The field goal that would decide the fate of two flawed teams was still approaching its apex when the uncivilized celebration began. Long before Miami Dolphin kicker Pete Stoyanovich's obviously doomed 48-yard offering fell to earth, the rapt inhabitants of Jack Murphy Stadium were dancing in the seats, gesticulating wildly for their San Diego Chargers.
In the moments of madness that ensued, mere cheers became superfluous. The sky was filled with balloons, firework smoke and primordial howls that reached a peak when quarterback Stan Humphries skipped his way to the locker room tunnel. Stan the Man had lost it, too; he was wagging his right index finger and contorting the rest of his appendages in uncanny directions. Humphries appeared to be auditioning for a role as Jim Carrey's stunt double, and as he wiggled to the tired strains of Gary Glitter's Rock and Roll Part Two, all eyes were on this smokin' spectacle in San Diego.
Then the smoke cleared and the music stopped and reality returned with a sharp bite. While the Chargers' 22-21 victory on Sunday may have energized their city and brought life to a stupefying weekend of second-round playoff romps, it did little to encourage the notion that next Sunday's AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh will offer much in the way of genuine drama.
The Chargers and the Dolphins, while entertaining, both showed that they have yet to reach the level of consistency and might that the Pittsburgh Steelers have displayed over the past two months. And the Steelers, utterly dominant in their 29-9 smashing of the Cleveland Browns last Saturday, still seem short staffed when stacked up against either the San Francisco 49ers or the Dallas Cowboys. It is now a certainty that the AFC will send to the Super Bowl a team with a physical defense and strong running game but without a big-time passing attack. Put another way, it will be Steve Young or Troy Aikman against Humphries or Neil O'Donnell—and while the latter two players performed admirably in their second-round tests, it was a losing quarterback, Miami's Dan Marino, who gave the AFC's weekend its only sex appeal.
Marino, despite another splendid show, isn't going home to Pittsburgh next Sunday, because the Dolphins couldn't put away a Charger team they were running over like Chris Webber over an unwanted coach. Midway through the third quarter, San Diego trailed 21-6 and had been exposed as an utter fraud near the goal line. Three trips to first-and-goal territory had netted a grand total of two John Carney field goals, and when Miami defensive end Marco Coleman made an inspired fourth-down stop of running back Natrone Means just short of the end zone with 7:06 to go in the third quarter, a 99-yard touchdown drive by Marino loomed as the likely response.
A championship team would have, at the very least, taken a small step toward icing the game. But the Dolphins immediately went backward, with San Diego defensive tackle Reuben Davis busting through the Miami line to nail running back Bernie Parmalee for a game-turning safety. The Chargers went on to produce a stirring second-half effort with plenty of tension but also plenty of errors that the Cowboys, 49ers or Steelers would have turned to their advantage.
That is why, a few minutes after Humphries disappeared into the darkness, the jubilance of the Charger locker room was shattered by the grizzled grinch of San Diego, pass rusher Leslie O'Neal, who strode in yelling, "Hey, get it out of your system!"
Two days earlier, as he walked to a pep rally outside the stadium, O'Neal had called his team "lucky" and bemoaned its propensity for making "stupid mistakes." Now he wanted to ensure that the mistakes made against Miami were not obscured by the result of the game. The younger Chargers seemed willing to forgive and forget things like the three San Diego turnovers, but most of the elder statesmen agreed that a much crisper effort would be required in Pittsburgh.
"We have to improve if we're going to have a chance in that game," general manager Bobby Beathard cautioned.
It may be that San Diego, a young team with room to grow, maxed out on its current potential in this game, in which the emotional stakes, fueled by a recent history of ill will between the Chargers and the Dolphins, were particularly high. For one thing, Miami had angered San Diego by blitzing late in its 31-0, second-round-playoff blowout two years ago. And in December 1993, John Friesz, then the Chargers' backup quarterback, threw deep toward the end of San Diego's 45-20 victory over the Dolphins—a clip replayed at least four times in Miami film sessions last week.
The acrimony flared again on Saturday when Miami showed up for its walkthrough at Jack Murphy Stadium. Beathard, apparently wishing to protect the rain-drenched playing surface, wanted the Dolphins to move to the adjacent practice field. Security guards tried to close the stadium gates, and field workers were told not to remove the tarp covering the grass. Miami coach Don Shula appealed to the NFL's director of officiating, Jerry Seeman, who has jurisdiction over such disputes. Seeman ultimately allowed the Dolphins to practice in the stadium, but not before Beathard pitched a loud and nasty fit, at one point complaining, according to witnesses, that Shula "runs the——league."
Whether by coincidence or conspiracy, the power was off in the visitors' locker room when Miami came in at halftime on Sunday. The offensive players relocated to the officials' dressing room, while their defensive counterparts sat there in the dark. That was a foreshadowing of the Dolphin defenders' positioning on the Chargers' winning touchdown: Facing first-and-goal from the eight with 48 seconds remaining, the San Diego coaches finally called an effective play near the goal line, a sneaky little gem known as S7-counter-G-right-trail.
The play was designed to go to receiver Mark Seay, a player previously known more for the bullet still lodged in his chest as the result of a gang-related shooting than for his pass catching. During the snap count, Seay went in motion from left to right, then doubled back to the left and, at the precise moment Humphries got the ball, slipped back to the right of left tackle Harry Swayne and into the right flat. Cornerback Troy Vincent, assigned to handle Seay in man-to-man coverage, got lost in the shuffle, and Seay was wide open.
The Chargers now take their bag of tricks to Pittsburgh, knowing they had to sweat out Marino's last-gasp comeback effort, which included a potentially fatal pass-interference penalty against San Diego and ended in a surprisingly lame field goal attempt by the normally steady Stoyanovich. The Chargers took pride in their ability to move the ball, particularly on the ground. The 245-pound Means produced 139 of San Diego's season-best 202 rushing yards, with 24 coming on a dazzling third-quarter touchdown run.
Conversely, San Diego limited the Dolphin ground game to 26 yards on eight carries. The Chargers had the ball for nearly two thirds of this game, which is not likely to happen against the Steelers, who boast an equally potent ball-control offense and a much more dangerous and aggressive defense.
Pittsburgh, which led the NFL in rushing, obliterated Cleveland's front seven. Barry Foster ran for 133 yards without making a cut as the Steelers rolled up 238 rushing yards. Pittsburgh put away the game by scoring on its first three possessions, and by the time receiver Yancey Thigpen pulled out a Terrible Towel—to celebrate a touchdown catch for a 24-3 lead late in the first half—there was little doubt as to who ruled the AFC. "No one is going to stop them from going to the big game," Brown defensive tackle Michael Dean Perry said afterward. One Dolphin veteran concurred, saying of the Chargers, "They can't cover anybody, and they'll be destroyed."
Basking in the glow of their biggest postseason victory since a 41-38 outlasting of Miami 13 years ago, the Chargers were in no mood for concession speeches. "'The mistakes we made, we can see those on film and correct them," safety Stanley Richard rationalized. "Look, our goal is to get to the Super Bowl. We don't care if we sneak in through the side window or through the back door."
It was a noble bit of spunk, but the fact is, teams that sneak into big games run a severe risk of being exposed by a complete, unyielding champion. If the Steelers don't do the job on Sunday—then follow it up with the game of their lives—it could be another dismal Super Sunday.
By Michael Silver In San Diego with Paul Zimmerman In Pittsburgh