The Miami Dolphins' reputation as a team that doesn't make mistakes in important games dissolved in the muddy Orange Bowl Sunday.
Four fumbles, two interceptions and a missed field goal proved fatal for the Dolphins in their 31-14 loss to New England in the AFC championship game.
"The missed plays, the dropped balls, the turnovers--that's what lost the game," said tight end Dan Johnson, who will remember the sure touchdown he dropped longer than the 10-yard score he caught for the game's first touchdown.
"Everybody's surprised that (all the turnovers) happened. It's something we don't usually do."
Running back Tony Nathan, the Dolphins' Mr. Dependability all season, started the downslide on Miami's first offensive play of the game. New England linebacker Steve Nelson stripped him of the ball on an off-tackle run, and Garin Veris recovered to set up a 23-yard Patriots field goal by Tony Franklin.
Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino fumbled a snap early in the second quarter, and New England's Lester Williams pounced on it to set up the first New England touchdown.
Fuad Reveiz missed a 31-yard field goal attempt later in the quarter to cap the Dolphins' first half woes, but things didn't get much better for the defending AFC champions after intermission.
Lorenzo Hampton fumbled the second half kickoff, and Greg Hawthorne recovered, leading the way for another New England touchdown and a 24-7 lead.
Any hope the Dolphins had of repeating the 21-point comeback they staged in an earlier 24-21 playoff victory over Cleveland evaporated as the mistakes continued. Fred Marion intercepted a Marino pass deep in Patriots territory in the third period. Early in the final period, Dolphins running back Joe Carter fumbled at the New England 45.
"We kept getting chances to come back, but we just kept hurting ourselves," said Nathan.
The only second-half Miami score was a gift, a 10-yard Marino-to-Nathan pass one play after New England's Roland James fumbled a punt and Don McNeal recovered.
"After we got that second touchdown, we got momentum and thought we had a chance to come back again like last week," said Johnson. "But they stopped us. They've just got a fine team."
The Dolphins finished with 302 yards in total offense, but they put together only one sustained scoring drive.
"We were effective moving the ball," said Marino. "We just put the ball on the ground too much. We didn't take advantage of the chances they gave us."
The Miami players said constant drizzle and the muddy field had very little to do with the turnovers or the way they played.
"We just didn't get the job done," said veteran wide receiver Nat Moore. "It's just tough because you work so hard to get to this stage. It's bad enough to lose, but when you get blown out like we did it really hurts."
The maligned Miami defense, which gave up 251 rushing yards against Cleveland last week, allowed 255 yards on the ground against New England.
"We knew they were going to run and try to control the ball," said linebacker Bob Brudzinski, who was credited with 20 tackles. "And we did a pretty good job at the point of attack. They just broke some tackles and did a good job of cutting back against the grain."
Defensive end Doug Betters agreed that the turnovers by the Miami offense made it tough on the defense. But he said the Patriots' domination of the ball--they had it 39:51 to Miami's 20:09--was as much the defense's fault as anyone's.
"They don't want to pass unless they have to, and we didn't make them," Better said of the New England offense. "It seemed like we were out there the whole game.
"But we just didn't get anything going offensively, defensively or on special teams, and that makes it hard to win."