It came down to this: The Miami Dolphins' season, the Buffalo
Bills' season and Jimmy Johnson's hairdo were all in Doug
Flutie's hands with 17 seconds left in an AFC wild-card game at
Pro Player Stadium last Saturday. How appropriate. Flutie had
driven the Bills to an unexpected playoff appearance, and now he
was frenetically trying to cap a rally from a 10-point deficit
in the final two minutes. First-and-goal at the Miami five. No
timeouts left. Memories of a previous Flutie visit to South
Florida weren't lost on a soul in the joint, not even Dolphins
rookie nickelback Patrick Surtain, who flashed back to his days
as an elementary school student in Mississippi.
As Surtain took his position, he thought of Flutie's miracle
touchdown pass to Gerard Phelan that enabled Boston College to
beat the Johnson-coached Miami Hurricanes in a 1984 game at the
Orange Bowl. Surtain said later that he was thinking, He's going
to do it again. He did it for BC, just nine miles from here.
He's going to pull another miracle.
In the NFL's playground game of the year--bombs on first downs,
four- and five-wideout sets almost as a matter of course,
endless yapping between the two teams--it was Dolphins defensive
end Trace Armstrong who made the last big play of the game.
Armstrong brushed aside the block of running back Thurman
Thomas, drilled an unsuspecting Flutie from his right side and
jarred the ball free. When defensive tackle Shane Burton
recovered, Miami had its first postseason win since 1994,
Buffalo's resurrection season was over, and Johnson's hair had
lost its lacquer.
The 24-17 victory sent the Dolphins to Denver for an AFC
divisional playoff game on Saturday against the Super Bowl
champion Broncos--a rematch of quarterback titans Dan Marino and
John Elway, who had met only once in 13 years before the
Dolphins' 31-21 upset of the Broncos on Dec. 21 at Pro Player.
Miami's defense, which held the Broncos to 219 yards in that
game, will have to be similarly stout in the thin Colorado air
if another upset is to unfold. Considering that Flutie threw for
360 yards and wideout Eric Moulds piled up an NFL-playoff-record
240 receiving yards, it's strange to say that Miami's defense
played a huge role in the win over the Bills. But it did. "In
games like this, after you've worked 365 days to get into the
playoffs, sometimes these games can turn on a dime, on one
defensive play," Armstrong said.
Or a handful. Buffalo, which had only 31 turnovers during the
regular season, committed five against a defense that allowed
the fewest points in the NFL this year and is a typical
Johnson-coached unit: speedy, tenacious, starless and
opportunistic. The Dolphins stripped Moulds and fellow wideout
Andre Reed, forced Flutie to cough up two other fumbles and
egged him into throwing a costly goal line interception at the
end of the first half, when the Bills had an opportunity to take
control of the game. "What we did," Armstrong said, "was provide
some huge momentum swings. We fought pretty well."
This is a defense built out of fighters, of tough guys with
attitudes. It's a group that's still angry that only one of
them, tackle Tim Bowens, was voted to the Pro Bowl. They feed
off that anger, believing they get better when they get
dissed--and they get dissed a lot. Bowens and fellow tackle
Daryl Gardener are the only starters who were first-round Miami
draft picks. Free safety Brock Marion was a free-agent pickup
from the Dallas Cowboys and a relative bargain. (Miami signed
him to a three-year, $8.1 million deal.) Cornerback Terrell
Buckley and outside linebacker Robert Jones were dumped by the
Green Bay Packers and the St. Louis Rams, respectively. Strong
safety Calvin Jackson was a rookie free agent signed in '94. The
other five starters were drafted in the second round or later.
Middle linebacker Zach Thomas is one of the mutts, a 5'11",
235-pound fireplug who was a fifth-round draft choice in '96.
Throughout his life Thomas has been hearing people tell him he's
too small to play football. "It's made me better every step of
the way," says Thomas, who was taken aback last week--and
concerned it would affect his motivation--when he was named to
the All-Pro team along with his idol from his college days at
Texas Tech, Junior Seau of the San Diego Chargers. "When I was
getting ready for the draft, my mom would mail me all the
negative things the experts were saying about me," Thomas
recalls. "I'd ask her why she was sending me all the negative
stuff, but I knew. Hey, I know I don't look like a football
player. I've always thought it's how hard you play, and how
tough you are, that matters."
And how hard you work. On the four days of practice last week,
Thomas didn't leave the office until after seven. "I like
watching film alone," he says. When he finally took a breath,
the day before the game at the Dolphins' practice facility, his
agent, Drew Rosenhaus, walked in with a new cell phone for his
Thomas took one look at the tiny metallic-blue phone. "It's a
little feminine, isn't it?" he said gruffly.
Rosenhaus insisted it was a macho model, but Thomas wasn't
buying it. "What's this look like to you?" Thomas asked Seth
Levit, a Dolphins assistant publicist.
"Lady's phone," Levit said.
"Can't have it," Thomas said, handing it back to Rosenhaus.
For much of the week the defenders were in a similarly contrary
mood. Blame it on Flutie, who had said early in the week that he
hoped the officials wouldn't let corners Buckley and Sam Madison
hold Buffalo's receivers. "What's he, five foot five?" Madison
shot back. "I can't wait to get him on the ground, so I can
shove Flutie Flakes down his throat."
That never happened, but the game had a belligerent tone
nonetheless. Thurman Thomas pointed his finger in the faces of
Miami players throughout, telling them to cut out what he
considered cheap shots. Johnson almost went hoarse screaming at
the officials. Even after the game, Madison wouldn't tip his hat
to Flutie. Asked whether he felt respect or disdain for Flutie,
Madison replied, "He's an NFL quarterback. That's it."
In the middle of the Miami locker room, Johnson went into a
tizzy. He placed a box of Flutie Flakes on a table and smashed
it with his fist until it split. Flakes flew everywhere. Some
players danced on the cereal. Others ate it. One Miami veteran
said he has never seen such a joyfully chaotic postgame scene.
Flutie was insulted, saying the Dolphins might as well have been
dancing on his seven-year-old autistic son; the Doug Flutie Jr.
Foundation for Autism has raised $1 million through the sale of
Johnson, who sent Flutie a letter of apology on Monday, has
never been much for political correctness, but he has been a
builder of great defenses. He just might have one that will keep
Broncos coach Mike Shanahan up late this week.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL FRAKES ROLE REVERSAL After fumbling in the third quarter, Flutie got defensive and dragged down Thomas himself. [Doug Flutie tackling Zach Thomas in game]