EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The joy ride stopped here for the Miami Dolphins yesterday.
For two weeks, football had been fun for the Dolphins. Their defense had teeth, their offense had balance and Dan Marino -- for the first time in memory, anyway -- had a running game.
On a sunny, wind-swept afternoon in the Meadowlands, it all fell apart, though. The New York Giants pierced the Dolphins' unbeaten bubble with a resounding 20-3 victory before 76,483 at Giants Stadium.
Call it a triumph of smash-mouth football.
It started with the Dolphins getting all of three offensive plays in the first quarter. It ended with Marino's fifth interception and his first sack of the season.
Even the interception was in keeping with the tone of the game. For one of the few times all day a Dolphins receiver had gotten behind the Giants' web-like zone defense. For one of the few times all day, Marino, rolling out, had time to find him.
"I threw it as hard as I could," the NFL's fastest gun said later. It wasn't hard enough.
Fifty yards later, Marino's bullet hit a gust of wind and dived into the hands of Giants free safety Myron Guyton, several yards short of the backtracking Mark Duper. Duper immediately lassoed Guyton, but a nifty little lateral to Everson Walls was worth 40 yards of Meadowlands real estate.
That's how it went for the Dolphins. How bad was it?
* Miami, which accumulated the second-most rushing yards in ** the NFL in the season's first two weeks, gained a mere 39 yards against the Giants' stonewall defense. Worse yet, Sammie Smith, the NFL's leading rusher coming in with 215 yards, got only 9 yards on five carries.
* The Dolphins got off only 45 plays to the Giants' 71. More to the point, the Giants controlled the ball for 40 minutes, 18 seconds to Miami's 19:42.
* Even more to the point, the Dolphins crossed midfield only once all afternoon. They reached the Giants' 33 in the third
quarter, and settled for a 51-yard field goal by Pete Stoyanovich.
"We played pretty bad," said Marino, who was 14-for-30 for 115 yards and two interceptions. "But I've been in other games where we weren't able to do much offensively.
"I don't think I played very well. I don't think the whole team played very well. But I'm not going to get down on the team. We'll be better. We're going to win a lot of games."
But probably not as many as the Giants, now 3-0. It was the Giants' brute force that won out against Miami's finesse. On a day when the passing game was more of a luxury, the Giants lined up in their three tight end offense and sent ageless Ottis Anderson plugging into the line.
Anderson, 32, plugged for a pair of 1-yard touchdowns. With 72 )) yards on 25 carries, he also nudged past Earl Campbell into eighth place on the NFL's all-time rushing list.
The Giants' best defense may have been their plodding, unspectacular offense. Except for the pizazz supplied by Towson State's Dave Meggett (142 all-purpose yards on nine receptions, one run and four kick returns), the Giants' running game was less than 3 yards (2.9, precisely) and a spray of AstroTurf lint. Sean Landeta, another Towson Stater, put three of his six punts inside the Miami 20 to underscore the battle of field position.
With the Giants, such story lines have become a state of mind.
"Once you get an offensive line feeling it can do whatever it
wants, that's a pretty dangerous thing," said Giants nose tackle Erik Howard, whose defensive mate Lawrence Taylor apparently pulled a hamstring muscle on the game's final play.
Said quarterback Phil Simms, who didn't hurt the Giants with 13-for-25 passing numbers, "There were times today we could have taken the chance and thrown the ball, but what for?"
Indeed, there was no need.