's game-winning safety was just the third in league history. (Wilfredo Lee/AP Photo)
Before Thursday's Bengals-Dolphins game, there had been 11 safeties recorded during this NFL season. Number 12 was one for the ages.
With less than seven minutes separating Cincinnati and Miami from an overtime tie, the Dolphins' Cameron Wake blew through a block and dropped Andy Dalton in his own end zone for the rarely-seen walk-off safety. Wake's play, which gave his now 4-4 Dolphins a 22-20 win, was just the third game-ending safety in league history -- Chicago pulled the trick in 2004 and Minnesota in 1989.
It was a bizarre, stunning end to a relatively entertaining game. And it was a result that the reeling Dolphins desperately needed to stay in the playoff hunt.
"Man, talk about a team win," Wake said on the NFL Network's postgame show. "We had a short week, [lost] the last couple games, it was really tough. Everybody had to dig down deep."
Wake's play put the game to bed, but it was Ryan Tannehill and the Miami offense that pushed the game to OT with a clutch, late drive. That offense spent much of the second half on the bench, as Cincinnati controlled the clock (a situation skewed by a pick-six from Miami's Brent Grimes at the end of a nearly eight-minute drive by the Bengals).
When Mike Nugent drilled a 54-yarder to give the Bengals a 20-17 lead with 1:29 left in regulation, Miami had run just 11 second-half plays to Cincinnati's 48.
Just as they had a week earlier in letting a 17-3 lead slip in a loss at New England, the Dolphins were unable to move the ball when they had a chance to put the game away. Their lone drive of the third quarter was a quick three-and-out, and they followed that up with a pair of four-play possessions.
Thus, the chances of coming up with a game-tying march in the final 80 seconds of regulation seemed slim -- especially after a Michael Johnson sack of Tannehill left the Dolphins facing a 2nd-and-17 from their own 17, with no timeouts left.
But Tannehill then completed four passes in a row, including a brilliant 21-yard strike to a sprawling Brian Hartline. Caleb Sturgis, who entered Thursday in a 1-for-4 slump on field goals and shanked a 34-yarder early, nailed one from 44 to send the game into OT.
The rest is now part of NFL history.
"I don't know if we could've made it one more series," Wake said. "The engine light was on, tire pressure gauge was going off ..."
Miami had not been able to come up with those game-altering moments in its past four outings, all losses on the heels of a 3-0 start. Perhaps Thursday's heroics from Wake will change the course of their season.
Meanwhile, the Bengals have to be concerned that their setback could send them tumbling in the other direction. Not necessarily because they fell to 6-3 in heartbreaking fashion, but because star defensive tackle Geno Atkins may have suffered a season-ending ACL injury along the way.
Though the Bengals loss dropped them behind New England in the overall AFC standings, they still have a two-game edge in the AFC North. But Atkins being carted off coupled with a somewhat controversial ending will make the wait for Week 10 a long one.
"In my opinion, the ball was out of the end zone and so ... I don't know," said frustrated Bengals coach Marvin Lewis of the Dalton safety. "That's a quick look at the board, they got a little better-resolution look at it than I do."
Cincinnati's second half would have been one of total domination, had it not been for the Grimes interception (Dalton's second of three on the night) and the late Miami drive. Shaking off a sluggish first two quarters, the Bengals appeared to have taken full control of this game late.
They opted to throw deep on a third-and-seven prior to Nugent's kick, though, saving Miami an all-important timeout. Tannehill burned that TO after Johnson's sack, leaving him 1:11 to push his team down the field.
That he did so might be enough to erase the memories of close losses in Weeks 5, 7 and 8. And if seeing some welcome life from their quarterback was not enough to bolster the Dolphins' mood, Wake's game-winner ought to do the trick.
"No one expected to win the game this way," Tannehill said.
Only a few believed the Dolphins could pick up a victory on Thursday night at all. Approximately 24 hours earlier, reports broke that starting right tackle Jonathan Martin had left the team to seek mental counseling. The potentially serious situation was another black cloud hovering over Miami's once-promising season.
The Dolphins needed something, anything to break their way on Thursday.
"It was one of those things," Wake said, "when you go on the sideline, everyone looked in each other's eyes and said, 'Look, we've got to make a play right now.'"
Wake answered the call, handing the Dolphins the result they desperately sought, on one of the most unusual finishes the National Football League has ever seen.