History doesn't link Dan Marino and Ken O'Brien as it should. The AFC East quarterbacks once waged some of pro football's finest wars — duels that helped to define the decade. But that chapter from the game's history has, for whatever reason, drifted from our consciousness.
Maybe it's because O'Brien didn't have a distinguished career. Whereas Marino was praised for his greatness from Day One, O'Brien was noticeably average. And quarterback rivalries require two legends, not one — Brady and Manning, Young and Aikman, Bradshaw and Staubach. O'Brien was no legend. But on those times when he faced Miami, O'Brien was often Marino's equal. That certainly was true of the two players' first meeting of the 1986 season.
In November of 1985, O'Brien and his 7-2 Jets had the defending AFC champions up against the ropes, prepared to land a knockout blow to a Dolphins team stumbling in front of its home crowd. It would have dropped Miami to 5-5 and placed its playoff hopes in serious jeopardy. Instead, Mark Duper caught one of those legendary Marino lightning rods and took it 50 yards for the game-winning score. Dolphins 21, Jets 17. It was a loss O'Brien and his Jet teammates were sure to remember.
Heading into the 1986 season, no division in football was as loaded as the AFC East. Miami and New England had represented the conference in each of the last two Super Bowls, and New York was every bit as good on paper as both of those clubs. Led by Joe Walton's all-world defensive front and an offense that meshed Freeman McNeil's running with downfield passing, New York probably had more talent than any team in the East that year — maybe the entire AFC.
The first contest between Miami and New York was a classic, a brand of back-and-forth football where the last team holding the ball was sure to win — the kind where the defenses for each club were on the field but not really playing the game, just there for effect.
Both teams entered the contest 1-1.The Jets had suffered a bitter defeat at home to the Patriots; Miami's loss was even uglier, a forgettable 50-28 affair in San Diego.
By the second quarter of that mid-September afternoon at the Meadowlands, both offenses had reached full steam. The Dolphins scored 14 points in the quarter. New York scored 28, thanks to two long Wesley Walker scoring receptions. Just 30 minutes in, the Jets led 31-21. It had been an explosive half, but the biggest fireworks had not yet been released from the box.
Marino and Miami went bananas to start the second half. First a 46-yard scoring pass to Duper, then a 44-yard Fuad Reveiz field goal, and then another Marino touchdown pass, this time to TE Bruce Hardy. All of a sudden Miami was up by seven heading into the fourth quarter. The teams traded touchdowns, but with less than two minutes to go the Dolphins' defense stopped New York on a fourth down and took control of the football. Miami head coach Don Shula looked assured of the win. Wrote Sports Illustrated's Paul Zimmerman, "His Dolphins had the Jets beaten in the Meadowlands Sunday. Finished. Dead. The fans were streaming into the parking lot to beat the traffic home."
Jets fans who did escape early probably have never forgiven themselves for the act. New York stopped the Dolphins and forced a punt. O'Brien accepted possession of the football from his own 20-yard line with 1:04 left on the clock. A lot of field to cover in little time, but the Jets had been doing it all day, and in a blink O'Brien had his team deep in Dolphins territory. He completed 4-of-5 passes on the drive and managed the clock to perfection. Who says Marino has to be the one to work last-second magic, right? Again, in this game, little separated the two passers.
On one pass, O'Brien hit TE Mickey Shuler for seven yards, then Shuler pitched the ball to back RB Johnny Hector to add another 21 yards to the play. With five seconds remaining, the Jets loaded up the right side of the field with three receivers, including Walker and Al Toon, both of whom recorded more than 100 yards receiving for the day. Of the three options, O'Brien picked Walker, who ran a post pattern for the game-tying score with no time left. The Jets' sideline erupted. Immediately O'Brien's thoughts shifted from the celebration. "I was thinking, 'Just let us win the coin toss,'" he told a reporter.
Five plays into the overtime, O'Brien again hit Walker, this time for a 43-yard score and a 51-45 victory. Four of Walker's six catches had gone for scores. And while O'Brien's four passing scores didn't match Marino's six, O'Brien had the advantage in yards — 479-448. The combination of the two set a single-game NFL record.
The Jets used the win to propel them to an NFL-best 10-1 start. Then Miami enacted its revenge on "Monday Night Football" in a 45-3 blowout win in Week 12. After that, the Jets were never the same. They lost five in a row before squeaking into the playoffs, where they lost in the second round to Cleveland in overtime.
Mike Beacom is a pro and college football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football (Alpha, 2010).