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Come back, John Stallworth. Come back to the ball. Pittsburgh quarterback Mark Malone's release was the tip-off. It wasn't as quick as Dan Marino's. Malone's first money pass was not hard and true. The Steelers had punched their way to the Dolphins' 30-yard line on the opening drive of the AFC championship game, pulling, trapping and driving for nine tough plays. Now, off a fake screen pass to Louis Lipps, Malone had Stallworth streaking to the post with poor William Judson in his hip pocket. Malone should have had six. But the ball was short, just short enough for Dolphin safety Lyle Blackwood to recover and arrive at the goal line simultaneously with Stallworth and the football. Judson, trailing the play, intercepted. If Marino had thrown the pass, it would've been a touchdown. If Marino played for the Steelers.... But the Steelers passed him up in the '83 draft, and he quarterbacks the Dolphins. Oh boy, does he.
Never has Marino been better than on Sunday in the Orange Bowl. His passes were unstoppable as Miami beat Pittsburgh 45-28 to earn a Super Bowl berth—and go 5-0 in AFC championship games. Two minutes and nine seconds after Judson's interception, Marino planted the point of the ball on Mark Clayton's chest, and Clayton, escaping Dwayne Woodruff, took it 40 yards to open Miami's scoring. Marino closed shop on his memorable four-touchdown performance with a six-yard lob to Nat Moore with 11:09 left in the game. Marino had 421 yards by then. The NFL playoff record is 433 yards, by Dan Fouts, who benefited from an overtime period while compiling it in 1981 against the Dolphins. If pressed, Marino could have thrown for 600. He was that hot. "We were all over them sometimes," Woodruff said, "but Marino was right on, as right on as a man can be."
There's no time for indecision, no margin for error when Marino's hot. The Steelers won the first half physically, but Malone threw three interceptions, and Frank Pollard fumbled on Pittsburgh's second possession. "We had to take it from them to have a chance," said Steeler safety Donnie Shell. "They took it from us instead."
Marino had strutted onto the field two hours before the kickoff in shorts and a T shirt, his belly already beginning to take on some of the spreading opulence of a Sonny Jurgensen. Marino laughed as he watched TV personality Terry Bradshaw get antsy. Clearly, Marino was enjoying the feel of the day; he wore his confidence like a tuxedo. Why not? As Noll said following Marino's 21-for-32 afternoon, "He's the best we've seen, no question.... We gave it our best shot; it's tough to overcome Marino and their passing game. Our offense ran well, the big plays they hit were the difference." Noll had seen a confident Bradshaw, mind you. Now he and the Steelers had seen an extremely confident Marino. "If he's just a little off, just once or twice, maybe we can get an interception," said Tony Dungy, the defensive coordinator for Pittsburgh. "But he was not off. It was his day."
It was his day and he knew it. "I've done my thing," Marino said. "It's time to go home." He also said of his performance, "It's all according to coverage." Marino apparently saw no need to mention his arm, which was beet-red from the workout. "The speed of our outside receivers makes the decision one way or another," he went on. "We knew we could go upfield. It was there. It's always there."
Indeed. With Miami down 14-10 with 2:43 remaining in the first half, four Marino completions took the Dolphins 77 yards in 73 seconds. The clincher was a 41-yarder to Mark Duper, on a blitz pattern up the left sideline over Chris Brown. Blitzes were quite futile against Marino. He was not sacked once, as much a testimony to his ability to get the ball away quickly as to the Miami offensive line. Marino had called an audible on the Duper TD play, and his throw was a work of art, coming in on a low trajectory. Duper had only to extend his hands and keep running. Brown wasn't beaten badly, he was beaten good.
The basic Steeler defensive scheme called for occasional blitzing and two-deep zone coverage by the safeties, who took half the field apiece. The corners had to protect short and deep if possible, but neither had a hope of staying with Duper and Clayton, who ran the outside deep streaks, giving Marino just a bit of angle either inside or outside. Tight end Joe Rose or Moore or running back Tony Nathan ran upfield on the hash marks. Nathan averaged 14.25 yards on eight catches, almost unheard of yardage for backs. Duper and Clayton averaged 27 yards per reception.
Two plays after that Marino-Duper TD, Lyle Blackwood intercepted another Malone pass—and Marino was back in business at the Steeler 35 with 1:09 on the clock. Moments later, Steeler corner-back Sam Washington threw up his hands in despair after Marino beamed one to Rose for 28 yards to the Pittsburgh one. Washington had decided to cover Rose. He reached to bat the ball away as it thunked against Rose's chest. "Four receivers go down, and the one who's covered man-to-man wins," said Rose. "The Steelers didn't want us running crossing patterns. We ran long outs and streaks all day." Call it Miami's Marino vise. "His throws leave you no reasonable reaction time," said Shell. Nathan scored from the one, and it suddenly was 24-14 Miami at the half.