MIAMI — The Dan Marino-less Miami Dolphins have become a godsend to chain-gang crews and a model for modern-day conservatism.
They don't pass much, run especially well and are otherwise bland as toast and incredibly predictable.
But after Sunday's 22-13 trench-war win over the Buffalo Bills before a crowd of 73,901 at Pro Player Stadium, the Miami Dolphins are also a few more things.
They are 5-1, alone in first place in the AFC East and utterly defensive.
"We played relentless football," defensive tackle Kenny Mixon said.
This is obviously not the same Dolphin defense which used to give up touchdowns just so it could watch Marino lead fourth-quarter comebacks.
With Marino's jersey now a relic, Miami has been able to do now what it couldn't do without offending the game's greatest passer: pull the plug on its' 50,000-watt offense and go to the mattresses.
In six games, Miami has given up 51 points and three touchdowns. Sunday, it scored on a safety, a fumble return and sacked Buffalo quarterback Rob Johnson five times.
It hit Johnson so many other times he had to put an ice bag on his ailing right arm and let Doug Flutie finish the game.
The Miami defense so dominated events it even reduced Thurman Thomas' first game against his former team into an interesting, if not irrelevant, subplot.
Rest assured, Thomas is happy to be out of Buffalo, if only to not have to face Miami twice a year.
"I'm happy to on that sideline," Thomas said afterward. "Those guys have won three, four, five games for us. You could probably say they've won all five for us."
Here's how the Killer D's won Sunday's: After allowing Buffalo a fourth-quarter touchdown--an event so rare there will probably be an in-house investigation--Miami found itself clinging to a 15-13 lead and Buffalo with possession at its 16 with 4:59 left.
It took one defensive moment to restore order. Johnson, rolling left, shoveled a pass to running back Sammy Morris, who side-stepped a defender and headed upfield.
It was soon thereafter that cornerback Patrick Surtain's tackle dislodged the ball from Morris into the waiting arms of cornerback Sam Madison, who scored on an 18-yard return before the Bills knew what had happened.
"No one really saw it but me," Madison said later, "because I was the next guy in line. It just popped right in my hands."
A lucky bounce?
Maybe. Maybe not.
Buffalo Coach Wade Phillips, who watched his team lose its third consecutive game and fall to 2-3, said the play was a turning point.
"I felt we wore them down and could have won the game," Phillips said. "The killer was the turnover in the fourth quarter."
Miami preferred to view the fumble return as part of a master plan.
"Plays like that are made because guys are hustling," Miami Coach Dave Wannstedt said. "Plays like that don't happen by accident."
Miami is making more and more plays like that.
Early in the third quarter, with Miami leading 13-3, Matt Turk boxed Buffalo in its own end with a punt that bounced out of bounds at the Bills' one.
After an incompletion, defensive tackle Jermaine Haley busted unencumbered through the line and stuffed Jonathan Linton for a safety.
Ladies and gents, these are your new Miami Dolphins. The quarterback, Jay Fiedler, completed a tidy 14 of 24 passes for 142 yards, a performance that would have been ridiculed in the dizzying Duper-Clayton-Marino days.
The Dolphins' offensive motto? Just Don't Lose It, Baby.
These are days when the performance of Lamar Smith, who rushed for 62 yards in 24 carries, is seen as efficient and prudent.
These are days when it is more important that Miami's defense held Buffalo to 4.3 yards per play.
Thomas? Well, it all turned out OK in the end. After 12 mostly spectacular years in Buffalo, in which he amassed 1,620 yards and eight touchdowns against Miami alone, Thomas was cut loose last winter without Buffalo owner Ralph Wilson so much as saying goodbye.
Thomas was understandably bitter and signed with the rival Dolphins. He was so intent on playing Sunday he rushed himself back from a groin injury.
Thomas exacted only a modest revenge, rushing for 24 yards in seven carries and catches three passes for 24 yards.
"A little bit," Thomas said. "But I think more than anything, I went out and played well. I didn't make a lot of plays, but I made enough plays to be involved in the game."
Late in the first quarter, Buffalo linebacker John Holecek sent jaws flapping when he put a hard hit on Thomas.
What did Holecek say?
"I can't repeat it here," Thomas said, "and I can't repeat what I said back to him."
Holecek said Thomas was looking to stir things up.
"What I don't understand is why he had to make an enemy of me," Holecek said. "But I guess I have to play that role."
Later, Thomas was happy to have the game behind him.
This week, after lashing out about the way he was ousted in Buffalo after helping the Bills to four Super Bowls, Thomas received his call from Wilson.
"I'm just a little bit disappointed it took so long," Thomas said.