MIAMI -- An unlikely hero kept the Miami Dolphins on the right track for their bid to an AFC playoff bid.
The Dolphins, down three defensive starters and facing future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady, perhaps the best come-from-behind player in the NFL, made a rousing defensive stand to defeat New England, 24-20, on Sunday at Sun Life Stadium.
"Guys are tough in there," quarterback Ryan Tannehill said, nodding toward the locker room.
Safety Michael Thomas, who spent his entire one-and-a-half-year NFL career on the San Francisco 49ers practice squad until signing with the Dolphins on Tuesday. Thomas, an undrafted free agent from Stanford who was making his NFL debut, intercepted a Brady pass in the end zone with two seconds left to preserve the victory.
"I started crying a little bit on the sideline," Thomas said. "Just after everything I've been through I just feel really blessed to have to opportunity to come out here."
The Dolphins (8-6) are hot at the right time. They are now 3-0 in December and have won four of their last five.
If the Bengals (9-4) lose late Sunday night at Pittsburgh (5-8) or if the Ravens (7-6) lose their Monday night matchup at Detroit (7-6), the Dolphins will control their own destiny for the playoffs -- a feat they have not accomplished since 2008.
Thomas's heroics were not the only unlikely event to occur on Sunday.
Entering the Sunday, the Dolphins has lost seven in row a Patriots team vying for the top seed in the AFC playoffs. Also the Dolphins had to overcome significant personnel losses.
And the Dolphins overcame both.
"To finally beat them is a big thing," left tackle Bryant McKinnie said. "It's almost like you're getting over the hump finally."
Tannehill (25-for-37, 312 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions) was spectacular Sunday. Considering what was at stake, it might have been the best performance of his young career. Trailing, 20-17, in the fourth quarter, Tannehill drove the Dolphins 60 yards on nine plays in their final possession, all the while threading the needle with pinpoint accurate passes.
The payoff was a blind 14-yard touchdown pass to running back 5-foot-9, 195-pound Marcus Thigpen with 1:15 remaining that gave the Dolphins a 24-20 lead.
"I couldn't really see him at all behind big (McKinnie)," Tannehill said of the 6-8, 370-pound McKinnie. "I trusted him, threw it out there and he made the adjustment and got into the end zone."
Then the game was in the hands of the defense, which was missing tackle Paul Soliai (ankle) and cornerbacks Brent Grimes (cramps) and Nolan Carroll (knee). They subbed with rookie Will Davis at one cornerback, safety Jimmy Wilson at the other cornerback and Thomas playing the nickel (slot) defensive back.
Brady (34-for-55 passing, 364 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) took over at his own 20-yard line with 1:15 left.
He drove the Patriots (10-4) to the Dolphins' 14-yard line with six seconds left. On third down he threw the Thomas interception on a pass intended for wide receiver Austin Collie.
"It was the longest 75 seconds of my life," Tannehill said of watching Brady's final possession.
Miami coach Joe Philbin, rarely one to be overly dramatic, was his typical dry self when asked how he'd celebrate the biggest victory of his coaching career.
"I might jump in my pool," the second-year coach said. "I've been in it once since I've been here."
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