MIAMI — Guess who's coming to the Super Bowl?
It's not the Jets, Raiders or Dolphins, all of whom were favored over the one-time Patsies of Foxboro, hereinafter known as the New England Patriots, champions of the AFC and now the Bears' next victim, er, worthy foe.
On a soggy Sunday in the Orange Bowl, the Patriots did what they do best--run the football, pick up fumbles--and squished the fish, or to be more precise, mauled the mammals.
In English, they beat the Dolphins, 31-14, and moved on, leaving another foe muttering into its off-season.
The Patriots were four-point underdogs at the Meadowlands, where they won and became five-point underdogs in Los Angeles. They won and became six-point underdogs here.
Having also lost earlier to the Bears, in a game in which they got over the 50-yard line for two plays all day, the Patriots may well be seven-point underdogs or worse.
For the big powers of the AFC, however, this just wasn't their post-season.
"I'm very disappointed in the way we played," Dolphin Coach Don Shula said. "You work hard, get into the championship game, turn the season around, come from 5-4 and get the streak going and then play as poorly as we played. . . . "
If you do all that, then you'll be on vacation. The Dolphins are, after losing four fumbles and throwing two interceptions for a grand total of six turnovers, tying last week's Raider total.
The Patriots have now caused 16 turnovers in the playoffs, although there's a question whether they've been taking the ball away, or merely picking it up after someone dropped it under slight duress. Sammy Seale did that on a kickoff last week, as did Tony Nathan on the first Dolphin play from scrimmage, Dan Marino on a botched snap, and Lorenzo Hampton on the second-half kickoff.
Shula: "The bottom line is, it was on the ground."
To give the Patriots their due, they played good, tough football and gave their opponent every chance to expose its weakness.
The Dolphins had had trouble defending against the rush and the Patriots rammed it down their gullets all day. The final totals were 255 yards (105 for Craig James), 59 rushes and 39:51 of possession, to Miami's 20:09.
Thus perished one of the NFL's great jinxes. New England had lost 18 in a row here, winning only in 1966 when the Dolphins were an expansion franchise and Flipper was their biggest star.
The Dolphins, the defending AFC champions, had won 18 of their last 19 here against all opponents when this day started, wet, gloomy and about to get gloomier.
The first time the Dolphins touched the ball, they gave it to reliable Tony Nathan, who went into the middle of the line and fumbled the ball away at his 20.
The Patriots recovered and marched to the one, before the Dolphins turned them around. Tony Franklin kicked a 23-yard field goal and it was 3-0.
Hampton, the Dolphins' No. 1 draft choice, then fumbled the ensuing kickoff up into the air, although he recovered that one, himself. Just tuning up, it turned out.
Form began to assert itself. Late in the first period, Marino took the Dolphins on one of those long, slow 80-yard marches he dislikes so much but are all that is left to him by secondaries that won't let his sprinters get deep.
It took 11 plays, including four Marino completions, the last a 10-yarder to tight end Dan Johnson in the end zone. Duck soup. Danny was just going to nickel-and-dime them all day, right?
Remember what happened when the Raiders went ahead, 17-7 the week before? The Patriots drove 80 yards on them and turned it into a race again.
Trailing 7-3, the Patriots went 66 yards, highlighted by the play of the game, a 45-yard run by second-string halfback Robert Weathers. On a third-and-one, he started off left tackle and got a block from the second tight end, Derrick Ramsey on the outside linebacker on that side, Hugh Green. Green is a recent acquisition from Tampa Bay, having paid $335,000 to buy out his own contract. A welcome addition, he is nevertheless not what he was a few years ago, when he was a near peer of Lawrence Taylor.
Down he went. Weathers turned the corner on the Miami free safety, Bud Brown, who just flagged at him. Then Weathers bolted down the open sideline, right past Shula, for 25 more yards until he reached Miami cornerback Paul Lankford, and ran right through him before the pack finally dragged him down at the Miami seven.
Weathers: "Our coaching staff thought we should use fresh backs, so Mosi (Tatupu) and I were in there, to run inside against their big guys. (Grinning) To let them destroy us. Then Craig and Tony (Collins) would go back in.
"I was just trying to get the first down. If you run for four yards, the big ones will come. I slipped to the outside and there it was. When you're hungry to run and to play, those things will happen."