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Dolphins flame out once more

Miami's season ends with a one-sided playoff loss, just as it had in two previous seasons.

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 7, 2001


OAKLAND, Calif. -- Say this about the Dolphins, at least they go out with a bang. And a thud.

Fresh off an AFC first-round upset of Indianapolis and flush with confidence they were destined for Tampa, the Dolphins did little right Saturday and just about everything wrong.

The result was a 27-0 loss to the Raiders and another chapter in Miami's increasingly ugly playoff history. Since their January 1985 Super Bowl XIX appearance, the Dolphins have followed seven playoff-opening wins with seven successive losses.

The past three have been particularly brutal, by a combined margin of 127-10. They beat Buffalo two years ago, then lost at Denver 38-3. They won at Seattle last season, then were drilled at Jacksonville 62-7. And they followed their 23-17 overtime win against the Colts by being shut out for the first time in 37 post-season games.

"I think everybody in this locker room believed this was the year that we were going to make a run for it," defensive end Jason Taylor said. "We came from behind last week and had a good win. We knew coming out here was going to be tough, but we felt real confident we could play well and get the win. In the back of my mind, I thought for sure that we'd win and I'd be playing in the AFC championship."

Instead that honor goes to the Raiders, who for the first time in 10 years are one step from the Super Bowl.

The Dolphins' disappointing day evolved into a daylong celebration for the Raiders and their 61,998 raucous fans, who will watch today's Baltimore-Tennessee game with extreme interest. If the Ravens manage an upset, the AFC title game will be here at the Network Associates Coliseum, where the Raiders are 8-1 and have won seven in a row by an average of 27.3 points.

"I can't say enough about the fans and the crowd," Oakland quarterback Rich Gannon said. "They were huge, a major advantage. It was deafening on the sideline. It was that loud."

The Raiders didn't play a perfect game, but they were impressive at times in all facets, especially with a defense that dictated play. If there was a hero, it was reserve defensive back Tory James, who scored on one of his two interceptions and set up another touchdown by forcing a fumble.

"Our plan was to try and get a lead," Oakland coach Jon Gruden said. "We knew the crowd would be a factor. We were trying to get Miami out of a rhythm they wanted to be in from an offensive standpoint, and we were able to accomplish that."

So much so that there wasn't any one thing the Dolphins did wrong, it was plenty of things.

Quarterback Jay Fiedler threw an interception on Miami's fourth play that James returned 90 yards for a touchdown. Two penalties prolonged Oakland's second drive and led to a field goal. A second-quarter fumble by Lamar Smith set up Oakland's second touchdown.

By the end of the first half it was 20-0, and the Dolphins were out of fantastic finishes. They had overcome a four-point halftime deficit to score a 27-24 victory at New England to secure the AFC East title, and rallied from 14-0 down to beat the Colts in an AFC wild-card game last weekend.

"We felt like we had to start fast," Miami coach Dave Wannstedt said. "We talked about that all week. That's what the Raiders had done up here. They were averaging 40 points a game in their last five wins. We felt like we had to start fast and our guys came out with that mind-set. And then the (interception) really deflated us."

What made it worse was that the Dolphins had stopped the Raiders on their first possession, and a 45-yard punt return by Jeff Ogden had given them the ball on the Oakland 41.

But on second and 9 from the Oakland 16, James didn't bite when O.J. McDuffie broke to the outside, then stepped in front of Fielder's pass to Leslie Sheppard and didn't stop until he carried the ball into the opposite end zone.

"It was a big play and we fed off it," James said. "It seemed like it got us started."

How bad was it for the Dolphins? They rushed for 40 yards (4 by Smith, who had 209 last week), converted 3 of 16 third and fourth downs, and turned the ball over four times.

"We did not execute plays today," guard Mark Dixon said. "We did not perform. We were prepared; I don't know the reason. We fell into the trap that we can always come back."

Gannon, meanwhile, directed a precise and conservative attack. Oakland's offensive highlight was a 12-play, 54-yard scoring drive early in the third quarter that, thanks to two successful third-down scrambles by Gannon, took 6:50 off the clock and the last bit of fight out of the Dolphins.

"That was the drive that really hurt them," Gannon said.

Wannstedt said he told the Dolphins, predicted by many to finish with a losing record, to be proud of how far they got this season.

Several tried.

"We accomplished a lot this season," linebacker Derrick Rodgers said. "But at the same time, we were expecting to do much more this year. We just need to get over that hump in this divisional playoff situation."

A hump that's looking like a mountain right about now.

* * *

Beating Miami made the Raiders 3-3 in playoff games since 1990:

Jan. 1991 -- Beat Cincinnati 20-10 in AFC playoff.

Jan. 1991 -- Lost to Buffalo 51-3 in AFC Championship.

Dec. 1991 -- Lost to Kansas City 10-6 in wild-card game.

Jan. 1994 -- Beat Denver 42-24 in wild-card game.

Jan. 1994 -- Lost to Buffalo 29-23 in AFC playoff.

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