NFL Miami Dolphins

Miami Dolphins: 5 Keys to Victory in Week 12

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Miami Dolphins: 5 Keys to Victory in Week 12

Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

The competition for the AFC's sixth and final playoff spot is about to intensify in the coming weeks, as two teams sit at 5-5 and six remain one game back at 4-6. The Miami Dolphins, who are one of the AFC's two 5-5 teams, could make said race a lot less interesting by getting on a roll down the stretch. To do so, they'll have to beat the surging Carolina Panthers in Week 12.

The Panthers are a complete football team that plays fantastic defense and is capable of lighting up the scoreboard offensively. There is a chance this could be a proverbial trap game for Carolina, though. Coming off two statement wins over the San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots and getting ready to enter a five-week stretch where they'll play four NFC South games, including two showdowns with the division-leading New Orleans Saints, the Panthers could be overlooking the Dolphins.

Carolina isn't a team that will lack motivation, but it could lack focus. If it does, Miami will have a chance to pull of the upset. The Dolphins have talented players on each side of the ball, but their penetrable offensive line and porous linebacker corps are projected to be their downfall against a seemingly flawless Panthers team.

Another silver lining for Miami can be seen on Carolina's injury report. Charles Johnson, who has 8.5 sacks on the season and is the No. 14 rated 4-3 defensive end by Pro Football Focus, isn't expected to play on Sunday due to a knee injury. The Panthers' talented front seven still trumps the Dolphins' makeshift offensive line without Johnson, but his absence suggests that quarterback Ryan Tannehill might have a little more time in the pocket than he was scheduled to have.

As unlikely as a win will be for the Dolphins, it's far from impossible, especially playing at home and in an unpredictable, parity-stricken league. Here are five keys to a Dolphins' win.

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

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5. Don't Fall Behind Early

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The Dolphins, who are a team that has had a tendency of coming out of the gates sluggish this season, can't afford to fall behind on the scoreboard early in this game. To keep an intense pass rush at bay, Miami must remain balanced offensively. That will be difficult against a stout Panthers' front seven that ranks third against the run this season, but the Dolphins can't afford to get pass happy or Carolina will pin its ears back and bring heat throughout.

And although quarterback Cam Newton is in the midst of a breakthrough season, the Dolphins have to keep the pressure on the third-year passer to make plays for 60 minutes. Miami has had a porous run defense at times this season and Carolina has the league's 10th most productive rushing attack. The Dolphins will need to force Newton and the Panthers to put the ball in the air.

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4. Produce Game-Changing Play on Defense or Special Teams

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Let's be honest, the Dolphins are overmatched in this game. Offensively, against a Carolina defense that ranks third defending the run and fifth defending the pass, Miami isn't expected to move the ball consistently or score a high number of points. To win this game, Miami might need to produce a game-changing play on defense or special teams.

It doesn't really matter if it's an interception, fumble recovery, huge kick return or a blocked punt, the Dolphins just need to manufacture a big play that puts points on the board or gives their offense opportunistic field position to score. The Panthers are the better team, but by forcing at least one turnover or producing a big play on special teams, the Dolphins can level the playing field.

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3. Play Mistake Free

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If the Dolphins can produce a takeaway or two, they'll give themselves a better chance to win this game. By the same token, if they give the ball away, there chances of winning will significantly decrease. In the five games the Dolphins have lost this season, they have averaged 2.4 turnovers. In the five games they've won, they only turned the ball over once per game. However, even one turnover could be Miami's demise against a Super Bowl contender like Carolina.

Tannehill must be careful with the football, especially considering a strong pass rush will likely speed up his decision-making. He also must try to avoid any potential strip sacks. The blame would primarily fall on the offensive line in those situations, but Tannehill needs to have a better feel for the pocket when it collapses in order to tuck the football and run.

If the Dolphins avoid turning the ball over on Sunday, they should stay competitive in this game. If they don't, they'll risk being embarrassed on their home field.

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2. Contain Cam Newton

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With such a nightmare matchup for the Dolphins' offense, Kevin Coyle's defense might be required to play its best game of the season in order to pull off the upset. If Miami's defense is going to play well on Sunday, it will need to contain Newton.

Newton hasn't been one of the league's most productive passers this season, but he's been very efficient and his 91.8 quarterback rating ranks ninth in the NFL. Led by shutdown cornerback Brent Grimes, who will likely shadow big-play receiver Steve Smith on Sunday, the Dolphins have been able to rely on solid pass coverage this season. It's Newton's running ability that Miami needs to primarily focus on containing.

Newton has 328 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns in 2013. His ability to keep plays alive on his feet will also leave the Dolphins susceptible to big passing plays as Newton scrambles and coverages break down. To keep Newton in check on Sunday, the Dolphins should employ a strategy similar to the one they utilized in Week 2.

Against the Indianapolis Colts, Miami spied the athletic Andrew Luck with rookie defensive end Dion Jordan on several plays. Jordan has the athleticism to keep Newton from burning the Dolphins on the run. The rookie will spend the majority of Sunday's game on the sideline, however, so the onus will still fall on Miami's linebackers and safeties to diagnosis scrambles quickly and fly to the football.

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1. Dominate in Red Zone

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There is a strong chance Carolina will finish the game with more total yards than Miami. The Dolphins have won five games this season when they've been out-gained by their opponent, though, thanks to a defense that consistently bends but rarely breaks and an offense that usually makes the most out of its scoring chances.

Miami has conceded a touchdown on 50 percent of its opponents red-zone trips this season, which ranks 10th in the league. Meanwhile, the Dolphins have scored a touchdown on 61 percent of their red-zone visits offensively, which ranks fifth. Similar success will be in order to beat the Panthers on Sunday.

It won't be easy, though, as Carolina has scored a touchdown 64 percent of the time in the red zone and has only allowed one on 36 percent of their opponent's trips through 10 games, giving the Panthers a top five red zone offense and defense.