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Keys to the game: Dolphins vs. Panthers

The Panthers are on a roll, having won six straight. The Dolphins have won two of their last three games.

Who wins?

Well, let's start by who has the edge:

When the Dolphins pass the football: Despite their wide receiver shopping spree in the offseason the Dolphins have been unable to put a dynamic passing game on the field. Instead, the team has five receivers, none of which are averaging over 12.5 yards per catch. The longest pass play last week and the longest pass play of the season has gone to tight end Charles Clay, which is great news for him as it shows he’s emerging as a fine player. But that is not such good news for speedy Mike Wallace or Brian Hartline. The problem is quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s deep ball accuracy. He promises a new approach this week. The Panthers are outstanding against the pass because they attack the quarterback, as they are eighth in the NFL in sacks per pass play. Carolina defensive end Charles Johnson, who leads the team with 8.5 sacks, may not play due to a knee injury. Dolphins offensive tackles can only hope. ADVANTAGE: Carolina.

When the Dolphins run the football: The Dolphins are actually running the ball better this year on a yard per carry basis than they did last year but the number of runs simply haven’t been enough to make the improvement matter. The Dolphins last week got great efforts from Daniel Thomas and Lamar Miller as both had very good days breaking tackles or making tacklers miss. The Panthers are the best run-stopping team the Dolphins have faced so far this season. They’re third in the NFL in rush yards allowed per game. The first-round additions of defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly the past two years has turned the middle of the defense into a strength. ADVANTAGE: Carolina.

When the Panthers run the football: The problem here for the Dolphins is not only that DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are healthy, but that quarterback Cam Newton is a legitimate dual threat with the run as well as the pass. In his first 42 games, Newton has passed for 56 touchdowns and rushed for 26 touchdowns. Newton is actually the team’s second-leading rusher with 328 yards but because his runs often come out of the spread option or as a result of his scrambling, they are a headache for a defense trying to contain him. The Dolphins have a player – Dion Jordan – who is bigger, stronger, and faster than Newton so if they want to spy him, they have the ability. The question is will the Dolphins go with such an unorthodox approach? ADVANTAGE: Even.

When the Panthers pass the football: Ted Ginn and the family are back in town. Well, Ginn is back to play his former team in South Florida for the first time since being traded in 2009. Ginn was a member of the 49ers last year but he was almost exclusively a returner. He is now Carolina’s deep-threat option as his 17.1 yard per catch average suggests. The top receiving option for the Panthers remains Steve Smith who is headed for a familiar matchup with Dolphins cornerback Brent Grimes, whom he often faced when both players were in the NFL South. The Dolphins must find a way to pressure Newton because, aside from his pure athletic talent, he is developing as a quarterback able to manage the game and influence defensive backs with his eyes. ADVANTAGE: Even.

Special teams: Carolina kicker Graham Gano is a perfect five-for-five from 50-pus yards this season and has missed only one of his 15 attempts. Ginn is well known to be dangerous but inconsistent as a returner. The Dolphins, as always, have one of the NFL’s best punters in Brandon Fields. His ability to flip field position is a weapon and could be extremely valuable in a game that is expected to be close. ADVANTAGE: Even.

Coaching: Carolina’s Ron Rivera was on a win-or-else mandate from the start of the season and things looked bleak after another slow start. But the Panthers, who typically play better later in the year, have won six games in a row and are coming off a stirring victory over New England. Rivera’s job is to keep the momentum. Joe Philbin has the hardest job in the NFL now. He has to win while managing scandal. So far the Dolphins have adapted and won two of three games but the Panthers are the best team the Dolphins have faced in a month and they know how to win close games. ADVANTAGE: Even.

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