MIAMI, DEC. 20 -- The Washington Redskins' nickel defense would have been worth a lot more tonight if Barry Wilburn hadn't broken up Todd Bowles' interception.

At the time, the Redskins led by five points and were hoping Dan Marino would take off his mask and cape. At the Redskins' 17-yard line, Marino faded back and accidentally put the ball straight at Bowles near the goal line. Bowles would bet you more than a nickel that he'd catch that ball 99 times out of 100. But out of nowhere came Wilburn, Bowles' teammate, who swatted away the ball.

With a reprieve, Marino completed the winning touchdown pass two plays later, the Dolphins gaining the victory, 23-21.

"I caught it, and Barry hit me," Bowles explained. "I was off balance coming down, but it still should've been a catch."

Wilburn certainly meant no harm. He said he hadn't seen Bowles at all, and he was just going for the ball.

"I didn't even know who I hit," Wilburn said softly, his ribs aching.

That play brought the Redskins a double curse. Not only did it give Marino another chance to win the game, but Wilburn injured his ribs on the play and needed to be attended to by a trainer. Since there were less than two minutes to play, the Redskins were charged with a timeout, a timeout they could have used in their final drive that ended when Steve Cox's 67-yard field goal fell short.

"With the wind at his back, well, {Cox} has kicked 65-yarders in practice," Gibbs said, explaining his decision to go for the field goal rather than a long pass.

About the only regret the Redskins had tonight was that dropped interception, because -- in their opinion -- they did the best they could against Marino. On that final winning drive, the Redskins were burned using the nickel defense, but they don't think they were using poor judgment.

"We could've made it work," Wilburn said. "{Marino} just did a good job of finding the open receiver."

Linebackers coach Larry Peccatiello said: "We didn't play anything soft {in the end}. We challenged them. We had a chance with that interception . . ."

Defensive coordinator Richie Petitbon, defending his nickel defense, said: "You try to get your best cover people on the field and hope your best people beat theirs. If we had it to do over, we couldn't have done it better."

Obviously, the Redskins defensive coaches studied hard for this one. They employed an uncharacteristic 3-4 defense (four linebackers) and also a three-man rush on third-and-long situations. In the past, Marino has had success against attacking teams, such as Philadelphia and Dallas. Against softer teams -- like Buffalo -- he didn't.

So, the Redskins coaches had to decide whether to be soft or aggressive. They mixed it up.

"Well, Buffalo got a lot of turnovers against Miami," Peccatiello said. "We didn't come up with those plays."

Essentially, Redskins defenders agreed they were beaten by a good man -- Marino. The Dolphins had two new players on the offensive line and the Redskins were held sackless for the first time in 64 games (the Super Bowl XVIII loss to the Raiders was the last time).

The key, Dexter Manley said, was Marino's quick release.

"He's his own pass protector," Manley said. "All you need is him and the center. He can take it from there . . . I think Joe Montana is a great quarterback, but Dan Marino is the best."

On offense, the Redskins also juggled things, using George Rogers, Tim Smith and Kelvin Bryant effectively. Rogers declined comment afterwards, but Bryant -- who rushed for 84 yards and caught five passes for 69 yards -- said: "I didn't go off enough."

But he added: "We did okay. We're not happy about losing, but we did do better. We'll need all three running backs going into the playoffs. You're never sure when someone will get nicked."

Bryant had several nifty runs, giving head, shoulder and hip fakes to defenders, but said: "I don't feel 100 percent."

His ankle might be sore, but it didn't act it.

Essentially, the Redskins weren't real bothered by this loss -- on the surface, anyway. Wide receiver Clarence Verdin wishes he had one play back, a ball he dropped in the end zone when it inadvertently smacked off his helmet and then got kicked by the Dolphins defender. But he also caught a 55-yard pass.

"We probably could've used another five yards," quarterback Jay Schroeder said of the final drive. "But I think as well as we played, we can't be worried about losing this football game."