"We knew it would not be easy coming up here and falling behind the way we did," Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt said.
Little did he know.
Olindo Mare's 49-yard field goal into the wind with nine seconds left gave the Dolphins (11-5) the points that would make them AFC East champs. Then Drew Bledsoe's last play, ruled a fumble and an illegal forward pass, sent players to the locker rooms as time expired.
But after a 35-minute delay, referee Johnny Grier said a replay showed the last play was an incompletion and three seconds remained.
But coach Dave Wannstedt, who took over when Jimmy Johnson retired after last season, tossed aside his AFC East championship cap. Players scurried out of the showers.
"I just went out there as is," wearing a towel, Miami offensive guard Kevin Donnalley said. "I just wanted to get it done quickly and get out of here."
Empty seats provided silent witnesses to the bizarre finish.
"I'd never seen anything like it. I didn't know what to expect," Patriots linebacker Chris Slade said. But I respect them for carrying out the rules."
Jay Fiedler, Marino's successor, completed 13 of 17 passes on Miami's last two drives that produced 10 points. He finished 30-for-45 for 264 yards despite playing with a torn rotator cuff on his left (non-throwing) shoulder.
Lamar Smith scored on two 1-yard touchdown runs for Miami. Bledsoe threw two touchdown passes for New England (5-11).
All that was before half-dressed players shivered in sub-freezing temperatures. And before Michael Bishop replaced Bledsoe for the only time Sunday with the ball at the New England 40-yard line. Bishop threw a desperation pass far short of the end zone.
"That's the craziest thing I've ever been through in football," said Miami's Hunter Goodwin, who caught his first touchdown pass in five NFL seasons. "The whole last month has been crazy. If you're from Florida, expect anything."
Finally, the Dolphins, who lost their previous two games after opening 10-3, could celebrate for real. And they would get a first-round bye if Oakland lost to Carolina later Sunday.
Now they have a chance to make up for last year's 62-7 second-round playoff loss to Jacksonville in Marino's last game.
"If we play our game, we're fine," Miami linebacker Zach Thomas said.
Unfortunately for the Patriots, they played theirs as they lost by eight points or less for the ninth time this season.
"It was the most frustrating season of my career," Bledsoe said. "I'm worn out mentally, physically and emotionally."
If the Dolphins lost, they still would have made the playoffs, because the New York Jets lost. But Wannstedt didn't want it that way.
"This is such a good feeling for our team to walk in and earn everything," he said.
Thomas made it possible when he intercepted Bledsoe's pass at the Miami 24 with 3:44 left. Then Fiedler went 6-for-8 on the drive to bring the Dolphins to the New England 31.
Mare, whose streak of 16 successful field goals was snapped after he kicked a 47-yarder in the first quarter but missed his next two attempts, then connected for the winning kick.
"I was just happy to get a chance to redeem myself," he said.
So the Patriots lost another opportunity to keep the Dolphins out of the playoffs. In 1993, when Bledsoe was a rookie, his touchdown pass gave New England a 33-27 oertime win that ended Miami's season.
Miami's first two touchdowns came in a span of 1:27 late in the half on Fiedler's 9-yard pass to Goodwin and Smith's 1-yard run.
Then Adam Vinatieri kicked a 33-yard field goal between Mare's two misses to put the Patriots in front 24-17. The Dolphins tied it as Smith scored on his second 1-yard run with 4:09 remaining.
©2000 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed