DENVER — Some cities expect to have a white Christmas. In Denver they often have a white September--as they do now. There are layers of snow in all the trees, and on the streets and rooftops, and some cars are all but buried in the snow that fell Saturday and Sunday morning.
The Mile High Stadium floor was covered, however, against the storm. And when it ended Sunday afternoon, the field and the weather were both ideal for the first-ever Dan Marino-John Elway shootout in the Rockies.
The temperature was only three degrees under freezing on an overcast day when Marino won it for the Miami Dolphins with three touchdown passes, 30-26. But Elway went down swinging. Three different times he had the Denver Broncos in front--7-0 in the first quarter, 14-10 in the second, and 23-20 in the third.
"The difference was Marino's big plays," Miami Coach Don Shula said afterward.
Marino made them throwing out of a pocket, as usual, against a passer who is considered the model mobile quarterback.
Elway got a lot of yards that way--250 passing and 32 on four scrambles.
His problem was that his opponent, the stationary, quick-throwing Miami quarterback, passed for 390 gross and 365 net.
Marino completed 25 of 43, Elway 18 of 37.
"We gave up 30 points playing as good as we can," said Denver's defensive coordinator Joe Collier. "He (Marino) is in good throwing position all the time, and as soon as he sees the open receiver, it (the ball) is gone."
Denver defensive end Rulon Jones had trouble believing that the Broncos could sack Marino only three times.
"We didn't blitz that much, but tried to create pressure with the four guys up front, and we were successful," Jones said. "That's the most pressure we've seen on him. There's no question he has the quickest release I've seen."
The Dolphins enjoyed one break they hadn't expected. In the fourth quarter, with 3:29 left, Denver Coach Dan Reeves opted for a field goal on fourth and 10 at the Miami 16-yard line. This closed the score to 30-26, which was to be the final score, but it didn't do too much for the Broncos, who still had to make a touchdown to win.
In the minutes that remained, they had possession for five more plays--but never again from the Miami 16.
Shula breathed easier after that field goal.
"It meant they had to score a touchdown on their last drive," he said.
Asked if Reeves' call surprised him, Shula said: "I've quit being surprised by anything in football. They (the Broncos) figured they needed a field goal and touchdown to win."
Still, they only needed a touchdown to tie and, maybe, send it into overtime.
Reeves said he was influenced by Denver's lack of success on the previous three plays.
"On that series we weren't moving the ball very well," he said. "I felt there was time enough to score again."
It was basically a one-man win for Marino, whose second-half comeback was achieved without his most famous receivers, Mark Duper and Mark Clayton; without much help from his running game; with a run of dropped passes, and with another no-name Miami defense that lacks even one enforcer like Howie Long or Kenny Easley.
Duper broke a leg earlier this month and Clayton was gone with a sprained ankle in the first half. Their replacements and other Dolphins dropped six good passes. In the Denver cold, halfback Tony Nathan dropped three. And, on ground plays, the Dolphins gained only 53 yards to 169 for Denver.
This left the decision largely up to Marino, who in the first quarter threw a bomb to second-string wide receiver Nat Moore on the 69-yard touchdown play that tied the game, 7-7.
In the second quarter he reached Joe Rose again on the 24-yard touchdown play that gave Miami the halftime lead, 20-14.
And in the third quarter, bringing Miami from behind once more, Marino threw the game-winning touchdown pass to third-string wide receiver Vince Heflin on a 46-yard play that identified Heflin as a man who has studied the films of Duper.
Catching Marino's dart on the sideline, Heflin spun away from Denver cornerback Louis Wright, then broke away from the other cornerback, Steve Foley.
Nonetheless, Foley credited Marino.
"We kept pressuring Marino, but he kept making big plays," Foley said.
Elway, meanwhile, kept Denver in the game. He did it with long marches ending in running plays instead of touchdown passes.
"Elway is tough to contain, but I thought we contained him pretty well," Miami safety Bud Brown said. "To win this one, we had to outscore him."
The game left one question for Shula: Can he keep winning with his one-man band?
This was a Marino performance that was as close to a single-handed win as you will see in football.
Many of those around the Dolphin quarterback resembled, at times, semi-pros.
For example, Miami's top-drafted running back, Lorenzo Hampton, didn't look like anybody's No. 1 choice. And otherwise the Dolphins are playing football these days with nobody who can run the ball like Denver's Sammy Winder--who netted 103 yards--or Gene Lang, a Denver reserve who averaged five yards per carry.