SAN DIEGO -- Dan Marino started limping off the field, then stopped. He stood on the 5-yard line briefly, staring back at the field as San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium erupted around him. One second remained, one hopeless second. Back to the Miami sideline he went.
A 21-6 lead at halftime. What more could he have wanted? He was going back home, back to Pittsburgh, back to the AFC championship game. But now here he was, waiting out that last second, waiting for another torturous off-season to begin.
He can't wait much longer, but after yesterday's 22-21 loss to San Diego, he might wait forever. How many more chances do you get when you're 33? How many more chances do you get when your team is so inherently flawed?
Start with the Miami defense, No. 2 in the AFC against the run, a team record of 89.4 rushing yards allowed per game. Evidently, the Chargers didn't notice. Yesterday, they rushed for 202 yards, including a career-high 139 by Natrone Means.
Contrast that with the Miami running game, never much of a threat, but good for 132 yards last week against Kansas City. Yesterday, the Dolphins rushed for 26 yards, two in the second half. The game's turning point came when Bernie Parmalee was tackled for a third-quarter safety.
Then, in a wild, memorable finish, Miami was failed by its usually reliable kicking game, too. Pete Stoyanovich made eight of 10 attempts from 40 to 49 yards this season. Yesterday he was victimized by a high snap, and missed a potential game-winning kick from 48 yards with one second left.
Surely, Marino was thinking about all this as he walked off the field, the cameras staring in his face, the Chargers dancing around him, the crowd singing, "Hey, hey, hey . . . goodbye." But typical Marino, he was thinking about his own accountability, too.
"I'll just do this and get it over with," he said, pushing away a stool so he could speak to the reporters at his locker. His interview lasted only a few minutes. He should have been talking excitedly about Pittsburgh. Instead, he spoke dejectedly about what went wrong.
A 21-6 lead at halftime.
What more could he have asked?
Marino paused, for a good 10 seconds.
"Yeah," he said finally, "you feel like you're in a good situation. But you've got to come out and do something in the second half. We didn't do anything. We needed to score, take some pressure off the defense. That didn't happen."
The Chargers out-gained the Dolphins 259-58 in the second half, ran 50 plays to the Dolphins' 16, recorded 17 first downs to the Dolphins' 3. The time of possession was another joke -- 22:38-7:22. Heck, the Chargers had the ball for all but one play during the first 12:18 of the third quarter.
That one play was the safety, and Means scored the Chargers' first touchdown on the ensuing possession. By the time Marino got the ball back, the 15-point lead was down to six. The third quarter had nearly three minutes remaining. And the Miami defense was exhausted.
Everyone from Marino to coach Don Shula praised the defense afterward, but the Dolphins allowed 466 yards, and even with an eight-man front, couldn't stop the run. "I got worn down," linebacker Bryan Cox said. "I'm still cramping up right now as we speak."
What the Dolphins needed was ball control, but they never even tried to establish a running game. Eight rushes, that's all they attempted, the fewest in NFL postseason history. Means finished with 24 attempts, the Chargers 40. "It didn't seem like we were running the ball well," Marino said, "so we just decided to throw it."
Just decided to throw it.
Same old Dolphins.
Marino completed 17 of 24 passes for 206 yards and three touchdowns in the first half, seven of 14 passes for 56 yards in the second. No question, he was less effective as the Chargers tightened their zones and went to more man-to-man coverage.
Then again, he didn't get much help. Not from the backs. Not from the coaches calling the plays. And not from Mr. Illegal Forward Pass, Keith Jackson, who caught eight passes for 109 yards and two touchdowns, yet will be remembered only for his one bonehead move.
Still, for all that went wrong, the Dolphins wound up in position to attempt the game-winning field goal. They took over at their own 38 with 32 seconds left. A 32-yard interference penalty gave them a first down at the San Diego 30. As it turned out, they needed to be closer.
Marino blamed himself after going 0-for-4 on the final drive -- "We should have got closer, we should have hit another play at the end" -- but the Chargers blitzed on his final two incompletions. Frankly, the game had been lost earlier. The Dolphins were lucky they weren't blown out.
A 21-6 lead at halftime, a collapse for the ages. Marino was going back home, back to Pittsburgh, back to the AFC championship game. Then he was going back to Joe Robbie Stadium, back to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1985.
Now, all he can do is think about what might have been, but in the end, nothing changed -- he needed more help. "It feels like we've been snakebit," offensive tackle Ron Heller said. Marino being Marino, he would never buy that excuse. But if it's true, he woke up this morning with the largest welt of all.