Dolphins vs. Panthers NFL Week 12: Who Has The Edge?

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Dolphins vs. Panthers: Who Has The Edge?

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into the season, most Miami Dolphins fans didn't have Week 12 vs. the Carolina Panthers circled as one of the toughest games of the season. But Week 12 has arrived, and that's exactly what it could be.

Carolina was 7-9 a year ago with an inconsistent young quarterback at the helm. What a difference a year makes.

Through 11 weeks the Panthers have surfaced as a true Super Bowl contender, and their current six-game winning streak has made them the hottest team in football. Cam Newton is coming into his own during his third season at quarterback, running back DeAngelo Williams is running on rejuvenated legs and the Panthers' defense is currently No. 2 in yards conceded and No. 1 in points allowed.

On paper, it's a nightmare matchup for the Dolphins, who are clinging to their playoff lives in the mediocre AFC. Miami has been a much better team at home under head coach Joe Philbin, though, with an 8-5 record at Sun Life Stadium over the past two seasons. And the Panthers, who will make the trip to South Florida this weekend, could be due for a letdown on a short week after two huge statement wins against the San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots.

Thanks to several average to below average teams chasing the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC, the Dolphins' season won't be on the line against the Panthers. But what an opportunity it will be.

With a win, Miami could begin to pull away from the pack in the Wild Card race. Better yet, the Dolphins could even make one last run at competing for an AFC East title by beating the team the division-leading Patriots couldn't this past Monday night.

Let's take a look at how the Dolphins matchup with the Panthers.

Cody Strahm is a Miami Dolphins contributor at Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter @CodyJStrahm.

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Dolphins' Pass Defense vs. Panthers' Passing Attack

Rob Foldy-USA TODAY Sports

If the Panthers have a weakness it would technically have to be a passing offense that averages below average production. Only four teams average fewer passing yards per game than the 195.9 Newton and the Panthers are managing this season. But it's difficult to label said aerial attack a flaw when Newton's 91.8 passer rating is good enough for ninth in the NFL.

The third-year quarterback has thrown 16 touchdown passes to only eight interceptions and is completing a career-high 63.2 percent of his passes. Regardless of what the numbers say, Carolina's passing game will be difficult to defend on Sunday for the Dolphins.

Miami has gotten pretty solid coverage from the cornerback position this season, but Carolina knows how to move its weapons around in order to exploit favorable matchups. Four Panther receivers, including tight end Greg Olsen, have over 400 yards receiving on the season.

Steve Smith will obviously be the most difficult cover for the Dolphins. Star cornerback Brent Grimes should earn the challenge of containing him, but the Panthers line Smith up on both sides of the offensive formation and in the slot. It will be interesting to see if the Dolphins allow Grimes to shadow Smith throughout.

Carolina has conceded 28 sacks through 10 games, but left tackle Jordan Gross is one of the finest blindside protectors in football. On the other side of the line, right tackle Byron Bell has struggled at times this season and could be an opportunistic matchup for defensive end Cameron Wake, who registered a key fourth-quarter sack in Week 11.

Edge: Miami

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Dolphins' Rushing Attack vs. Panthers' Run Defense

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Miami's running game, led by Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas, has had an up-and-down season to put in mildly. After two consecutive 150-plus-yard outings in Weeks 8 and 9, the Dolphins had their worst rushing performance in franchise history in Week 10, producing a grand total of two yards on 14 carries.

Last week, however, the Dolphins bounced back to the tune of 104 yards on 5.5 yards per carry without starting center Mike Pouncey in the lineup. Thomas ran with more conviction than he has all season and looked capable of handling the offense's feature-back role. Miller has had a couple impressive performances this season as well, though, showcasing more speed and elusiveness than Thomas possesses.

It will be interesting to see which back gets the larger workload against the Panthers. It might not matter, however, as Carolina has been so stout against the run that neither back projects to do much damage.

The Dolphins have had a tendency of abandoning the run when it's initially contained. The Panthers certainly have the ability to make the Dolphins pass happy on Sunday. Thanks to a talented defensive line, only two other teams have allowed fewer rushing yards than Carolina has.

The Panthers also have ability to rush the passer, so the Dolphins must attempt to establish some balance or risk quarterback Ryan Tannehill being chased by an uninhibited pass rush. The onus will fall on Miami's depleted offensive line and Thomas and Miller to run hard to avoid negative plays. It certainly looks like an uphill battle for the Dolphins.

Edge: Carolina

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Dolphins' Run Defense vs. Panthers' Rushing Attack

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Newton might not be one of the league's most productive passers, but when you factor in his running ability he becomes one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in football. Despite elite athleticism, Newton remains a pass-first quarterback. But he makes enough plays with his feet to keep opposing defenses honest.

Newton ranks fourth in the league in rushing yards by a quarterback with 328 but tied for first in rushing touchdowns by a quarterback with four this season. The Dolphins would be wise to spy Newton with an athletic defender whenever possible on Sunday, much like they did with Dion Jordan in Week 2 against Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts.

If Miami can contain Newton's running ability it will still have to keep Williams in check. After three consecutive seasons without 1,000 yards rushing, Williams has resurfaced as one of the league's most productive backs. Only 13 running backs have more rushing yards than the 579 Williams has generated thus far.

The Dolphins' below average run defense has been arguably the most disappointing revelation about Philbin's team this season. Randy Starks, Jared Odrick and Paul Soliai will be handfuls for the Panthers' interior offensive line to block, but Miami's second line of defense is suspect to say the least.

Linebackers Philip Wheeler and Dannell Ellerbe must do a much better job of filling running lanes and wrapping up ball carriers down the stretch for the Dolphins to return to form against the run.

Edge: Carolina

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Dolphins' Passing Attack vs. Panthers' Pass Defense

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

If the Dolphins are going to upset the Panthers on Sunday, Tannehill will need to have one of his best performances of this season at quarterback. That will be much easier said than done, however. Carolina's dominant defense is almost as stingy versus the pass as it is on the ground. Only four defenses have conceded fewer passing yards than the 209.5 the Panthers are allowing on average this season.

The Panther secondary has been solid in coverage all year, and one of the league's most talented defensive lines has wreaked havoc with a relentless pass rush. Opposing quarterbacks have only managed eight touchdown passes to 14 interceptions for a 76.5 quarterback rating attempting to throw on the Panthers this season.

Miami is expected to catch a break in the form of defensive end Charles Johnson's knee injury. Johnson has been one of the NFL's top pass rushers this season with 8.5 sacks. His expected absence will leave the Dolphins with only one dominant edge rusher to account for in Greg Hardy, who could prove to be too much for a suspect and depleted offensive line. Carolina lines Hardy up on both sides of the defensive line which means he'll tee off on Bryant McKinnie and Tyson Clabo on Sunday.

If the Dolphins' offensive line somehow gives Tannehill time to throw or the second-year quarterback is able to compensate for poor protection with quick passes, Miami could move the ball through the air with at least moderate success. The Panthers' corners are solid but not spectacular. Tannehill having time to throw and Miami's below average receiver corps consistently winning their individual matchups is not a likely scenario, however.

Edge: Carolina

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Special Teams

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Former Dolphin Ted Ginn Jr. remains one of the league's most electrifying return men. Miami must employ lane discipline when kicking and punting to Ginn, as a small crease is all he needs to show off his world class straight-line speed. Marcus Thigpen has been a productive return man for the Dolphins but needs to clean up his decision-making after some questionable returns in recent weeks.

The Dolphins and Panthers both rank in the middle of the pack in yards given up per kickoff, but Miami has been a little leaky in punt coverage this season.

Kicker Graham Gano has had a successful season thus far in Carolina. He is 14-of-15 on field goal tries and has produced the second-most touchbacks in the NFL. For the Dolphins, Caleb Sturgis has rebounded after a rough stretch to save a promising rookie campaign. He's 17-of-22 on field-goal attempts this season.

At punter, Miami's Brandon Fields still leads the NFL with an average of 49.3 yards per boot. Carolina's Brad Nortman owns a solid 45.9 punting average.

Edge: Carolina

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