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Miami rebounded from an injury-plagued 6–8 record in 1976 by winning ten or more games in four of the next five seasons. Shula built a solid defense around a new set of stars, including linebacker A.J. Duhe and linemen Bob Baumhower and Doug Betters. The Dolphins went 10–4 again in 1977, but again lost the division title (and playoff spot) to the Colts, similar to the team's fate in 1975. They made the playoffs as a wild card in 1978, but lost in the first round to the Houston Oilers 17–9.

Csonka returned to the Dolphins in time for the 1979 season. After winning the division with a 10–6 record, the Dolphins lost the divisional playoff 34–14 to the eventual Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium.

The Dolphins also accomplished another feat unmatched before or since by another NFL team. They beat their division rival Buffalo Bills 20 consecutive times in a decade. The Bills were "0 for the seventies" against the Dolphins, but would defeat them in their 1980season opener.

In 1980, David Woodley, an athletic quarterback out of LSU, took over for Bob Griese, who severely injured his shoulder in a game against the Baltimore Colts. Griese never played again, retiring after the season. The Dolphins finished 8–8 and did not make the playoffs.

The Dolphins were back up on top of the AFC East in the 1981 NFL season, with an 11–4–1 record. That season, the Dolphins quarterback position was manned by both Woodley and back-up quarterback Don Strock, causing the local media to identify the Miami quarterback as "Woodstrock." They reached the divisional playoff against the San Diego Chargers, known as The Epic in Miami and remembered as one of the most memorable games in NFL history. After being down 24–0 at the end of the first quarter, Don Strock entered the game and engineered a frenetic comeback, culminating in the historic "hook and lateral" play: On the last play of the first half' wide receiver Duriel Harris caught a pass from Strock and immediately lateraled the ball to streaking running back Tony Nathanwho scored to cut the Chargers lead to 24–17. After the Dolphins took the lead in the fourth quarter, San Diego tied it up 38–38 with under a minute to play. Chargers tight end Kellen Winslow, playing through exhaustion, blocked Uwe von Schamann's field goal try on the last play of regulation. In overtime, Von Schamann had another field goal attempt blocked, and Rolf Benirschke kicked the game-winner for San Diego (final score 41–38) after missing a chip shot field goal earlier. Strock finished the game with 403 passing yards and four touchdowns.

In the strike-shortened 1982 NFL season, the Dolphins, led by the "Killer B's" defense (Bob BaumhowerBill BarnettLyle BlackwoodKim BokamperGlenn BlackwoodCharles BowserDoug Betters, and Bob Brudzinski), held five of their nine opponents to 14 or fewer points en route to their fourth Super Bowl appearance. During the first two rounds of the 1982–83 NFL playoffs, they got revenge for previous losses, crushing the New England Patriots, 28–13 (revenge for the infamous Snow Plow game at Schaeffer Stadium played earlier in the season) and the San Diego Chargers, 34–13 at the Orange Bowl. In successive games against San Diego and the NY Jets, the ballhawking Miami defense logged ten interceptions, five each against Dan Fouts and Richard Todd. After shutting out the New York Jets in the AFC Championship 14–0 [paced by linebacker A.J. Duhe's three interceptions- the final one returned for the game-clinching touchdown in the fourth quarter], the Dolphins lost Super Bowl XVII to Washington, 27–17. After enjoying success rooted in a defense-first philosophy, and employing a ball control offense to take pressure off of lackluster quarterbacks, the next 17 seasons would be marked by an average rushing game and defense that limited a great quarterback.

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