Maybe the Kansas City Chiefs forgot that it was still Dan Marino standing over there. Forgot that it was still Marino and Mark Duper and Mark Clayton, four years in hiding or not. Yeah, it had been a long time since Marino met Joe Montana by the Diet Pepsi machine—since the 1985 Super Bowl, in fact. "The next one's on me," Marino had assured Joe and the world. But Marino hadn't made it back since, hadn't even made the playoffs in four seasons, and he didn't look too scary now. Maybe that's why the Chiefs forgot.
Besides, the K.C. guys had steamed up and down Joe Robbie Stadium for three quarters on Saturday, plowing along like a street cleaner, sweeping away mislaid Dolphins and taking a 13-3 lead in the AFC wild-card game. Their defense had made Marino look like a trauma-ward patient. Nothing was getting deep. His feet looked tangled. The offense wasn't flowing. He started 9-for-20 passing, for piddling yardage; his 10th completion was spit up by Duper, and the Chiefs said thank you and pounced on it. Could this be the right Marino?
Come to think of it, could these be the right Chiefs? It had been nearly two decades since they had played the Dolphins in maybe the greatest playoff game ever, the 1971 Christmas Day classic, won by Miami in double overtime. Since then they had been in one playoff, in 1986, and right after that they fired the head coach.
But this year, led by their yard-sale quarterback, Steve DeBerg, and his much-scrutinized and intensely discussed pinkie, they wrestled the Los Angeles Raiders for the AFC West title, coming up a victory short in finishing 11-5. De-Berg's left pinkie was the most famous finger since Ilie Nastase's, or even the one John McEnroe tried to separate from a United Airlines gate agent last month. Three weeks earlier the DeBerg Digit had been smashed so nicely in a game against the Houston Oilers that the bone poked through the skin. It made DeBerg wince just hearing about it. "The more you guys bring it up," he said through clenched teeth, "the more it throbs."
January 14, 1991
The doctors told him if he had been a farmer, they would have cut it off (throb). Instead, they put in a pin that stuck a quarter-inch out of the top of the finger and two more on each side (throb, throb). Then they fashioned a huge polypropylene cast for it that underwent more improvements than the Apollo missions. Cast A encased the pinkie and the finger next to it. Cast B was curved so that DeBerg could better pat the ball with his left hand before he threw (an old habit). Cast C encased only the pinkie for better feel. Cast D added a swivel to reduce the pain of handoffs (much throbbing).
Of course, DeBerg would have played with a detached cerebellum if needs be. Saturday's game was The Palace of his very strange vaudevillian career. From Dallas to San Francisco to Denver to Tampa to Kansas City, where z the Chiefs tried to ditch him twice but ran out of healthy I bodies. How were they to know he would pull this Rip Van Winkle act? How many athletes hit their peak at 36?
"I had planned on taking one of those clipboard jobs after this season," he said earlier in the week. "But I'm having too much fun now." And who deserved it more than he, the free-lance warmup act for the Montanas, Elways and Testaverdes of the world?
And so he brought his Super Chiefs to Miami, where it had been so long since the Dolphins had been in the playoffs that fans had forgotten where the ticket office was. The NFL extended the TV blackout deadline a day and even then, with a sellout, some 5,800 seats went rumpless. Then again, maybe fans weren't buying tickets because they weren't buying Miami's record. If the Dolphins were a 12-4 team, they figured, then Marvin Hagler was a thespian. Miami's 9-2 start came from playing the New York Jets twice, the New England Patriots twice, plus Phoenix, Indianapolis and Cleveland. The House Ways and Means Committee could start 9-2 with a schedule like that.
"I think we're gonna mess these guys up big time," said Chiefs nickelback Jayice Pearson. Said safety Deron Cherry, "I'm afraid it's gonna be ugly."
And it was ugly early, just as the Chiefs predicted. When they smothered that Duper fumble late in the third quarter on the Miami 29, it looked as if Kansas City were about to put Miami away. But just then, the Chiefs turtled.
They gave it to the Nigerian Nightmare, fullback Christian Okoye, three times for eight yards. No passes, no play action. Just three clouds of Nigerian dust and a 38-yard field goal for a 16-3 lead with 18 minutes of game to play. This is not exactly going for the jugular. This is going for the eyeliner.
"I couldn't believe when they did that," said Dolphin cornerback Tim McKyer. "That was a big lift." Now Miami could still win with two touchdowns, and the Dolphins knew it. "If they would have scored there," said Marino, "things might have ended up a little different."
Even DeBerg was confounded. "We could have gone up 20-3 and put a lock on the game," he said, his pinkie holding up but his voice not so well. "But we didn't."
So here was Marino's moment. Four years of hanging around waiting to get back into the playoffs, five years of not getting on with the business of being the next great Super Bowl quarterback were about to get longer if he didn't start something right now.
And so he did. In fact, suddenly, Marino became Montana. He completed every pass. Marino was 8-for-8 in the fourth quarter for 101 yards—he finished the game with 10 straight completions—hitting running back Tony Paige with a one-yard flip for a touchdown to make it 16-10 with 12:18 left. And when the Super Chiefs stalled on their next possession, the City of Marino kept chugging, blowing it down the field until he had first-and-10 from the 12.
It's funny what games come down to sometimes: uprights, snowballs, headphones. This one definitely came down to a fingernail. It belonged to the Chiefs' All-Earth cornerback Albert Lewis, and had it been a little bit longer the Chiefs might have won instead of Miami. Marino sent Clayton on a little down-and-out, and Lewis read it as if it were a MAN WALKS ON MOON headline.
"We weren't stopping them at all," he said. "I had to make something happen." So he broke in front of Clayton, and the ball came spiraling at him, and he came within another week's growth of fingernail of picking it off and going 94 yards the other way. Instead, it slid by, and Clayton reached low and glommed on to it.
Lewis went sailing past, leaving Clayton to simply turn around and run six yards into the end zone for the go-ahead score, 17-16, with 3:28 left. Actually, he could have gotten down on his back and done the crabwalk in, he was that alone.
The Chiefs came back, marching behind Okoye and DeBerg, no problem, and found themselves clear down to the Miami 26. They gave it to Okoye and watched him pave over a few more Dolphins to the 14 with 1:54 left. The game was theirs. All they had to do was bring in Nick Lowery, who had a streak of 24 straight field goals going, including three in this game, and have him kick a 31-yarder, and life and pinkies would go on for another week.
Only what they didn't know is that their rookie guard, David Szott, had tackled his man around the leg (that's holding in this league) on the Okoye run, and the ball went backward 23 yards. Soon, Lowery was looking at a 52-yarder, with a little tail wind, to win.
"I don't think he has that kind of leg," said Miami kicker Pete Stoyanovich, who had kicked an NFL postseason-record 58-yard field goal in the second quarter.
"I thought it was going to be close," said Lowery.
It was close. Also two feet short.
Afterward, the Dolphins' coach, 61-last-Friday Don Shula, was bouncing around like a kid, chirping, "Is everybody going to Buffalo? [Indeed, Cincinnati's blowout of Houston on Sunday guaranteed a third meeting between the Dolphins and Bills this Saturday.] We're going someplace, but we're going to play again! What a great feeling!"
Clayton was standing at his locker, sockless. Somebody had stolen his shoes, and his ankle was sprained, and he didn't care. "O.K., we've beaten nobody," Clayton said with an unforgivable grin. "We didn't play nobody all year and we've beaten nobody. Well, just let us keep on beating nobody, and we'll see you in Tampa, O.K.?"