NFL Preview - Carolina (7-3) at Miami (5-5)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - The Carolina Panthers aren't flying under the radar anymore with six straight wins and one of the top records in the NFC.
The Panthers haven't lost in more than a month (Oct. 6 at Arizona) and roll into Miami Sunday for a showdown with the suddenly dysfunctional Dolphins.
Carolina has a 7-3 mark and is still one game behind the New Orleans Saints for first place in the NFC South. It is coming off two very impressive wins against San Francisco and New England, and just handed Tom Brady and the Patriots a 24-20 loss on Monday night.
Cam Newton passed for 209 yards and three touchdowns and also ran for 62 yards for the Panthers. Newton has been solid during this winning streak with 10 TD passes to three interceptions. He has thrown for 1,294 yards in the last six games and his 25-yard touchdown strike to Ted Ginn Jr. with 59 seconds left in the game kept the Panthers in the win column.
"It was unbelievable. You could cut the tension with a knife," Newton said of the winning drive. "We had a lot of momentum going into the game, and we had the momentum throughout the game. And still when they went up by three points, you kind of had a feeling that something was going to happen."
Newton was right. The Panthers marched down the field and sent the crowd into a frenzy. The game ended on an officiating controversy when a flag was thrown in the end zone on the final play, indicating a possible pass interference/holding penalty on Carolina, but officials picked it up.
The Patriots, with all three timeouts in hand, marched to the Carolina 18, where, on the game's final play, Brady threw a pass that safety Robert Lester picked off in the end zone. Brady was looking for Rob Gronkowski but the tight end was clearly bear-hugged by linebacker Luke Kuechly. The official behind the play threw a flag in the end zone, but referee Clete Blakeman declared there was no foul.
"They key the music, and I started cheering," Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross said. "Then I saw a flag, and I about cried."
Gross was able to hold back tears when the penalty was wiped off and now the Panthers will go for their fourth straight win on the road.
Miami is still embroiled with the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin bullying scandal, but has won two of its last three games, including Sunday's 20-16 triumph over the visiting San Diego Chargers.
The Dolphins put the off-the-field news on the back burner and quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw for 268 yards and a touchdown with an interception. Charles Clay was on the receiving end of Tannehill's TD pass and recorded 90 yards on six receptions. Daniel Thomas led the ground attack with 57 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries.
"We knew we were going to have to make some plays in the fourth quarter. That has been the story all season. Today it was nice for our guys to make some plays," said Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin.
With the win, Miami tied AFC East rival New York Jets for the final AFC Wild Card spot.
Miami's two wins in a three-week span come on the heels of four straight losses, but the main topic in south Florida is still the bullying case. The NFL opened interviews Monday with the organization and the league's independent team regarding allegations of player misconduct is expected to interview everybody.
Primary investigator Ted Wells said he is looking forward to meeting players, coaches and staff to put forth a fair report. Philbin, though, is concentrating on stopping a red-hot Panthers team.
"We're really focused on (Carolina) ... We've got to take care of business," Philbin said. "We've got a very good team (coming into town), we're playing at home, so we're going to be focused on that."
It was reported Tuesday that Incognito and at least one other Dolphins player are accused of mocking the ethnic background of a team staff member and making crude jokes about the person's wife. Incognito, of course, was suspended indefinitely by the Dolphins on Nov. 3 and Martin left the team to get away from supposed bullying.
The Dolphins have won two in a row at home and are 3-2 as the host. They are 4-0 all-time against the Panthers and won the previous matchup, 24-17, on Nov. 19, 2009 at Carolina.
"Whatever our previous record was, it's kind of like a roulette wheel, black and red," Dolphins long snapper John Denney said. "You can't play off of previous results. This is a whole new game, all new players and you can't go off of previous records to determine what you do."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Panthers hope a short week pays off and they bring a tenacious defense into Sunday's game. Led by tackling machine Kuechly, who has a team-best 87 total stops this season and posted 12 on Monday, the Panthers have allowed an NFL-low 135 points this season and are the only team to rank in the top five in total (third), run (third) and pass defense (fifth).
Linebacker Thomas Davis had 17 tackles versus the Patriots and is second on the team with 83 tackles. The main concern for Carolina this weekend is the health of defensive end Charles Johnson, who leads the team with 8 1/2 sacks and was injured in the win over New England.
Johnson injured his knee when he was leg-whipped by Pats offensive lineman Marcus Cannon in the second half. Johnson writhed in pain and later returned to the field to help stop New England's final drive.
"It happened to me when I played," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said of the leg whip. "I actually fractured my leg and sprained my anterior cruciate ligament."
Rivera was visibly bothered by the play.
"That's a disappointing play. I'm pretty adamant about it," Rivera said. "It really disappoints me. It's a personal thing. I know the league is aware of it, mostly because everyone in America saw it."
Carolina's defense deserves a lot of credit for the six-game winning streak, which is tied with Seattle for the longest active streak.
The Dolphins will try to attack Carolina through the air and have three sufficient pass catchers in Brian Hartline, Mike Wallace and Charles Clay. Of course it's up to Tannehill to get them the ball and he has been sacked at least twice in every game this season.
Tannehill has been sacked 15 times in the last four games. In order for the Dolphins to win three straight at home, Tannehill must have time to decipher Carolina's stingy defense. He has seven TD passes and four INTs at home this season, and is 3-0 in south Florida against the NFC.
Miami running back Lamar Miller averages 5.5 yards per carry in front of the home crowd, but has just 19 total yards rushing in the past two games. Miller has rushed for 100 yards just once this season and perhaps a more potent ground attack will keep the Dolphins in this game. Daniel Thomas is another option running the football.
The Dolphins are still alive in the AFC postseason race and need a win this week to improve those chances.
A wild card for Miami's defense is defensive end Cameron Wake. The Penn State product has four sacks in the past two home games and needs to get Newton off his game. Philbin knows that as well.
"The guy can run and he can throw, so that presents unique challenges to us as a defense," Philbin said. "But he's playing very well."
Philbin continued when asked about the team's focus.
"Beat Carolina," he said. "Those things have a way of working themselves out if you're playing well and at the end of the night the scoreboard is in your favor.
"We've just got to stay hungry, stay at work and get ourselves ready to play."
Carolina can't keep relying on Newton's legs for more production and had no choice Monday because running backs DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert combined for 41 yards on 16 rushes. Newton still has that cannon for an arm and has to keep getting Steve Smith involved.
Smith has at least six catches in every game this season, but hasn't reached the end zone since Oct. 20 versus St. Louis. Smith had 11 catches for 170 yards and three TD receptions in his last game at Miami, so expect Newton and Smith to be on the same page for this one.
Both teams have strong defenses, but Carolina's is better. It will be that much more dangerous if Johnson's knee is healthy by Sunday. Johnson, though, is doubtful against the Dolphins. The Panthers have other defenders to disrupt Miami's playoff chances and will come away on top in a close one.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Panthers 27, Dolphins 23
11/21 12:45:36 ET