It’s been more than a quarter of a century since the Miami Dolphins last reached the AFC Championship and three and a half decades since they last won it. That victory came on this day 35 years ago.
After a 14-2 regular season that earned Miami home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and a 31-10 victory over the Seattle Seahawks in the Divisional round, the Dolphins aimed for a second trip to the Super Bowl in three years as they played host to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 6, 1985. The Steelers had won the AFC Central at 9-7 before topping the Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium in the Divisional playoffs, 24-17.
Pittsburgh hung tough for almost a half, but in the end, it was Pittsburgh native Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins that were just too much. Behind 421 yards passing and four touchdown passes, the league MVP Marino led Miami to a convincing 45-28 victory.
The Dolphins struck first as a pair of record breakers hooked up to get the scoring started. Marino, who threw an NFL record 48 touchdown passes in 1984, found wide receiver Mark Clayton, who set a new NFL record with 18 touchdown catches, for a 40-yard touchdown pass to give Miami a 7-0 lead.
The Steelers however did not seem fazed. Behind a power running attack, Pittsburgh drew even on a 7-yard touchdown run by Rich Erenberg before giving Miami a taste of its own medicine. After a short Uwe von Schamann field goal gave the Dolphins a 10-7 lead early in the second quarter, Pittsburgh quarterback Mark Malone found John Stallworth for a 65-yard touchdown to give the Steelers their first lead of the day, 14-10.
The Pittsburgh momentum was short-lived as Miami scored the next three touchdowns and five of the next six. After a 41-yard Marino touchdown pass to Mark Duper put Miami back in front — and for good — Tony Nathan scored from two yards out to give the Dolphins a 24-14 halftime lead.
In the third quarter, Marino and Duper again hooked up on a scoring strike — this one of 36 yards — to give the Dolphins a commanding 17-point lead. Malone and Stallworth then connected for a 19-yard touchdown to cut the deficit to 10, but before the third quarter was over, the Miami lead was back to 17 on a 1-yard touchdown plunge by Woody Bennett.
Marino’s final touchdown pass of the day essentially put the contest away as the Pittsburgh product found Nat Moore from six yards out to do in his hometown team. With the game well in doubt, Malone found Wayne Capers for a 29-yard touchdown to cap the scoring.
Marino was unstoppable, but it was hardly a 1-man effort. The Dolphins put up 569 yards of offense in the victory. Duper led all receivers with 148 yards on five catches while Nathan caught a game-high eight passes for 114 yards and led the Dolphins with 64 yards rushing. Clayton narrowly missed hitting the century mark, tallying 95 yards receiving.
Malone passed for 312 yards for Pittsburgh with Stallworth accounting for a team-high 111 yards receiving. The Steelers put up 455 yards of offense, but the Dolphins forced four turnovers in the victory. Lyle Blackwood, Glen Blackwood and William Judson all intercepted Malone passes for Miami. Doug Betters also recovered a fumble. Donnie Shell had the lone interception of Marino.
Miami unfortunately was unable to finish the job as the Dolphins fell to the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XIX in Palo Alto, 38-16. The Dolphins would lose to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship the following season, then to the Buffalo Bills in 1992 and have not been back since.
There is reason to believe that the future is bright for Miami under head coach Brian Flores as he hopes to one day get the Dolphins to the Super Bowl. That’s something they haven’t earned since clinching a trip on this day 35 years ago.