The previous seven years had seen the legendary Don Shula get his Miami Dolphins teams to the playoffs just one time. That had come in 1990 and it ended with a loss to the AFC East rival Buffalo Bills. The 1992 Miami Dolphins got back into the playoffs, won the first division title since 1985 in fact and made the AFC Championship Game before the run again ended with a loss to the Bills.
Dan Marino was at the helm of the Miami attack and he threw the ball more than anyone in the league in 1992. The raw volume of throws might partly explain his NFL-best 4,116 passing yards. But it doesn’t explain how Marino also finished in the top eight among NFL quarterbacks in completion percentage, yards-per-attempt and interception percentage.
Marino’s season gets even more impressive when you consider that his primary targets were running backs and a tight end. Bobby Humphrey’s 54 catches were the most on the team out of the backfield and Mark Higgs’ 48 receptions were tied for second. Tight end Keith Jackson was a Pro Bowl player, but none of the top targets were real threats down the field.
The big play receivers were getting older. Mark Duper was 33-years-old and still averaged 17-plus yards per catch, but he only caught 44 balls. Mark Clayton, another holdover from the prolific offenses of the mid-to-late 1980s caught 43 balls for 619 yards.
Between Marino’s passing, Higgs rushing for over 900 yards , the presence of All-NFL left tackle Richmond Webb and Pro Bowl kicker Pete Stoyanovich, Miami still ranked eighth in the NFL in scoring.
The defense was led by two young players. Bryan Cox was a fiery outside linebacker and at the age of 24, recorded 14 sacks and made the Pro Bowl. On the corner, rookie Troy Vincent was getting started on a stellar career. The defense overall wasn’t a great unit, but they were consistent enough to rank 11th in the league in points allowed.
Miami came blazing out of the gate and won their first six games. The biggest win came at Buffalo when they picked off Jim Kelly four times. The biggest game in the third quarter. The Dolphins led 24-10, but the Bills were on the doorstep. Strong safety Louis Oliver intercepted a pass in the end zone and took it 103 yards to the house. The final score ended up 37-10.
The 6-0 start was followed by a hiccup in divisional play. Miami lost at home to the Indianapolis (the Colts were in the AFC East prior to the realignment of 2002). The Colts were respectable, so that could be explained away. Losing the next week to a bad New York Jets team couldn’t. After an easy 28-0 win over Indy in the rematch, the Dolphins got set for Round 2 with Buffalo.
On a Monday Night in Miami, the Dolphins couldn’t run the ball, nor could they stop the run. Only some red-zone stops on defense kept the final score close in a 26-20 loss. The Fish were a game back of the Bills in the AFC East.
Another difficult Monday Night home game awaited later in November, on the Monday prior to Thanksgiving. The Houston Oilers (today’s Tennessee Titans), who had made the playoffs five years running and would again in 1992, were in South Beach.
The Oilers were missing the great Warren Moon at quarterback, but with Marino having an erratic night, the Dolphins couldn’t get separation. Fortunately, Stoyanovich came through with two fourth-quarter field goals, the last one a 52-yarder that won the game 19-16.
Miami’s difficult stretch drive schedule continued with games against the 49ers and the Saints, both of whom would win at least 12 games and make the postseason. Not surprisingly, the Dolphins lost both and dropped to 8-5.
Oddly enough though, that two-week stretch proved to be a net positive. Buffalo also lost both games. Unlike the Dolphins, the Bills lost games they should have won, to the Colts and Jets. Unlike the Dolphins, the Bills had lost games against conference opponents. Thus, Miami not only stayed with one game of the division lead, they now had the tiebreakers in their favor.
The Dolphins played another Monday Night home game, this team beating the mediocre Los Angeles Raiders, 20-7. A home game against the Jets saw Miami turn up inexplicably flat. The Fish trailed 17-10 in the fourth quarter. A touchdown that should have tied the game was followed by a missed extra point. Stoyanovich was finally able to pull out the 19-17 win with another late field goal.
Miami’s playoff berth was clinched as they entered the season finale in New England against the then-lowly Patriots. For the AFC East, the Dolphins needed to win and then hope the Bills lost that night in Houston.
It was an entirely plausible possibility, which makes another flat Dolphins’ performance all the more mystifying. They let a bad team drag them into overtime, but in the end Miami still won, 16-13. And when Buffalo was blown out in prime-time, the Dolphins were AFC East champs and the #2 seed in the playoffs.
After a week off, Miami hosted San Diego in the divisional round of the playoffs. The game was on late Sunday afternoon, the final game of the weekend and reminiscent of 1981, when these two teams played one of the greatest playoff games of all time in this same time slot. This year’s matchup wouldn’t be quite as epic, and that would be just fine with the Dolphins.
With the rain pouring down and the game scoreless into the second quarter, Marino opened up and threw three touchdown passes in the second quarter alone. The Dolphin defense was dominant. A Charger team that was the hottest in football, making the playoffs after an 0-4 start, was sent packing in a 31-0 rout.
The Buffalo Bills were again waiting. The Bills had pulled off the greatest comeback in playoff history in the wild-card round when they rallied from 35-3 down to beat Houston, and followed that up with a dismantling of top-seeded Pittsburgh. Buffalo had momentum, and perhaps Miami’s tendency of playing down in big moments finally caught up to them.
The AFC Championship Game was tied 3-3 after a quarter, but the Dolphins were being manhandled in the trenches on both sides of the ball. They couldn’t protect Marino and he was sacked four times. They were crushed on the ground. By the third quarter, Miami was in a 23-3 hole and the final was 29-10.
It was a disappointing end to a strong year, but it set the tone for a nice string of seasons to end Shula’s career. He coached three seasons beyond this, all winning years and two of them ending in the playoffs. But he and Marino would never again make it as far as they got in 1992.