MIAMI -- The pulverized bits of Flutie Flakes littered the carpet of the Miami Dolphins' locker room at Pro Player Stadium like a freshly fallen layer of New Year's confetti. It was a remnant of the raucous celebration -- with Miami coach Jimmy Johnson supplying the cereal -- that the Dolphins enjoyed after a stirring 24-17 victory over the Buffalo Bills in their AFC wild-card game yesterday.
Hey, after surviving a palpitating finish, Johnson wanted his Dolphins to savor the flavor.
With 16 seconds left and Buffalo just 5 yards from scoring a game-tying touchdown, Miami veteran defensive end Trace Armstrong sacked Doug Flutie for a 3-yard loss that caused the quarterback to fumble, Buffalo's fifth and final turnover. Shane Burton fell on the loose ball, and everyone on Miami's bench exhaled a sigh of relief.
"I saw him with the ball and it was just milliseconds, definitely," Armstrong said. "But you're just straining to get there and I got the hit on him, and I saw the ball come out, but I wasn't sure how they were going to rule it -- a forward pass or a fumble. It was a tough call for those officials to make.
"I was glad, because I don't think I could've gone another play."
In a game that was chock-full of big plays from start (Flutie's first-play 65-yard strike to Eric Moulds that was stripped by Terrell Buckley and recovered by Brock Marion) to finish (Armstrong's sack that halted Buffalo's 64-yard stampede to the 5 in 74 seconds), the difference was a controversial call just inside the two-minute warning that led to the ejection of veteran Bills wide receiver Andre Reed.
As the Bills drove for a touchdown that would've pulled them within a field goal, Reed made an apparent 10-yard touchdown catch, writhing out of the grasp of safety Brian Walker to lunge for the goal line. When the officials did not signal a touchdown, Reed sprang to his feet and bumped into field judge Steve Zimmer, who had rushed in to spot the ball at the 1.
Reed was given the heave-ho, and the Bills were hit with an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty that backed them up to the 15, from where they were forced to settle for Steve Christie's 33-yard field goal.
"Turnovers cost us," said Flutie, who outgunned Miami quarterback Dan Marino by completing 21 of 36 for 360 yards and one touchdown, compared with Marino's 23-for-35 for 235 yards and one touchdown. "But I still think Andre was in the end zone. You don't take a touchdown away from the team when they are in the end zone."
Said Reed: "I didn't go up and push him for any reason. Like I said, man, I didn't know I was thrown out of the game until he went like this," -- he gestured with his thumb out. "I have never been thrown out of a game for any reason. I don't get upset like that for any reason."
The Dolphins had plenty of reasons to be upset with themselves, especially after they failed to capitalize on a pair of red-zone opportunities early in the first half and had to settle for field goals of 31 and 40 yards by Olindo Mare to take a 6-0 lead.
But Mare kept the Bills in it when he muffed an onside-kick attempt, giving Buffalo great field position at the Miami 42. Three plays later, Thurman Thomas capitalized with a 1-yard touchdown that gave Buffalo a 7-6 lead with 8: 54 left.
Mare then missed giving Miami a two-point lead at intermission when his 26-yard chip shot bounced off the right upright.
The Dolphins, who talked all week of establishing the run to create more of a balanced offense, did precisely that in the second half, pounding the ball on an impressive 12-play, 52-yard drive that ended on Karim Abdul-Jabbar's 3-yard burst up the middle. Stanley Pritchett scored from the same distance on the two-point conversion to make it 14-7, Miami.
In all, the Dolphins rushed 34 times for 117 yards, with Jabbar (27 carries, 95 yards) doing the bulk of the work. It was the best playoff rushing effort by a Miami back in six years.
Flutie hit Moulds (nine catches, an NFL postseason-record 240 yards) on a 32-yard strike with 48 seconds left in the third to even the score at 14. Miami appeared to salt it away in the fourth when Mare connected on a 23-yard field goal, and Marino found Lamar Thomas with an 11-yard touchdown that gave the Dolphins a 24-14 lead.
Flutie, who had engaged Miami's defensive backs by suggesting earlier in the week that "it was important for officials to pull their flags out if they start tugging and pulling, as usual," rallied the Bills on a comeback that conjured up collegiate memories of his Miracle in Miami in 1984.
"No, I wasn't thinking about that," snorted Johnson, when asked if he thought about Boston College's 47-45 victory over his former Miami Hurricane team. "This is professional football."
Said Marino of the Pro Bowl-bound Flutie: "He's had an incredible year and he's got a big heart and he's got a lot of experience, and you can tell. In these situations, you've got to have quarterbacks with experience if you want to win games. Obviously, it showed today because he brought his team within a touchdown of tying it up."
But, in the end, he came up short -- by 5 yards.
"It was like you're in the hospital and you're on that last beep," said Madison of Flutie's desperate fourth-quarter heroics. "You have to keep fighting, fighting. We were on the operating table and we couldn't let them pull the plug on us."
Earlier in the week, Madison had promised that, if given the opportunity to get Flutie on the ground, he would stuff some Flutie Flakes down his throat. Armstrong did the honors by flattening Flutie, but Madison and his teammates alternately danced and stomped on the box afterward.
"Oh yeah, that's definitely what it is," Madison confirmed, breaking into a wide smile. "I ate a little bit -- then I spit it all out."
Pub Date: 1/03/99