MIAMI — It was Sunday, it was raining and it was getting dark. A perfect setting for a funeral.
So the New England Patriots held one, and they buried the past.
Sing a song of sadness for orange-colored jinxes, for Don Shula’s magic, and for that unwritten rule that says Boston shall see championships only in basketball and hockey. The Patriots are going to the Super Bowl — as champions of the AFC. And it wasn’t even close.
It was 31-14, destiny over dynasty. Wild card over division winner. Patriots over Dolphins.
And if those were not the words you expected, then surely these were not the pictures: Dan Marino flat on his back, covered in mud; Mark Duper screaming and slamming his helmet to the ground; Shula on tiptoes, shaking the hand of Pats coach Raymond Berry, who was being hoisted off the field on the shoulders of celebration.
Wait a minute. Frustration was to be wearing red and white, wasn’t it? The Patriots — begun with a $25,000 check back in 1960 and destined to tie their shoelaces together ever since?
They had to lose. Why, they’d lost 18 straight times to the Dolphins in the Orange Bowl. Besides, Miami had never lost an AFC championship game. New Englanders knew this. Weren’t the Boston barrooms filled with the walking wounded, who knew they’d be hearing the bugle play taps again by nightfall?
Well, no. For this was the day New England shed its skin, a day Mother Nature obviously had whipped up to make the Pats feel right at home — from the chilly rainfall (in Miami?) to the presence of someone named Doug Flutie, smiling down from a box seat.
Miracles do happen around here, you know. Patriots keep swinging Of course the Patriots will say it was hard-nosed football that sent them to New Orleans.
“We did it in the Meadowlands, we did it in the Coliseum and we did it here,” screamed tackle Brian Holloway, recalling the Patriots’ playoff wins in the previous two weeks. “This is a different team than the past.”
That became evident in the opening minutes, when Miami fumbled on its first possession and New England responded with a field goal. It was like the shy schoolkid finally punching the bully in the nose. “He bleeds,” the kid whispers. And then he swings again.
The swinging would not stop. The Pats went after the Dolphins on the ground — where you can punch a hole in Miami’s defense rather quickly. Craig James tucked his head and barreled through a human wall. Robert Weathers scooted outside and picked up 45 yards on a single carry.
The Pats passed the 100-yard rushing mark before the second quarter was half over. Meanwhile, Miami was unraveling in the rain, fumbling three times in the half — two of which New England eventually turned into touchdowns. And fish are supposed to like the water.
The Pats went into halftime leading, 17-7.
But all right. The Patriots had lost leads before. In the locker room at halftime, Shula told the Dolphins they had played about the “worst half of football they could possibly play,” obviously hoping to inspire improvement. Instead the team came out and tried to prove he had understated the case.
Lorenzo Hampton fumbled away the second-half kickoff and New England scored again, making it 24-7. The dark clouds were swarming.
The Dolphins went to their salvation, Marino, but a man can be expected to perform only so many miracles. He threw one touchdown pass to close it to 24-14 early in the fourth quarter, but one series later, running back Joe Carter fumbled, and that clinched the outcome.
And in the Pats’ locker room — where they hadn’t bothered to order champagne — there was as much relief as celebration. “We finally beat a Don Shula team when it counted,” said Steve Nelson, the quintessential Patriot, 12 years under his bridesmaid’s belt. “That’s not as sweet as a Super Bowl win. But it’s pretty darn close.” Now anything can happen So the Patriots earn the dubious honor of facing the Chicago Bears in the Super Bowl, and the Bears already are being favored like a team that has beaten New England, oh, say 18 straight times.
So? The Patriots are used to it. But the amulet they will wear going in will be this Sunday in Miami. For if this could happen, anything can.
This was a day for trading places. The last becoming the first and all that. And in the end, it can be summed up by two pictures:
By the solitary figure of Carter — whose fumble had cost the Dolphins their last handful of miracle dust — sitting on the bench, not a teammate within 20 feet of him, staring at the grass and wishing he were somewhere under it.
And by the grandstands with 30 seconds to go. For at last, the Miami faithful had surrendered the evil fort, headed for their cars, and only a smattering of New England fans were left standing on their soaking seats, screaming and delirious.
The Patriots buried a myth and they buried a legacy. New England is in the Super Bowl.