MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- There was Tom Brady, slumped in a black metal chair in the hallway outside the Patriots' locker room, quietly holding his wife's hand and talking to his offensive coordinator. Brady had cursed on live television, and then cut his news conference short, his frustration at his failed offense and his game-ending interception obvious.
Not far from there, just down the tunnel, Michael Thomas had stopped a few moments before and wept. He had never played in an NFL game before Sunday and had spent two seasons on the practice squad. When the Miami Dolphins signed him last week -- his first time in the Dolphins' building was Tuesday -- the assurance was only that he would be active for special teams. But then the secondary took a beating -- figuratively from all those Patriots slants, but literally, too. And by the time the Patriots were in the middle of a flawless two-minute drill trying to win the game, Thomas -- who knew the calls but not the signals -- found himself in coverage on some of Brady's favorite targets.
This is surely not how the Dolphins drew up this season, but then not much has gone according to script for Miami in five years. That was 2008, the last time the Dolphins made the playoffs, when they slipped through an opening created by Brady's season-ending knee injury and won the division with Chad Pennington. Brady returned, of course, and the Patriots haven't lost the division since.
They won't lose it this season, either, and conceivably not again until Brady retires. But while Brady and Co. have shown a remarkable ability to adapt to a series of critical injuries, the Dolphins might have bested them on resilience this season. They have weathered a midseason slump and a crisis borne of bullying accusations and the league investigation that lingers on. And on Sunday, with their secondary battered and watching Brady move steadily down the field, the Dolphins had a player who even the head coach admitted he didn't know very well, in the most critical positions -- breaking up one potential touchdown pass and intercepting another -- to beat the Patriots 24-20 and keep the Dolphins (8-6) vying with the Baltimore Ravens for the final AFC wild-card spot.
"It was a fitting way for this team -- they've been through a lot -- to win this game," coach Joe Philbin told reporters after the game.
That was a typically flat-lined reaction from Philbin, whose lack of emotion might frustrate those looking for a good sound bite but likely helped steady the Dolphins through their tumult. The Dolphins still don't know how the investigation into Richie Incognito's behavior will end, but they do know this much: It did not fracture the locker room; it did not distract the team; it did not send the season tumbling out of control.
Somehow general manager Jeff Ireland, under fire since the Incognito allegations emerged, walked through the locker room Sunday explaining how the Dolphins signed Thomas off the San Francisco practice squad Tuesday. Somehow the Dolphins have won three straight games to start December, had the better quarterback on the field Sunday, are in the thick of the playoff race -- with a remaining schedule much easier than Baltimore's -- and have their coach calling them a bunch of "good guys."
They, then, are an example of why the easy, quick narrative is often the wrong one. It was hard to imagine, after the Dolphins lost to Tampa Bay in Week 10 as the bullying charges blossomed, that the Dolphins would still be playing statement games now. But they have played two in a row, and won both, harkening back to a moment in September, when the Dolphins had beaten the Indianapolis Colts in Week 2 to surprise the league. Philbin had deviated from the postgame remarks he scribbles on index cards to read to players, and instead exulted, "We've got a hell of a team in the making."
He might have been right. Philbin wouldn't concede that beating the Patriots, even an injury-addled version of them, was his biggest victory yet as the Dolphins coach. He would not throw bouquets at quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who completed 25 of 37 passes for 312 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. The second-year pro seems to have finally found a rhythm with receiver Mike Wallace and led two two-minute-drill touchdown drives -- one to change the momentum as the first half ended, the second to take the lead with 1:15 remaining, after which Incognito tweeted his excitement. The furthest Philbin would go was to say that he might jump in his pool Sunday night to celebrate -- he's been in it just once, he said.
But one AFC personnel executive had said earlier this season that the Dolphins had bought into Philbin, and the offseason free-agent spending spree was designed to create a roster that could keep up with quick-scoring teams -- like the Patriots -- and strike just as swiftly, and that could pressure the quarterback and cover.
It was all put to the test Sunday -- the mental toughness required to withstand a Brady onslaught and all the pieces that Ireland had put in place. It was Ireland's most recent acquisition that proved the most critical, and maybe Philbin was right that it was fitting the game ended that way, with Thomas cradling the football to his chest with two seconds remaining, lying on his back and looking up at the sun. He said the defense knew that all it had to do was not allow a touchdown on that fourth-down play -- that anything else would end the game.
On first down, from the Dolphins' 19-yard line, Brady had gone to Danny Amendola in the end zone, but Thomas broke the play up with one hand. On fourth down, with Thomas in man-to-man coverage on Austin Collie, he simply intercepted it. Thomas was overwhelmed, he said, by all the thoughts of his improbable week, of his stunning career turn.
Put in the most difficult imaginable spot, Thomas had not buckled. Just like the team that signed him.
Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.