MIAMI -- Every year there is a hot team down the stretch that no one wants to face. The Miami Dolphins could be that team after improving to 3-0 in December with a thrilling, 24-20 victory over the New England Patriots on Sunday.
Miami improved to 8-6 and snapped a seven-game losing streak to New England (10-4) in earning its most important win of the season.
The Dolphins now own victories over what could end up being half of the AFC's six-team playoff field. They beat the Indianapolis Colts on the road in Week 2, upended the Cincinnati Bengals on Halloween night and split the season series with New England.
Who is to say the Dolphins can't be a threat if they get into the playoffs?
"We can be real scary," cornerback Brent Grimes said after the game. "We got a lot of talent. ... We can play with anybody."
The Dolphins were en route to becoming an NFL laughingstock following their Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin bullying scandal. They were making headlines for all the wrong reasons and the season could have easily fallen apart. But winning four of the past five games significantly changed Miami's outlook.
"Hopefully, now, everybody realizes that they have to take us serious," Dolphins defensive back Jimmy Wilson said.
That shouldn't be a problem after Sunday's game.
The Dolphins matched the Patriots, blow for blow. There was a pair of lead changes in the final 4:07 of the game. There was nearly a third -- but an unlikely hero stepped up for Miami.
In his NFL debut, backup safety Michael Thomas made two huge plays to thwart the Patriots on their final drive. First, Thomas broke up a potential touchdown pass to Danny Amendola on first down. Then, Thomas ran underneath a route by Austin Collie to get the game-ending interception.
Thomas, who was claimed via waivers last Tuesday, was overjoyed with emotion in the locker room after picking off future Hall of Famer Tom Brady to end the game.
"I can't put this into words right now," Thomas said. "It is huge to me. I'm going remember this one for the rest of my life."
It was a fitting win for Miami. The Dolphins have been getting big contributions from unlikely sources all season. The only reason Thomas was on the field was due to injuries in the secondary to Grimes (cramps) and Nolan Carroll (knee).
"Anybody that dresses for the game has to be ready," Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin explained. "They have to be prepared. That's part of our job as the coaching staff is to get these guys ready to contribute if something happens."
This was a no-excuses game for the Dolphins. All offseason Miami talked about closing the gap with the Patriots. The only way to prove it was by forcing a season split for the first time since 2009.
The Patriots didn't have Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski, Pro Bowl defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, Pro Bowl linebacker Jerod Mayo or receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins due to injuries. The Dolphins also didn't have to deal with the noise and the cold in Gillette Stadium.
If there was ever a time over the past several years to catch the Patriots, this was it. The Dolphins certainly took advantage.
Despite a big passing day by Brady -- who threw for 364 yards, two touchdowns and one interception -- the Dolphins kept their poise and held off every late run the Patriots made. New England scored its final touchdown to take a 20-17 lead at the 4:07 mark.
Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill (312 yards, three touchdowns) outdueled Brady, especially in the key moments. Tannehill was 6-of-8 passing for 56 yards and a touchdown on Miami's final scoring drive. His last throw was a 14-yard touchdown pass to tailback Marcus Thigpen. That put the Dolphins' defense in position to get one final stop.
"You have to go out there with the attitude of expecting to win, and I think that's the attitude everyone has now," Dolphins left tackle Bryant McKinnie said. "I feel like that's why things have shifted. ... Guys are starting to become more and more confident and that's not an issue anymore."
Baltimore owns the head-to-head tiebreaker. But there is a strong chance Miami gets into the postseason if it runs the table the final two weeks against the lowly Buffalo Bills (5-9) and New York Jets (6-8).
The red-hot Dolphins will be favored to win their final two games. That is potentially bad news for the rest of the AFC playoff field.