've accomplished can be even more meaningful. We'd like to win back-to-back Super Bowls, which no one has done since Green Bay, and we'd like to write some new history as far as winning is concerned."
It is highly improbable that the NFL champs will extend their 17-0-0 streak through another unbeaten season and postseason. What is totally unlikely is that anyone will stop the Dolphins from winning the division for the third year in succession.
Miami needs three more victories to break the NFL record of 17 consecutive regular-season triumphs and two more to shatter the standard of 18 straight over regular and postseason play. The Dolphins, however, meet five of last season's playoff teams, including Oakland away on Sept. 23, and the Raiders have lost but four home games since 1967.
"We've been around long enough to know you don't win indefinitely," says Quarterback Earl Morrall, who has been around 17 seasons. "But I don't think any of us are going to crack up mentally when we lose. If we can keep it going, great, but the object of every season is the Super Bowl."
Toward that goal the Dolphins offer some familiar credentials as well as subtleties you don't find in the statistics. Miami was the NFL's No. 1 team both on offense and defense a year ago, but the Dolphins were also No. 1 in luck.
Of the key personnel, only Quarterback Bob Griese, whom Morrall capably replaced, Defensive Tackle Jim Dunaway and Offensive Tackle Wayne Moore were lost for more than four games. Griese may have to stay healthier now; Shula claims the Dolphins will throw more than they did last season, when the brunt of their ball control offense was a running game that ravaged defenses for 2,960 net yards, an NFL record. Most notable among Griese's receivers is the incomparable Paul Warfield, whose 29 receptions is the most misleading statistic in all of football. In addition, there are Marlin Briscoe, Howard Twilley and Ron Sellers, who was acquired from Dallas for Otto Stowe. Jim Mandich, who can catch, and Marv Fleming, who can block, will again split time at tight end.
Larry Csonka (see cover), the prime mover on the ground, rushed for 1,117 yards in 1972; Mercury Morris got 1,000 and Jim Kiick picked up 521. The three-back offense will remain an important Miami weapon. So will Placekicker Garo Yepremian, whose biggest Orange Bowl thrill came last Independence Day when he became a U.S. citizen.
On defense, the No Names return intact after yielding 171 points last year, lowest in the league. Mike Kolen and Doug Swift adequately flank 32-year-old Nick Buoniconti at linebacker and the deep secondary, patrolled by Dick Anderson, Jake Scott, Curtis Johnson and Tim Foley, could write a book on how to play the zone.
There was little evidence last year that the New York Jets had ever read anything about defense, including their own playbooks. They scored 41 touchdowns and only 18 fewer points than the Dolphins, but could not stop anybody. Yielding 23.1 points a game, the Jets ranked 22nd in defense in the NFL and dead last against the pass. Coach Weeb Ewbank hopes he has strengthened the defense through trades and the draft. If he has, the Jets could contend for a wildcard playoff spot.
Dealing a pair of high draft choices to New Orleans, Ewbank acquired Defensive Lineman Richard Neal, who has shown to advantage rushing the passer, and Defensive Back Delles Howell, who may be the find of the year. Howell, a starter at cornerback with Earlie Thomas, has sparkled in exhibition games. Burgess Owens of Miami, the Jets' No. 1 draft choice, is expected to move in at one safety spot, the other being filled by Chris Farasopoulos. Like many other teams this season, the Jets will often use an extra deep defender on obvious passing situations, rushing a three-man line. "We've also got more coverages than we've ever had," Ewbank says. "Our problem now is to learn them."