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Maybe the Kansas City Chiefs forgot that it was still Dan Marino standing over there. Forgot that it was still Marino and Mark Duper and Mark Clayton, four years in hiding or not. Yeah, it had been a long time since Marino met Joe Montana by the Diet Pepsi machine—since the 1985 Super Bowl, in fact. "The next one's on me," Marino had assured Joe and the world. But Marino hadn't made it back since, hadn't even made the playoffs in four seasons, and he didn't look too scary now. Maybe that's why the Chiefs forgot.
Besides, the K.C. guys had steamed up and down Joe Robbie Stadium for three quarters on Saturday, plowing along like a street cleaner, sweeping away mislaid Dolphins and taking a 13-3 lead in the AFC wild-card game. Their defense had made Marino look like a trauma-ward patient. Nothing was getting deep. His feet looked tangled. The offense wasn't flowing. He started 9-for-20 passing, for piddling yardage; his 10th completion was spit up by Duper, and the Chiefs said thank you and pounced on it. Could this be the right Marino?
Come to think of it, could these be the right Chiefs? It had been nearly two decades since they had played the Dolphins in maybe the greatest playoff game ever, the 1971 Christmas Day classic, won by Miami in double overtime. Since then they had been in one playoff, in 1986, and right after that they fired the head coach.
But this year, led by their yard-sale quarterback, Steve DeBerg, and his much-scrutinized and intensely discussed pinkie, they wrestled the Los Angeles Raiders for the AFC West title, coming up a victory short in finishing 11-5. De-Berg's left pinkie was the most famous finger since Ilie Nastase's, or even the one John McEnroe tried to separate from a United Airlines gate agent last month. Three weeks earlier the DeBerg Digit had been smashed so nicely in a game against the Houston Oilers that the bone poked through the skin. It made DeBerg wince just hearing about it. "The more you guys bring it up," he said through clenched teeth, "the more it throbs."
The doctors told him if he had been a farmer, they would have cut it off (throb). Instead, they put in a pin that stuck a quarter-inch out of the top of the finger and two more on each side (throb, throb). Then they fashioned a huge polypropylene cast for it that underwent more improvements than the Apollo missions. Cast A encased the pinkie and the finger next to it. Cast B was curved so that DeBerg could better pat the ball with his left hand before he threw (an old habit). Cast C encased only the pinkie for better feel. Cast D added a swivel to reduce the pain of handoffs (much throbbing).
Of course, DeBerg would have played with a detached cerebellum if needs be. Saturday's game was The Palace of his very strange vaudevillian career. From Dallas to San Francisco to Denver to Tampa to Kansas City, where z the Chiefs tried to ditch him twice but ran out of healthy I bodies. How were they to know he would pull this Rip Van Winkle act? How many athletes hit their peak at 36?
"I had planned on taking one of those clipboard jobs after this season," he said earlier in the week. "But I'm having too much fun now." And who deserved it more than he, the free-lance warmup act for the Montanas, Elways and Testaverdes of the world?
And so he brought his Super Chiefs to Miami, where it had been so long since the Dolphins had been in the playoffs that fans had forgotten where the ticket office was. The NFL extended the TV blackout deadline a day and even then, with a sellout, some 5,800 seats went rumpless. Then again, maybe fans weren't buying tickets because they weren't buying Miami's record. If the Dolphins were a 12-4 team, they figured, then Marvin Hagler was a thespian. Miami's 9-2 start came from playing the New York Jets twice, the New England Patriots twice, plus Phoenix, Indianapolis and Cleveland. The House Ways and Means Committee could start 9-2 with a schedule like that.
"I think we're gonna mess these guys up big time," said Chiefs nickelback Jayice Pearson. Said safety Deron Cherry, "I'm afraid it's gonna be ugly."
And it was ugly early, just as the Chiefs predicted. When they smothered that Duper fumble late in the third quarter on the Miami 29, it looked as if Kansas City were about to put Miami away. But just then, the Chiefs turtled.