MIAMI -- The Miami Dolphins did their best just to stay even with the Kansas City Chiefs during the first half of yesterday's AFC playoff game at Joe Robbie Stadium.
They played down to their status as one of pro football's worst teams against the pass, and Kansas City quarterback Joe Montana played up his position as the game's best postseason player.
But the Dolphins rediscovered their defense in the second half, and Montana didn't find another fountain of youth. It resulted in Miami pulling away for a 27-17 victory and Montana throwing a critical fourth-quarter interception as the Chiefs seemed to be climbing back into the game.
After carving out a 10-point lead from a first-half tie, the Dolphins shut down Montana and shut out the Chiefs in the second half. Miami's once-beleaguered but rapidly improving secondary made the two biggest plays: the first an interception by former Maryland standout J. B. Brown and the other by safety Michael Stewart, who ripped the ball out of Marcus Allen's hands.
The victory included a near perfect performance by Miami's own future Hall of Famer, quarterback Dan Marino, who outgunned Montana to send the Dolphins into the AFC semifinals. Miami will play at San Diego next Sunday. It also sends Montana, 38, home to contemplate whether to continue his legendary career.
"We answered everything Kansas City had to give, and they had to give a lot early in the game," said Dolphins coach Don Shula. "Their offense was unstoppable early, but we answered them in the second half when we picked up our intensity on defense."
The first 33 minutes had everything you'd want from a matchup featuring two of the game's greatest quarterbacks. The respective offenses scored a touchdown or a field goal on their first seven possessions combined. Montana completed his first seven passes, and 12 of 15 in the first half. Marino missed his first pass, then hit 16 of his next 17.
And, the Dolphins came back from deficits of 7-0, 14-7 and 17-10 to tie the game at 17 when Marino found backup tight end Ronnie Williams with 22 seconds left in the first half on third-and-goal from the Kansas City 1. Miami took its first lead of the game when Marino hit Irving Fryar on another third-and-goal, this time from the 7, with a little more than three minutes gone in the second half.
"It was a big thing to go into the locker room tied at halftime," said Williams, a second-year player from Oklahoma State whose touchdown catch was his first in the NFL. "We came out in the second half and took the lead. Then the defense took over."
On Kansas City's opening series of the second half, Miami forced the game's first punt. After the Chiefs stopped the Dolphins on downs for the first time, Miami did it again. Then, after Pete Stoyanovich padded the lead to 27-17 with his second 40-yard field goal, the defense made its first big play.
It came after Montana had led the Chiefs from their 29 to the Miami 5. With Kansas City having first-and-goal, the Dolphins blitzed Montana, who threw into double coverage aiming for Eric Martin on a slant. Brown stepped in front at the goal line and returned the interception 24 yards.
"I jammed the receiver and when I looked up, the ball was there," said Brown. "Surprise, surprise. I think it took a lot of out of them."
But the Dolphins weren't through making big defensive plays. After the Chiefs had stopped Miami again on downs, Kansas City drove from its 21 into Miami territory. On first down from the 44, Allen picked up 9 yards and was trying to get out of bounds when Stewart took the ball away.
"Those plays by J. B. Brown and Michael Stewart were big for us," said Shula.
So was the performance by Marino. The 34-year-old quarterback continued his remarkable comeback from last year's season-ending Achilles' tendon injury, finishing with 22 completions in 29 attempts for 257 yards and two touchdowns. He broke an NFL record he shared with Ken Stabler and -- who else? -- Montana by throwing a touchdown pass in his 11th straight playoff game.
"I give the offensive line a lot of credit," said Marino, who awarded his game ball to veteran tackle Ron Heller for playing with a bruised rotator cuff. "They wanted to play hard and we did a good job running the ball. They did an outstanding job. Most of the night, I had a lot of time to throw."
So did Montana, for the first half at least. But after his incredible start, Montana showed both his age and inability to throw deep in the second half. Though he finished with terrific stats (26 of 37 for 314 yards and two touchdowns), his interception proved costly. It might have cost the Chiefs their season.
"We were trying to work on the guy on our left and hopefully he'd get inside of him," said Montana, who likely will return for his 17th season despite recent reports to the contrary. "It just didn't happen."
It happened for the Dolphins yesterday. It happened because they discovered their defense in the second half and figured out a way to stop a legend.
They also know that to return home for the Super Bowl on Jan. 29, they will have to keep doing what they did in the last 30 minutes against the Chiefs.
"Offense sells tickets," said linebacker Bryan Cox, "but defense wins Super Bowls."
Also playoff games.
* Green Bay 16, Detroit 12
* Miami 27, Kansas City 17
* New England at Cleveland, 12:30 p.m., chs. 2, 4
* Chicago at Minnesota, 4 p.m., chs. 45, 5
* N.E. or Clev. at Pittsburgh, 12:30 p.m., chs. 11, 4
* G.B, Chicago or Minnesota at San Francisco, 4 p.m., chs. 45, 5
* G.B, Chicago or Minnesota at Dallas, 12:30 p.m., chs. 45, 5
* Miami at San Diego, 4 p.m., chs. 11, 4
* AFC championship, chs. 11, 4
* NFC championship, chs. 45, 5
* Super Bowl, at Miami, 6 p.m., chs. 2, 7