Kansas City, San Diego, Oakland or Cleveland might entertain hopes of being the NFC's sparring partner in January, but Miami took the early lead in the annual AFC "Who gets crushed in this year's Super Bowl by Dallas or San Francisco" derby Monday night.
Miami dispatched Pittsburgh, 23-10, before 72,874--the largest crowd to witness a Dolphin game--in Joe Robbie Stadium, although Steeler linebacker Greg Lloyd made good on his promise to knock Dan Marino "into next week" with a hit that left the quarterback with a bruised sternum.
Fortunately for the Dolphins, next week is a bye week.
"There is nothing cracked," Marino said. "It was hard to breathe at first, but I'm all right. What is most important to me is we're 3-0 going into the bye week."
X-rays of Marino's sternum were negative, and the prognosis for Marino's return in two weeks against Cincinnati is excellent.
"He was ready to go back in if we had made the decision to use him tonight," said Miami Coach Don Shula.
With the Dolphins leading, 20-3, late in the third quarter, Marino ran to the right with Lloyd in pursuit. Marino completed a 15-yard pass to wide receiver Mike Williams, but as he released the ball, Lloyd hit him and drove his right shoulder into the dirt, which doubles as the Florida Marlins' infield.
Players, trainers and team doctors immediately rushed to Marino's assistance. Dolphin fans, stunned by the nightmarish possibilities of playing on without Marino, opted to watch their fallen hero in silence rather than shower Lloyd with boos.
"I didn't see the hit," Shula said. "But the official was right there, and there didn't seem to be any complaint from anyone indicating a cheap shot."
Lloyd, who had a clear run and pop on Marino on the Dolphins' second offensive play, tried to make peace with the Miami offensive huddle after knocking Marino out of the game. Miami tackle Ron Heller and wide receiver Irving Fryar, however, escorted Lloyd back to his side of the field before emotions escalated.
"Greg wasn't trying to hurt him," said Pittsburgh Coach Bill Cowher. "He actually tried to see if he was OK. Too many people have tried to make too much of it."
Lloyd screamed at reporters who approached him in the locker room, then declined comment.
"That was a great hit by Lloyd," said Miami linebacker Bryan Cox. "I told Greg that and then I told Dan that. I felt bad because all week I had been teasing Dan about Lloyd and it happened. But every defensive player hopes for a hit like that against the quarterback."
After being helped to his feet, Marino tried throwing the ball along the sideline, while Bernie Kosar took the field in his place. Marino made no move to return, and Kosar finished the game.
"Lloyd plays hard; I play hard," said Marino, who completed 16 of 27 passes for 183 yards and a touchdown. "He caught me in an awkward position. . . . From what I was told, it was a fine hit. He's not a dirty player.
"I was a little sore, but I was throwing in case something happened to Bernie and I had to go back in at the end of the game."
If the Dolphins are going to put an end to the NFC's 11-year stranglehold on the Vince Lombardi Trophy, which has included a 22.6-point average margin of victory, they are going to need their starting quarterback. Just ask Pittsburgh.
The Steelers played without Neil O'Donnell, their starting quarterback, who has been sidelined since the opening game because of a broken finger, and they went nowhere offensively. Quarterback Mike Tomczak, who led the Steelers to an overtime victory over the Dolphins last season, played like the timid young man who was berated regularly by Coach Mike Ditka while playing six years in Chicago.
"Last year I didn't say anything about [Tomczak], but after the game he came out in the papers and said he wanted to come after me and that was their plan," said Miami cornerback J.B. Brown, who had two interceptions. "I didn't appreciate that too much."
The Dolphins intercepted two of Tomczak's first-half passes, cashed them into 10 points, and eventually forced out Tomczak, who completed 11 of 24 passes for 104 yards.
Jim Miller, who played for Frankfurt in the World League earlier this year, threw a 27-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Ernie Mills in the fourth quarter in relief of Tomczak.
"I thought it was a great opportunity at that time to get Jim in the game," Cowher said. "We needed a spark."
The Steelers also needed to be more careful with the ball. They turned it over five times, including running back John L. Williams' fumble at the Pittsburgh 21-yard line with 1:21 left in the first half.
"I thought the fumble was very big," Cowher said.
How big? Two plays later Marino noticed lumbering linebacker Chad Brown chasing Terry Kirby, making it easy for him to complete a 28-yard touchdown pass to the running back for a 17-3 halftime lead.