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For 55 minutes and 50 seconds Sunday in the Orange Bowl, the Miami Dolphins' Dan Marino was a mere mortal, a struggling young quarterback. The Pittsburgh Steelers were leading 20-17 and Marino's last two series had ended chaotically. He was intercepted deep in his own territory, setting up the field goal that put Pittsburgh ahead, and then he was intercepted at the Steeler 22, killing a chance at a score that could win or tie it. Now the Dolphins were on their own 25 with 4:10 left.
Zip, nine yards to Tony Nathan in the right flat. Zip, 27 to Mark Clayton, the ball finding the open spot in what had been a very nasty zone defense. The Steelers had come into the game with the NFL's No. 1 pass defense, and this afternoon they had shown Marino why.
Zip, 22 yards to Bruce Hardy, an anonymous tight end for eight seasons, and this was the prettiest play of the day because Mike Merriweather, the All-Pro linebacker, had Hardy blanketed. Hardy had to extend to his full 6'5" to make a diving catch of a pass that was low and away, the only place it could have been thrown.
"I don't even think he saw the ball," said Steeler strong safety Donnie Shell. "I mean, he stuck out his hands and the ball was there."
"How do you figure it?" said David Shula, the Dolphins' receivers and quarterback coach. "Here's a guy who runs a 5.2 40 being covered by another guy who runs a 4.6. The pass and the catch had to be absolutely perfect."
The ball was on the Steeler 16. Four plays and two completions later, it was on the two, and when Lorenzo Hampton scored on a sweep left behind guard Jeff Toews's block that wiped out two Steelers, the Dolphins had the lead with 47 seconds remaining; the hunt was over.
Final score, 24-20, and another chapter in the Marino legend was completed. He had looked bad at times. He had misfired, and he had forced the ball into areas where there wasn't any room. He had made some poor decisions, but when it came time to do it, well, there it was.
"I wasn't patient. I wasn't taking what was there," he said. "You have to learn from it." He was standing on a bench next to his locker, talking through a forest of microphones. The people in back were straining to hear what he was saying.
"They didn't rush more than three guys," he said. "They were playing lots of people in coverage and taking the deep stuff away. They had a great defensive scheme against us."