Miami Dolphins vs. Carolina Panthers: 5 Must-Watch Matchups

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Dolphins vs. Panthers: 5 Must-Watch Matchups

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The Miami Dolphins remain in the playoff hunt through 11 weeks of football. That can be attributed to a mediocre AFC more so than anything the Dolphins have accomplished this season, though. But a win on Sunday would begin to change how this team is perceived.

Over the past six weeks the Carolina Panthers have emerged as one of the most dominant clubs in the entire NFL. They've beaten five teams by 15 or more points, own one of league's stingiest defenses and Cam Newton is beginning to live up to his potential at quarterback.

If Carolina has a flaw, it's certainly hard to pinpoint. And if the Dolphins can somehow find a way to end the Panthers' six-game winning streak on Sunday afternoon, their season will be back on the upswing.

After Miami began 2013 3-0, losses in five of six games and a national controversy fostered some of the darkest days in team history. Winning cures all in the NFL, though, and with a victory on Sunday the Dolphins would be winners of three of their past four games and would become the favorite to land the AFC's final playoff spot. But that will be a tall order to say the least.

The Panthers are such a nightmare matchup for the Dolphins that a win seems almost as improbable as it did in Week 4 when Miami traveled to Louisiana to play the New Orleans Saints in the Superdome. The NFL is such an unpredictable league, though, and the Dolphins shouldn't be counted out on their home turf, where they are 8-5 under Joe Philbin.

Let's take a look at five individual matchups to keep an eye on in Week 12.

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

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Cameron Wake vs. Byron Bell

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Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

If the Dolphins are going to beat the Panthers on Sunday, their defense might be required to have its best showing of the season. Carolina has the potential to dominate Miami on the other side of the ball, so Cameron Wake and the defense should take it upon themselves to shut down the opposition.

To do so, pressuring Newton will be key. Jordan Gross is one of the league's most reliable left tackles, so the Dolphins will likely have a difficult time providing pressure on Newton's blindside. On the opposite side of line, however, lies an opportunistic matchup for the Dolphins.

Wake has had an inconsistent season in 2013 in large part due to a knee injury that slowed him down for over a month. But when he's on his game, he's one of the NFL's toughest pass rushers to contain. That onus will fall on right tackle Byron Bell for the Panthers.

Of 76 eligible offensive tackles, Bell ranks 47th through 11 weeks according to Pro Football Focus. Bell has conceded five sacks and 19 hurries on the season thus far. The Dolphins will need Wake to exploit Bell on Sunday afternoon if they have any chance of getting after Newton.

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Reshad Jones vs. Greg Olsen

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Although the Dolphins didn't allow San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates to completely shred them apart in Week 11, they did concede another touchdown to a tight end when Gates caught a five-yard score during the game's first quarter. Once again, struggling strong safety Reshad Jones was victimized in coverage.

Miami has its linebackers bump opposing tight ends to prevent a free release on many plays, but Jones typically takes on the responsibility in coverage from there. And he has really done a poor job of staying with tight ends this season. As Pro Football Focus' No. 81 overall safety, Jones gave up 51 yards in coverage on Sunday to bring his total to 389 yards allowed on the season.

Against the Panthers, Jones could be exposed once again. Carolina's Greg Olsen is in the midst of one of his best seasons as a pro, and his 492 receiving yards is the second highest total on the team. Olsen has produced a reception on almost 70 percent of his targets this season. He'll be a another tough cover for Jones, who must begin to live up to the lucrative extension he signed in August.

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Bryant McKinnie and Tyson Clabo vs. Greg Hardy

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Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy are projected to terrorize the Dolphins' mediocre tackle duo on Sunday. Luckily for Miami, though, Johnson has been deemed unlikely to play in Week 12 with a knee injury.

Hardy sill posses a huge problem for the Dolphins, however. He's currently Pro Football Focus' seventh rated 4-3 defensive end with six sacks on the season. Those six sacks don't do him justice, though. Hardy has also hit opposing quarterbacks an additional 12 times and hurried them an additional 27.

Without Johnson rushing from the left side of the Panthers' defense, Hardy will likely line up on both sides of the defensive line against the Dolphins, meaning he'll be able to tee off on Bryant McKinnie and Tyson Clabo.

Expect Hardy to face McKinnie, who gave up two sacks in Week 11, more often than not, but on obvious passing downs Carolina will sometimes have him rush from the left side. Clabo has fared better since he returned to the lineup in Week 9, but hasn't faced a pass rusher of Hardy's caliber since he regained his staring role.

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Brian Hartline vs. Melvin White

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The Panthers move their cornerbacks around quite a bit, so Miami receivers Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline likely won't see the same defender in coverage on every snap. Hartline, who is the Dolphins' leading receiver with 599 yards through 10 games, should see a heavy-dose of Mevlin White, however.

Hartline has only surpassed 100 receiving yards in a game once this season, but consistently catches four or five passes, oftentimes reaching at lest 50 yards. Surprisingly, Hartline's 12.5 yards-per-catch average is higher than Wallace's, who was brought to Miami to produce big plays. If quarterback Ryan Tannehill has time to throw on Sunday, Hartline could be in store for another solid afternoon.

White has struggled at times in coverage this season for the Panthers, and ranks 71st out of 107 eligible cornerbacks this season according to Pro Football Focus. White had his worst game of the season this past Monday night, giving up six catches for 65 yards on eight targets. Look for Tannehill to target Hartline often on Sunday.

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Brent Grimes vs. Steve Smith

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There won't be too many matchups in the entire NFL that will be as fun to watch as this one on Sunday in Miami. At 34 years old, Steve Smith isn't quite the big-play receiver he once was, but he's still more than capable of abusing some of the league's top cover corners.

Only Darrelle Revis and Alterraun Verner have graded better than Brent Grimes at cornerback this season according to Pro Football Focus, however. Grimes has provided blanketing coverage all season for Miami and has made several plays on the football when tested. Quarterbacks only have a 63.4 passer rating with zero touchdown passes and three interceptions when throwing Grimes' way this season.

Newton has targeted Smith an average of over eight times per game this season, so Grimes will undoubtedly still be thrown at on Sunday. The Panthers will move Smith to both sides of the field and try to hide him the slot with bunch receiver looks. If defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle is wise, though, he'll shadow Smith with Grimes all game long.


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