Dan Marino and Joe Montana met in Super Bowl XIX in January 1985 for the second clash between these two legends of the game. Arguably making up half of the NFL quarterback Mount Rushmore, the next showdown wouldn't occur until 1994 with Montana wearing a lighter shade of red as a member of the Kansas City Chiefs.
Despite a six-game winning streak by AFC East rival New England to close the '94 season, the Dolphins won the tiebreaker over the Patriots by virtue of a season sweep in the two contests. Wins over the Lions and Chiefs in the final three weeks of the season vaulted Miami to the eleventh division title in franchise history.
After a decade-long wait between Marino-Montana matchups, the two would square off for the second time in three weeks as the Dolphins drew the Chiefs in the AFC Wildcard round. The two sides met just three weeks earlier in a shootout won by Miami, 45-28, in Week 15.
This time, it meant even more. Marino would play another five years after the 1994 season, but wide receiver O.J. McDuffie understood the magnitude of the opportunity. A chance to get the legendary signal-caller one step closer to a trip back to the Super Bowl.
"We knew our team was stacked," McDuffie said. "The year before, we had the best record in the NFL through 11 games then we lost the last five. Montana had already won a couple of Super Bowls and Danny was fighting to get his so it was a huge game."
That intensity spilled onto the field. Early in the second quarter, first-year Dolphin Gene Atkins exchanged blows with Willie Davis of the Chiefs after an open-field clash during the play. That was just one of many big hits that ratcheted up the intensity, like the one McDuffie laid on Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Thomas.
"Derrick Thomas was looking for me the rest of his life after that hit," McDuffie said. "God rest his soul. He was a fellow South Floridian and because of that hit, I was always waiting to run into him at Publix, a nightclub, a charity event … I thought he was going to try to get back at me."
No one knew intensity like Hall of Fame Head Coach Don Shula. An Achilles rupture put Shula on a motorized cart on the sideline, but as no surprise to McDuffie, that didn't slow coach down one iota.
"You could still hear his voice from anywhere in the stadium," McDuffie said. "Originally, he had that golf cart. Maybe he lost a little bit of mobility, but there was still no hiding from Coach Shula. If you did something wrong he was going to find you, even on the scooter. The intensity was always there."
Amid the explosive exchanges on the field, an offensive onslaught was occurring in the game itself. The Chiefs marched down the field on the opening drive for a touchdown. Marino and the Dolphins answered right back with a score of their own.
On that first Dolphins touchdown drive, wide receiver Irving Fryar attempted to emulate another classic moment in Miami playoff lore. Fryer caught a pass, worked up the near sideline and pitched the football to James Saxon, a fullback with 69 receptions in an eight-year career.
"Shula was hot because he lateraled it to James Saxon, a fullback with some of the worst hands you've ever seen," McDuffie said with a laugh. "Sax was ready and made a play. It makes you think about Duriel Harris and Tony Nathan, but it was about playing the game the way it was supposed to be played and Shula wasn't about that."
After another Chiefs touchdown, the sides exchanged field goals. Miami tied the game at 17 in the second quarter with a 1-yard pass from Marino to tight end Ronnie Williams. That score carried the game to halftime, but the story of the second half followed a different narrative. Miami still scored points, but the Chiefs did not.
Marino found Fryar for a 7-yard touchdown pass early in the third quarter to give Miami a 24-17 lead, one they would never relinquish. The touchdown was set up by a fourth-down conversion by none other than McDuffie, who was quickly developing a reputation as a reliable money-down target.
"I loved the trust Danny had in me," McDuffie said. "He knew I was going to be in the right place at the right time. That was key. At some point in my career, over 75 percent of my catches were for first downs. Earlier in my career, I only played on third downs so that was my job to move the chains."
The offense moved the sticks, found the end zone and followed up with a field goal to make it 27-17. Then, the defense made its biggest play of the game. Chiefs running back Marcus Allen piled up 113 yards from scrimmage on the day, but it was his fumble that put the final nail in the Chiefs' coffin.
Defensive back Michael Stewart ripped the ball out of Allen's hands along the sideline, possessed it, tapped his toes inbounds and secured the takeaway.
"Turnovers won that game for us," McDuffie said. "That Marcus Allen fumble might be overturned in today's game but what a great play by Michael Stewart to get us the ball back. The defense came up big for us all game."
For McDuffie, this game is one he will always remember.
"It's one of my favorite games of all time," McDuffie said. "It was one of those great games – Marino vs. Montana, fighting for who could get to the next level in the playoffs and one step closer to the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl was in our own backyard that year. That was a fun game."
The run ended there after the Dolphins fell to the Chargers, 22-21, in the AFC Divisional Playoffs the following week. The 1994 season began a run that resulted in seven playoff appearances over the next eight seasons. During that span, the Dolphins won four playoff games, starting with the win over Kansas City.