This was the Dan Marino we were told so loudly in recent weeks did not exist anymore, could not exist, never would exist again in a Dolphins uniform.

The game was against him. The game plan was against him. The score, the noise, the third down, the long distance and too little time both on the scoreboard and more dramatically on his career all were against the Dolphins quarterback as he walked to the line in Sunday's fourth quarter.

He stood 3,000 miles from home, either eight minutes from retirement or 92 yards from victory, and he wasn't numbering any such nonsense.

Heroes never do.

They're too busy.

"I was thinking about making one play," Marino said.

Everyone has spent so many months cross-referencing Marino's past and debating his future, but this is all he has ever wanted. This present. This play. This here and now, today and forever, third-down-and-17-yard long shot. As he called the play in the huddle his eyes never left the receiver he was counting on.

"When he just stares at you as he calls the play, and holds the stare, he doesn't need to say anything more," Tony Martin said. "You know everything you need to know."

Marino threw down the split in the Seattle defense's zone, Martin dove for the catch and 24 yards downfield the Dolphins' season was still open for business. And then these two connected for 17 yards more. And then 20 more.

And now as he sat at his locker, recounting the drive that saved the season, rewinding the throws that staved off the coldest off-season for at least another week, Marino began laughing when reminded that earlier in a news conference he had called this the biggest drive of his career.

"Did I say that?" he said after this 20-17 playoff win. "Aw, I don't know. Maybe it was. Maybe it was."

He pulled a brown T-shirt down over his blue jeans, ran a hand that he clawed into a comb through his wet hair and smiled as he thought about that last drive.

This was the best seat to have in sports late Sunday, the one beside Marino after he had done it again, the one South Florida has pulled up to for 17 seasons now.

"I'm sure it was the biggest drive we've had in recent years," he said. "There was a lot riding on that one right there."

All around him, the locker room was full of this day's big names.

There was Olindo Mare, whose two field goals kept the Dolphins going.

There was J.J. Johnson, who ran for an efficient 87 yards.

There was defensive end Trace Armstrong, who had sacks on three plays and, for all but the official accounts, on a fourth as well since Seattle quarterback Jon Kitna gained only a half-yard.

But here, at this locker, sitting on a metal folding chair, was the player who won the game even with a game plan that was built away from him.