NFL Preview - Miami (4-5) at Carolina (4-5)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Week 11 NFL schedule will kick off with what could effectively be called a playoff elimination game, as the Carolina Panthers welcome the Miami Dolphins to Bank of America Stadium on Thursday night.
The Panthers, left for dead by many pundits after a listless home loss to the Buffalo Bills dropped them to 2-4 on Oct. 25, have reintroduced themselves into the postseason discussion thanks to a solid three-game stretch of football.
Victories over 2008 playoff entries the Cardinals (34-21) and Falcons (28-19) sandwiched a 30-20 road loss to the unbeaten New Orleans Saints, a game in which the Panthers had a 17-6 lead at the half.
Improved play from quarterback Jake Delhomme has been among the key elements in the resurgence for John Fox's team, after it appeared that the veteran was on the verge of losing his job earlier in the season. Delhomme, who threw four touchdown passes versus 13 interceptions during the team's 2-4 start, has gone without a pick while compiling his top two single-game passer ratings in the club's two most recent wins.
In last Sunday's critical triumph over the NFC South rival Falcons, which moved the Panthers to 4-5 and just a game behind the conference's wild card leaders, Delhomme completed 15-of-24 passes for 195 yards with two touchdowns and no INTs, for a season-best passer rating of 115.8.
The game also saw a long-awaited contribution from Pro Bowl wideout Steve Smith, who caught a pair of touchdown passes after finding the end zone only once through the team's first eight games.
Running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart combined for 174 yards on 30 carries in the win, with Stewart adding a pair of touchdowns to equal Smith's production for the day.
Also coming off a happy result are the Dolphins, though Miami did not exactly make short work of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a game in which it was heavily favored.
In fact, when a potentially costly Chad Henne interception led to a Buccaneers touchdown with just 1:19 left, the Dolphins found themselves down, 23-22, and in need of a game-winning final drive.
Henne delivered, atoning for his mistake by executing a brilliant five-play, 77-yard drive covering a minute and change, getting Miami into position for an easy 25-yard field goal for Dan Carpenter that lifted the Dolphins to a thrilling 25-23 win. Henne completed two huge passes of 25 and 16 yards to Devone Bess to get the Fins into Tampa Bay territory, with Ricky Williams' 27- yard run down to the Bucs' 7 providing the final nail.
The win came at a price, however, as running back and offensive drink-stirrer Ronnie Brown was lost for an indefinite period - possibly for the year, according to reports - with what is being termed a foot injury.
That situation will thrust Williams into a primary ball-carrying role this week, and given his 5.3 average per carry on the year, and season-high 102 yards on 20 carries last Sunday, it would seem that the former Heisman Trophy winner will be up to the challenge.
Defensively, Miami is expected to have outside linebacker Joey Porter back in the fold, after the outspoken Pro Bowler was inactive last week for unspecified reasons unrelated to a recent injury.
The Dolphins (4-5) are two games back of the division-leading Patriots in the AFC East as Week 11 commences, and are also two back of the top wild card contenders.
Miami has won its only three matchups with Carolina all-time, defeating the Panthers at home in 2001 (23-6) and 2005 (27-24) and in Charlotte in 1998 (13-9).
The Dolphins and Houston Texans are the only two NFL teams that the Panthers have not defeated in their history.
Carolina's Fox is 0-1 all-time against the Dolphins, while Miami's Tony Sparano will be meeting both Fox and the Panthers for the first time as a head coach.
The teams also met during the 2009 preseason, with Miami earning a 27-17 triumph at Dolphin Stadium on Aug. 22nd.
WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL
Clearly, the absence of Brown (648 rushing yards, 8 TD) will be a blow to a Dolphins offense that ranks fourth in the league in rushing (156.2 yards per game) and has the second-most carries in the league (303), behind only the New York Jets. The obvious move will be to put the ball more frequently in the hands of Ricky Williams (558 rushing yards, 18 receptions, 7 TD), who is almost certain to garner his most carries since running 28 times in the 2005 season finale. The team's "Wildcat" package will likely be executed by rookie quarterback Pat White, who has only 11 carries and three pass attempts on the year, and fullback Lousaka Polite (52 rushing yards) and backup RB Lex Hilliard could also be more involved. Additionally, the team will need Henne (1165 passing yards, 5 TD, 4 INT) to show the type of poise over 60 minutes that he displayed on the final drive against the Bucs. For the day, Henne was 17-of-31 for 175 yards, a touchdown and an interception, and has an acceptable completion percentage of 58.2 and passer rating of 76.3 since taking over for the injured Chad Pennington. Bess (40 receptions) and Greg Camarillo (27 receptions) have been the QB's top down-the-field targets, and a tight end corps led at the moment by Joey Haynos (10 receptions, 2 TD) should be heavily involved as well. The Dolphins o-line has surrendered 23 sacks on the year, but did not allow one last week.
A critical element in the Panthers' ability to get to .500 on Thursday night will be the work that the league's 25th-ranked rushing defense (128.1 yards per game), one that lost linebacker Thomas Davis for the year to a knee injury in Week 9 against the Saints. The team showed some hiccups in that area last week, surrendering 176 yards on the ground to an Atlanta team that lost Michael Turner to an ankle problem in the second quarter. Veteran defensive tackles Hollis Thomas (13 tackles) and Damione Lewis (20 tackles) will have to set the tone at the point of attack this week, and a linebacking crew led by middle man Jon Beason (71 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) must be stout behind them. Beason had a game-high-tying eight tackles against the Falcons. Carolina has been better against the pass, ranking fourth in the NFL in that department from a yardage perspective (186.4 yards per game), but the team's total of 18 sacks by the Julius Peppers-led pass rush has been a disappointment. The Panthers did not have a sack of Atlanta's Matt Ryan last Sunday, and Peppers (28 tackles, 7 sacks, 1 INT) has been shut out in that department for two consecutive games. On the back end, cornerback Chris Gamble (32 tackles, 1 INT) posted eight stops last week while holding Atlanta's Roddy White just under 100 yards, and corner Richard Marshall (36 tackles, 3 INT) and safety Sherrod Martin (12 tackles, 3 INT) both notched key interceptions in the victory.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
If Delhomme (1658 passing yards, 7 TD, 13 INT) is to continue his mid-season renaissance, he'll have to do it without blind-side protector Jordan Gross, as the left tackle was lost for the season with a broken ankle suffered last week. The injury will prompt Travelle Wharton to slide from left guard to tackle, with 2008 seventh-rounder Mackenzy Bernadeau moving into the starting lineup at guard. The new-look group will have to give their quarterback the time to look down the field to Smith (38 receptions, 3 TD) and Muhsin Muhammad (30 receptions), both of whom made an impact in the all-important Falcons win. Smith made two of his four catches on the day count for touchdowns, while Muhammad logged team-highs with six catches for 91 yards after missing the previous two games due to injury. Tight ends Dante Rosario (12 receptions, 2 TD) and Jeff King (15 receptions, 2 TD) have also been red-zone targets for Delhomme. But the engine for the Panthers offense will remain the running game led by DeAngelo Williams (860 rushing yards, 7 TD, 21 receptions) and Stewart (466 rushing yards, 6 TD, 13 receptions), who head up the league's No. 3 rushing attack (156.6 yards per game). Williams has at least 89 rushing yards in each of the team's past five games, with five touchdowns over that span, while Stewart has three 80-plus-yard games and five TDs over that same span. In addition to providing holes for the backs, the Panthers line has surrendered a modest 18 sacks on the year, including a clean slate last Sunday.
Job number one for the Dolphins defense will likely be stopping the duo of DeAngelo Williams and Stewart, and a group that ranks seventh in the NFL against the run (97.6 yards per game) and has surrendered just two rushes of 20 yards or longer (tied for the league lead) will have a good chance of executing that directive. An underrated d-line led by nose tackle Jason Ferguson (21 tackles) and ends Kendall Langford (23 tackles, 1 sack) and Randy Starks (28 tackles, 4.5 sacks) will provide the first line of defense, with inside linebackers Channing Crowder (31 tackles, 1 sack) and Akin Ayodele (41 tackles) making plays behind them. Crowder had a team-high nine tackles against the Bucs last week, while Ayodele recovered a pair of fumbles as Miami limited Tampa Bay running backs to 86 total yards on 24 combined carries. Delhomme may want to take some shots down the field against the Dolphins rookie cornerback duo of Vontae Davis (28 tackles, 2 INT) and Sean Smith (24 tackles), and the fact that free safety Gibril Wilson (57 tackles, 1 sack) is questionable for Thursday with a hamstring injury should further entice the quarterback. Top tackler and strong safety Yeremiah Bell (63 tackles, 1.5 sacks) will also be key to the pass-defending effort. Porter's (12 tackles, 2.5 sacks) expected return will provide another body, along with Jason Taylor (25 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 1 INT) and pass-rushing specialist Cameron Wake (14 tackles, 4.5 sacks), to help attack Delhomme. Taylor had the team's lone interception of Tampa Bay's Josh Freeman last Sunday, while Wake posted one of the club's three sacks.
Brown's injury robs the fantasy world of one of its steadiest players, though the foot problem is a boon to owners of Ricky Williams. Williams has looked great as part of a two-back system this season, and his legs should be fresh enough to thrive with increased carries on Thursday. Otherwise, there aren't a lot of great options for the Dolphins, though kicker Dan Carpenter has been in position for multiple field goal tries (with just one miss over the span) in each of his last six games and is worth considering. The Dolphins defense might also be worth a flier, since Delhomme is bound to start turning the ball over again at some point soon, and the absence of Gross will take away one of his prime protectors.
On the Carolina side, DeAngelo Williams and Stewart should both be in lineups, and though he still hasn't been generating a ton of catches, it looks like Steve Smith is a worthy play again. Otherwise, not a lot to recommend the Panthers for fantasy purposes.
After a vexing start that had them looking like one of the worst teams in the NFL, the Panthers have found their 2008 mojo over the past few weeks. The renewed ability of the team to run the football and play good defense has taken much of the pressure off Delhomme, who has settled back into the game-managing role that best suits his skills. The re-claimed presence of a veteran quarterback gives Carolina the edge over Miami, which might have to lean a bit too hard on the still-developing Henne during a game in which Brown will be on the shelf. The Panthers never make it look easy, and won't here, but expect Carolina to continue its recent stretch of strong play and climb to .500 with an important home victory.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Panthers 21, Dolphins 17
11/18 11:00:57 ET