Dolphins must go on the defensive to upset Jaguars

Extending season, Marino's career falls on Miami's `D'

January 15, 2000|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The focus will be on Dan Marino.

But the pressure to spring the biggest upset of the NFL postseason will be on the Miami Dolphins' defense today when the AFC's No. 6 seed tackles the top-seeded Jacksonville Jaguars in a divisional playoff game at Alltel Stadium.

If the 10-7 Dolphins have any chance to extend their season -- and Marino's quarterbacking career -- they will have to get a big game from their quicksilver defense. Given the injuries the 14-2 Jaguars are nursing and the favorable matchups Miami appears to have, that big game is not beyond reason.

Those matchups start on Miami's defensive line. Pass-rushing end Trace Armstrong, who notched three sacks in last week's 20-17 wild-card win over the Seattle Seahawks, goes against Pro Bowl right tackle Leon Searcy, who will play with a high-ankle sprain suffered two weeks ago in the regular-season finale.

On the other side, ends Jason Taylor and Rich Owens will take turns going against Jaguars left tackle Ben Coleman, a guard who lost his starting job two weeks ago but returned to the lineup when All-Pro tackle Tony Boselli went down with a season-ending knee injury.

And if the Dolphins can get a pass rush from the outside, will Jacksonville quarterback Mark Brunell be mobile enough to avoid sacks and hurried throws? Brunell, who sprained his left knee in Week 16 and missed the last regular-season game, will wear braces on both knees.

Although Miami's defense struggled late in the season, particularly against the run, the Dolphins regrouped in last week's win at Seattle. They allowed just 41 rushing yards, 171 total yards and collected six sacks.

"Jacksonville's a lot better in a lot of areas than Seattle," Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson said.

Still, defense is the place where Miami could steal momentum if the Jaguars break out to an early lead.

"It's difficult to get [momentum] back, especially against a talented team," Johnson said. "In the playoffs, you're going to face a talented team. I think the main thing is that you can't lose your patience, and you've got to be able to do some things in one phase of the game or another to change it back around."

Whether the Dolphins can stop Jacksonville's running game is another issue. The Jaguars led the league with an average of 130.7 rushing yards a game. Running back Fred Taylor appears as healthy as he has been all season.

The Dolphins lost big (38-3) at Denver in last season's divisional round when the Broncos' Terrell Davis shredded them for 199 rushing yards. Any repeat of that misadventure sends the Dolphins right back to the passing game in the catch-up mode.

That's the last thing Johnson wants.

"I don't know that I'm going to be very comfortable with any quarterback throwing it 40 or 50 times," he said, "and that's what we were getting to the last few games prior to Seattle. It doesn't make any difference if it's a great player, a Hall of Fame player like Dan Marino, or whether it's somebody on our practice squad. I don't like to throw it that much."

Marino, nearing the end of a prolific 17-year run with the Dolphins, isn't as squeamish. His arm strength has returned, he says, since a midseason neck injury sent him to the sidelines for five games.

"I feel as of late that my arm strength is back pretty close to what it was two or three years ago," he said.

Asked if he could throw 40 or 45 times, if needed, Marino didn't hesitate.

"Yeah, I would throw it 60 times if I had to," he said.

Aside from the injuries, the Jaguars also must answer this question: How did the 41-14 thrashing at the hands of the Tennessee Titans in Week 16 affect them?

"It remains to be seen how that will affect us," Brunell said. "Will that be a wake-up call? Will it be a game that maybe lit a fire under us for the remainder of the year? Hopefully, we can say that at the end of this whole thing. But right now, it is too early to tell."

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