Dolphins answer Browns' rally with one of own

September 15, 1992|By Scott Fowler | Scott Fowler,Knight-Ridder

CLEVELAND -- Miami quarterback Dan Marino engineered an extraordinary finish in the fourth quarter last night, and the Dolphins edged Cleveland, 27-23, in their hurricane-delayed season opener.

The Dolphins rebounded from Cleveland's remarkable 20-point outburst in the game's final 7:46 when running back Mark Higgs -- who earlier had scored a touchdown and given up another with a crucial fumble -- high-jumped 1 yard over the goal line with 0:07 left.

The time remaining was appropriate, for this was a finish James Bond would have loved and one that any sleepy football fan will kick him/herself today for missing. On the last drive, the Dolphins went 84 yards in five plays and 68 seconds. That march ended a game in which the teams combined for 30 of the game's 50 points in the last 12 minutes.

The final drive went like this, in not much more than the time it takes you to read this paragraph: Marino to Mark Duper for 19, Marino to Bobby Humphrey for 9, Marino to Freddie Banks for 22 (with 15 tacked on by a roughing-the-passer penalty on Cleveland's Anthony Pleasant), Marino to Banks for 18 to the 1 and Higgs up the middle for the score.

"On that last drive, Marino played like what he is -- a champion," Browns safety Eric Turner said.

Marino was indeed masterful, ending the game with 25 completions in 35 attempts for 322 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. On the last drive, he was 4-for-4 for 68 yards.

"That's about as thrilling as you can make it," said Miami coach Don Shula, who won a season opener for only the second time in eight years.

"The big thing is we won on the road," a calm Marino said.

Those who went to bed midway through the fourth quarter of the "Monday Night Football" telecast, thinking the Dolphins had this one safely salted away, will be startled at this final score. But Cleveland put up 20 straight points in the fourth period quicker than you could say, "Wait a minute ... they scored again?" ruthlessly slashing the Dolphins' 20-3 lead.

It was the 19th time Marino, who turns 31 today, had brought the Dolphins back from a fourth-quarter deficit to win in his 10-year career.

"It was vintage Marino," Shula said. If the Dolphins hadn't scored on Higgs' run, Shula said it would have been a "very tough decision" whether to go for an outright victory or a field goal taking the game into overtime on the next play. The Dolphins still possessed one timeout when Higgs scored -- Marino didn't use any on the last drive.

Cleveland's Bill Belichick was short-tempered after the game, snapping at reporters to "get back" as they crowded in to hear him.

"We just missed some opportunities in all areas," said Belichick, whose club fell to 0-2. "You've got to give Miami credit."

Cleveland had shrugged off a 17-point, fourth-quarter deficit for those 20 points in the final 7:46, coming alive like Frankenstein's monster after the lightning bolt.

"We didn't turn it on until the second half," said Browns fullback Tommy Vardell, an offensive hero in the fourth quarter who rushed for 84 yards and set up the Browns' last TD with a 20-yard catch. "I thought it was going to be enough. But it wasn't."

The Browns' last touchdown came with 1:18, when tight end Mark Bavaro caught a 3-yard touchdown pass from Bernie Kosar. But Browns kicker Matt Stover banged the extra-point attempt off the left upright and it bounced away, giving Cleveland only a 23-20 lead and meaning a Miami field goal would send the game into overtime. But the Dolphins went that opportunity one better, scoring a touchdown instead.

"If we'd have lost I would have thought my fumble blew it," said Miami's Higgs, who was stripped of the ball to set up the Browns' go-ahead score. "That last play capped it off. My teammates stayed with me, said to keep my head up. But the fumble was a nightmare. All I could think was, 'Let me have another chance.' "

The Dolphins nearly had a strong hand in spoiling their openerYou aren't supposed to lose 20-3 leads in the fourth quarter, especially against a team that was drilled, 14-3, a week ago by lowly Indianapolis.

But the Dolphins' defense, solid until the last 15 minutes, allowed two long touchdown drives in the last quarter, and Higgs lost the ball that was returned 32 yards for a touchdown.

The Browns' famous fans in the "Dog Pound" at Cleveland Stadium were droopy-eared until Cleveland receiver Michael Jackson provided a thriller with a 6-yard touchdown catch with 7:46 to play.

Only 67 seconds later, Higgs saw the ball stripped away by linebacker Mike Johnson at the Dolphins' 32. David Brandon immediately picked up the ball, trotted into the end zone with no interference and threw down a monster spike. Suddenly, a 20-3 game had turned into a 20-17 nail-biter with 6:39 left and the crowd of 74,765 was on its feet, screaming.

After Pete Stoyanovich had to punt -- Reggie Roby twisted his left knee on his first punt and may be out three weeks or longer, depending on the diagnosis today -- Cleveland drove for its third consecutive TD. Kosar was nearly perfect, going 6-for-7 for 71 yards on the 78-yard drive. But Marino was better.

With Cincinnati coach Dave Shula watching his father Don on TV -- and being watched by the "Monday Night Football" audience as he looked on -- the Dolphins built a 14-point lead in the first quarter and looked as if they would have little problem.

Linebacker John Offerdahl obviously made some difference ihis first game back since last October, when he tore up a knee. He helped stuff the middle against the Browns, who attempted to run as much as possible to keep the heat off Kosar. But the Dolphins' defense faltered late, looking like the 1991 version.

Miami had increased a 14-0 halftime lead to 20-3 early in the fourth quarter with the second of Stoyanovich's two field goals.

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