Dolphins' defense keeps season alive

Cameron Wake's sack of Andy Dalton for a safety in overtime was a game winner for Miami. AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

MIAMI -- This was the big-play defense the Miami Dolphins envisioned in the preseason. Although it took eight games, it could not have happened at a better time.

The Dolphins rode the wave of their aggressive defense and timely plays in a 22-20 overtime victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.

On a night when the offense sputtered, Miami’s defense provided a huge assist with a defensive touchdown and an overtime safety by Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake against Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. The Dolphins needed every point. It was just the third time an NFL game has ended with an overtime safety.

"You know what? It's almost like a movie moment," Wake said of the rare safety. "Right before the play, everyone is looking into each other's eyes like, 'Listen, we need a play right here.'"

Perhaps this is the start of Miami turning the corner. The Dolphins (4-4) snapped a four-game losing streak and picked up their first win since Sept. 22.

The Dolphins certainly cannot have consistent success this year without their defense. Dating back to training camp, it was clear that defense would be the strength of the team. But this group has underachieved until it was put in a must-win situation.

The Dolphins allowed plenty of yards (465) to an explosive Cincinnati offense. But they registered four turnovers, five sacks, a 94-yard interception return by cornerback Brent Grimes for a touchdown and a late safety by Wake.

“It’s a big win to get us back to .500,” Dolphins linebacker Dannell Ellerbe said. "To play a great Bengals team like that, that was rolling and scoring a lot of points on offense and doing what they wanted to do, it was a great win. Hopefully, it is something that we can build on and get back going in the right direction.”

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only 1.7 percent of teams since 1978 have made the playoffs after suffering a five-game losing streak. The Dolphins essentially saved their season Thursday and gave themselves at least a chance to make a playoff push in November and December.

The Dolphins were a team coming into the game with a lot of issues internally and on the field. This week Miami star center Mike Pouncey was served a subpoena in relation to the ongoing Aaron Hernandez investigation following a loss to the New England Patriots. Starting right tackle Jonathan Martin also left the team this week after getting upset by ribbing from teammates.

These issues are ongoing and still need to be addressed. But winning cured some of those ills for the time being.

“It does a lot for us, not only record-wise, but our confidence,” Dolphins linebacker Philip Wheeler said of the win. “I feel like we can start fresh at .500 and get some wins.”

Things are suddenly looking up for Miami. Its schedule gets much easier in the second half of the season. The combined record of the Dolphins' remaining opponents is 27-33 (.450 winning percent). Miami travels to play the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-7) next and may be capable of stringing together a few wins.

It's early. But you can already pencil in five playoff teams from the AFC. The Kansas City Chiefs (8-0), the Denver Broncos (7-1), the New England Patriots (6-2), the Indianapolis Colts (5-2) and Bengals (6-3) are ahead of the pack. That leaves just one wild-card spot remaining for the rest of the field.

Why not the Dolphins?

Miami currently is in the mix with several other inconsistent teams: the San Diego Chargers (4-3), Baltimore Ravens (3-4), Tennessee Titans (3-4) and Oakland Raiders (3-4). The final wild card is anyone’s guess at this point and there is plenty of football left. The Dolphins join this list of inconsistent teams looking to find their way in the second half.

The Dolphins survived their rough, early-season schedule. They were able to overcome some ugly losses early to climb back to .500.

Miami’s first eight games in 2013 were a complete roller-coaster. But if its defense consistently makes plays like it did on Thursday night, that could provide some much-needed stability in the second half of the season.

“Everybody had to dig deep,” Wake said of the defensive performance. “If you look at the stat sheet, you see guys showing up all over the place. ... You couldn’t want it any other way.”