PITTSBURGH — When Gary Anderson's 39-yard field goal spun between the yellow uprights just ahead of darkness Sunday, the participants in this most brutal of football games did a most unusual thing.
They met one another at midfield. And they hugged.
They patted each other's helmets, clutched the dirty tape on each other's hands.
"Guys were congratulating each other on such a tremendous game," said Steeler cornerback Rod Woodson. "And we were telling each other, 'We'll see you again.' "
He is referring to the playoffs, which can't possibly feel much different than the Pittsburgh Steelers' 16-13 overtime victory over the Miami Dolphins before 59,148 at Three Rivers Stadium.
The game between arguably the AFC's two best teams was nearly 3 1/2 hours of pushing and shoving and desperation, culminating with 23 minutes of the sort of suspense that caused both helmets and curses to fly.
In a span of one quarter and an overtime period:
The Dolphins led . . . then the Steelers led . . . then Dan Marino worked 62 more yards of magic to tie the game . . . then Marino was stopped . . . then the Steelers finally won with Anderson's kick with 4:41 to play in overtime.
By then, the roar of the black-shirted crowd beneath the darkening skies had brought the emotion to such a pitch, Steeler quarterback Mike Tomczak was thankful to leave the field and let Anderson try to win the game on first down.
"I was \o7 glad \f7 he came out there," Tomczak said. "I had to go to the bathroom."
The moment the kick was good--Anderson's 14th field goal in 14 attempts from 39 yards or less--the power in the AFC shifted.
With Cleveland's defeat in Kansas City coupled with Pittsburgh's earlier victory over the Browns, the Steelers lead the Central Division with an 8-3 record.
With San Diego's defeat in New England, the Steelers have joined the Chargers and Browns as owners of the best record in the league.
The Dolphins, meanwhile, must be content to lead the AFC East with a 7-4 record and three of their final five games at home.
"I've been here 2 1/2 years, and I can honestly say it may be one of the best victories I've been associated with," said Steeler Coach Bill Cowher, his eyes red and watery. "To be down, to be counted out, to show the resiliency that they showed today. . . ."
In the other locker room, Dolphin linebacker Bryan Cox was livid.
"There are no miracles. There was no magic," he said. "I'm surprised at how bad we played when the game was on the line."
With 12 minutes remaining, with the Dolphins leading 10-6, the Steelers began a drive on their 27-yard line.
Their offense had not scored a touchdown since before Halloween, a span of 13 quarters and two overtime periods.
Their quarterback was Tomczak, starting his second game in two years.
They had gained a total of 21 yards in the second half.
"Football is a funny game," Steeler tackle John Jackson said. "Just when you think you're not there, something clicks."
This time it was Tomczak clicking with Ernie Mills on a 40-yard lob that Mills chased down like a center fielder. Four plays later Barry Foster barreled 10 yards up the middle for a touchdown that, with the extra point, gave the Steelers a 13-10 lead midway through the fourth quarter. And set the stage for another Marino comeback.
After being chased around for most of the game by the league's fifth-ranked, and hardest-hitting, defense, Marino suddenly led the Dolphins on a nine-play, 62-yard drive that began on the Miami 7-yard line with 1:53 remaining.
With two rushers closing in, Marino found third-stringer Scott Miller for 27 yards across the middle. Moments after having a pass tipped, he found Irving Fryar for 15 yards down the sideline.
With five seconds remaining, Pete Stoyanovich, who missed an earlier field goal, calmly trotted out and tied the game with a 48-yard field goal that sent the Steelers into a rage.
"It was very, very tense out there," Steeler safety Carnell Lake said.
That tension increased during overtime, after the Steelers' Levon Kirkland apparently knocked a ball from Marino's hands and ran it 45 yards for a touchdown. But the officials ruled that Marino had been in Joel Steed's grasp.
On the next play, Marino apparently hit O.J. McDuffie on the Steeler 20, but officials ruled that McDuffie dropped the ball as he was falling to the ground.
"I thought he caught it," said Dolphin Coach Don Shula, a rules committee member who might use this play to push for the return of instant replay.
All of this set up the winning 66-yard drive that featured Tomczak running around the backfield like a madman and throwing crazy passes . . . that were caught.
Foster rumbled for 27 yards with one of them. John L. Williams gained 23 yards after catching another.
On this day, and under these circumstances, Anderson's kick was the least of the Steelers' worries.
Now they must decide whether Tomczak will replace injured Neil O'Donnell (hip, ankle) next week against the Raiders in Los Angeles, even though O'Donnell is expected to be sound.
And whether this type of effort can lead them to a Super Bowl.
"All we need," Jackson said, "is one more click."