MIAMI — Having won their first playoff game in 22 years and then deposed the Raiders, the New England Patriots arrived here to play for the AFC championship, finally having earned some respect.
Last week, they were five-point underdogs. Today, they're six-point underdogs.
Today, they're going after bigger fish, the Miami Dolphins, in the Orange Bowl. The Patriots have lost 18 straight games here. The Dolphins are 18-1 here over two seasons. That's a trend.
Nevertheless, the Patriots are essaying a third straight upset, known back home as squish the fish. They intend to march up and down the Orange Bowl, infantry style, behind their offensive line's Pro Bowl left side, which will be pitted against the small, battered Dolphin right side.
Does that all sound a little short on the dream-matchup scale?
The Patriots, a good team but a determinedly dull one--at least between the sidelines--did their best to enliven the days leading up to the game, looking for answers to questions like:
Irving Fryar, their wide receiver and Pro Bowl punt returner, cut the tendon of his right little finger, reaching into a kitchen drawer, he said. He joined the team here but flew back to Boston after reports surfaced that his wife, Jacqueline, was also treated at the same hospital emergency room.
Most Patriots claimed to know no more than the kitchen-drawer story. Guard Ron Wooten, however, acknowledged knowing about a domestic argument, adding, "Most of us knew something the morning (Wednesday) that it happened."
Coach Raymond Berry said he deliberately asked not to be told any details, so he wouldn't have to answer questions.
Berry also said that it wasn't a distraction, making one wonder just what a distraction might be.
--Are the Patriots jinxed in Miami?
They got their only win here in 1966, when the Dolphins were an expansion franchise. The Patriots lost in overtime in 1980, when Bob Baumhower blocked John Smith's 35-yard field-goal try on the last play of regulation.
One Patriot coach, John Mazur, was fired the day after a 52-0 loss in '72. Another, Chuck Fairbanks, was laid off just a few hours before the '78 meeting.
The Miami Herald reviewed the series, consulting no fewer than four sports psychologists. The Patriots had less enthusiasm for the topic.
"Does it wear you down, hearing about it?" John Hannah was asked.
"It's got to be wearing on you guys," Hannah drawled. "You're the ones who keep bringing it up."
--Where is Patrick Sullivan sitting?
Last week, the Patriot general manager watched from the sidelines, yelled at the Raiders' Howie Long, argued with him after the game and was roughed up by the Raiders' Matt Millen.
Sullivan says he's sitting in the stands today.
The Dolphins had a less eventful week, the lone casualties being wide receiver Mark Clayton and defensive end Kim Bokamper.
Clayton suffered a mildly separated shoulder in practice but is expected to play. Bokamper had his feeings hurt but is also expected to be there.
Bokamper made the Pro Bowl in 1979 as a linebacker, and was later converted to a 255-pound defensive right end. Last week, the Browns ran up 251 yards and a 6.8 average, mostly over him. Bokamper had numerous interview requests last week but declined most.
Today, he'll face the Patriots' three-time Pro Bowl tackle, 288-pound Brian Holloway, playing alongside eight-time Pro Bowl player Hannah.
"The Browns really did a number on us," Dolphin Coach Don Shula said. " . . . Every time they line up, it's no secret, they've got to be thinking they want to run the ball on us to keep the ball away from our offense. If we can't do something to stop that and get them out of that rhythm, we're in for a long day."
The Patriots' Tony Eason has thrown only 30 passes in the two playoff victories, and he is expected to be kept downstairs today.
The Dolphins' Dan Marino, one-time king of the long strike, is being similarly reined in. Defenses won't let the Marks Brothers, Clayton and Duper, get deep, and Marino is being called on to exercise a new virtue, patience.
Halfback Tony Nathan caught 72 passes, and the three tight ends combined for 71, so obviously, Marino could.
That doesn't mean he has to like it, though.
"I don't think I'm any more patient than I was in the past," Marino said. "I want to score quickly, believe me. It's easier that way."
The Patriots have beaten the betting line in their last 13 games. They've won two playoff games on the road. They've scored three touchdowns on fumbled kickoffs in four games.
"They're on a definite roll," the Raiders' Marcus Allen said. "Everything is going their way. Is it destiny, or what?"
Said Long: "It's destiny to see which of them goes to see those guys from the Midwest."