MIAMI — Heading into the 15th weekend of the season, the Miami Dolphins needed only decisions over New England and Buffalo to win the championship of the AFC East. This morning, only Buffalo is in their way.
A late fumble in the rain made it close Monday night but quarterback Dan Marino led the Dolphins to the winning field goal in the last four minutes as the Patriots lost their 18th straight at the Orange Bowl, 30-27.
"I still think we've got a great defense," New England Coach Raymond Berry said, noting that his club can still make the playoffs next week. "The 30 points? That quarterback--what's his name?--had something to do with it."
Although the Dolphins missed a couple of chances to put their old division rivals away earlier, they led by 14 points in the fourth quarter, 27-13, when the Patriots scored twice on successive plays to tie it up.
Quarterback Tony Eason got the Patriots close with a touchdown march. Then on the kickoff, New England cornerback Rod McSwain knocked the ball away from Miami's Joe Carter, a normally reliable running back, and wide receiver Cedric Jones carried it into the end zone.
The Patriots had scored 14 points in six seconds to get even, 27-27, after trailing since the second quarter.
"We sure find ways to make it interesting," said Miami Coach Don Shula.
Suddenly in big trouble, Marino kept his cool in the rain. With strikes to wide receivers Mark Duper and Mark Clayton and tight end Bruce Hardy, he put the ball in position for Miami's new kicker, Fuad Reveiz, to get a lock on the Eastern title with his third field goal, which carried 47 yards.
"Against the Patriot defense, you have to bite, scratch and claw for everything you get," said Shula. "We felt we were the better ballclub up in Foxboro when they beat us. I'm not sure we proved it here, but we beat 'em."
After Miami's decisive field goal, the drama continued when Eason brought the Patriots down the field again, but Miami safety Glenn Blackwood ended their dream with an interception.
"Just in time," said Marino. "I knew the game wasn't over when we had that 27-13 lead. They can really come up with the big plays. New England has a physical, aggressive defense."
It didn't always look that way. The Patriots elected to cover Marino's receivers more often than they put the big rush on Miami's quarterback. But Marino felt bothered even so.
"They really rush the passer," he said. "Because of the way they rush, it causes me to rush myself."
He was playing a team that appeared to be as talented as its record, which was 10-4 at the opening kickoff, the same as Miami's. They are, however, different kinds of teams. Miami, now 11-4, attacks with the NFL's most effective pass offense--made so by Marino, Duper and Clayton--but is a little shaky on defense.
New England, now 10-5, is better balanced--with strengths on defense as well as offense--but doesn't have the sudden-strike potential of Miami. Thus, when the Patriots fall behind against good football teams, they can't be counted on to catch up.
So this was a game that was all Miami's--until the big fumble--from early in the second quarter. It was then that Marino opened a 17-7 lead with his second touchdown drive.
Marino's problem was the big gun in the New England defense, its linebacking unit, particularly Andre Tippett.
When Miami was bounding toward what appeared to be a halftime lead of 24-7, or at least 20-7, Tippett erupted with his second Marino sack and forced the fumble that cost Miami a scoring chance at the New England 25.
Eason's problem was his coaches, who turned conservative at some strange times. When Miami fumbled the ball over to the Patriots at the Miami 21 in the third quarter, they ran it on seven consecutive plays before settling for a field goal.
Otherwise, Eason demonstrated that he is one of the NFL's finest quarterbacks. He has a live arm, throws spirals and has the ability to throw with touch to a speeding receiver.
He has closed some of the distance between him and Marino, who isn't throwing the ball quite as well as he did last year. Marino is still moving and setting up well and he's still throwing the ball 20 and 25 yards down the field, but his throws aren't quite as accurate as they were a year ago, when he often seemed to be just about the best ever.
He and Eason each delivered a touchdown pass on a night when Eason completed 14 of 26 for 217 yards to Marino's 17 of 33 for 192. Eason threw three interceptions to Marino's one.
The other touchdowns on both sides were scored on short running plays. The three Reveiz field goals measured an impressive 44, 49 and 47 yards. For New England, Tony Franklin kicked his 22 and 49 yards.
As a rule, Miami worked the ball into scoring position with passes. New England used both Eason's (arm and one of the NFL's best ball-carrying backfields. Patriot halfback Tony Collins is as good as ever and his new fullback, Craig James, the running partner of Eric Dickerson at SMU, has become a solid NFL running back.
Afterward, Eason was still worrying about his last pass, which Blackwood intercepted to clear out the crowd.
"I overthrew (Derrick Ramsey)," he said. "He was behind his man where he was supposed to be. I saw Blackwood. The rain was not a factor."
Shula loved the rain, too.
"Dan Marino doesn't worry about the weather," he said.