35-Year Phiniversary: Dolphins Rally From 18 Down to Top Cleveland in AFC Divisional Playoff

Photo via YouTube/NBC broadcast

Since 1994, the Miami Dolphins have won just four playoff games. In each of those, they overcame a deficit, including a fourth-quarter deficit in each of the last two.

The biggest playoff comeback in franchise history however, took place on this day 35 years ago. Playing at home, the Dolphins rallied from 18 points to defeat the Cleveland Browns, 24-21.

Setting the Stage

The Dolphins were the hottest team in the NFL as they arrived at the Orange Bowl on Jan. 4, 1986. Miami had closed the year on a 7-game winning streak and was the AFC East champion for the fifth straight year.

While the Dolphins finished the year 12-4, Cleveland finished just 8-8. That was good enough to win a weak AFC Central, but it had been 16 years since the Browns last won a playoff game. Under second-year head coach Marty Schottenheimer, the Browns appeared well on their way to ending that skid.

The Comeback

For more than a half of football, the Dolphins were thoroughly dominated. Miami trailed 21-3 and seemed to have no answer for Cleveland running back Earnest Byner or a stifling defense.

Byner’s second touchdown run of the day — a 66-yard scamper — gave the Browns the commanding 18-point lead less than four minutes into the third quarter. Ultimately, the Miami offense and defense would find their rhythms.

The Dolphins would keep the Browns off the scoreboard for the rest of the game. Forced to be methodical, their offense scored on three of their final four possessions.

More than five minutes remained in the third quarter when Miami finally found the end zone. Quarterback Dan Marino capped a 74-yard drive with a 6-yard touchdown pass to Nat Moore. Before the quarter was over, the Cleveland lead was down to four.

Following a poor punt, fullback Ron Davenport capped a 48-yard scoring march with a 31-yard touchdown run. The next Miami possession resulted in a 3-and-out, but the defense responded with a big third down tackle for loss on Curtis Dickey.

After a punt, Miami took over at its own 27-yard-line midway through the fourth quarter. On the second play of the ensuing drive, Marino found running back Tony Nathan for a gain of 39 yards. After a 14-yard completion from Marino to tight end Bruce Hardy put Miami in the red zone, the ground attack did the rest.

The drive concluded with five straight runs. On 3rd-and-goal from the 1, Davenport’s second touchdown put the Dolphins ahead for good.

Cleveland’s final drive reached Miami territory, but after a completion from Bernie Kosar to Byner ended in bounds, the Browns were unable to get off another play. The final: Miami 24, Cleveland 21.

Leading Up

On an afternoon where they trailed most of the day, the Dolphins actually scored first. Fuad Reveiz’s 51-yard field goal gave Miami a 3-0 lead before the teams traded 21-point spurts.

Kosar’s 16-yard touchdown pass to Ozzie Newsome gave the Browns the lead later in the first quarter. Byner added his first of two touchdowns in the second quarter on a 21-yard run.

Byner finished with 161 yards rushing on just 16 carries. Nathan, Miami’s running back, was the top receiver for the Dolphins with 10 catches for 101 yards. Marino overcame a slow first half to pass for 248 yards. Cleveland’s Don Rogers and Miami’s Paul Lankford each had interceptions for their respective teams.

In Hindsight

The victory moved Miami to within one win of a second straight Super Bowl appearance. Unfortunately for the Dolphins, they would be handled by the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship, 31-14.

As for Cleveland, its playoff victory drought would have to wait just one more year. The Browns reached the AFC Championship in each of the next two seasons, but lost to the Denver Broncos each year. In both of those cases, Cleveland lost in heartbreaking fashion. The Browns however, never had a lead as large as they did in a Divisional loss to Miami that took place on this day 35 years ago.


Miami Dolphins
Pro Football Reference

Mike Ferguson is the managing editor for Fifth Quarter. Be sure to follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeWFerguson. Follow all of Mike’s work by liking his Facebook page.