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Week 6 Preview & Prediction: Panthers at Dolphins

My look at what to expect when the Panthers visit the Dolphins this Sunday.

New York Giants v Miami Dolphins
WR duo supreme Tyreek Hill and Jalen Waddle vibe as only they can.
Photo by Brandon Sloter/Image Of Sport/Getty Images

One coin, two sides. Side one: The Dolphins beat what is essentially an amputated version of a lower-tier NFL team to get to 4-1. The last time the Dolphins started a season 4-1 was 2003, when Dave Wannstedt followed that strong opening by going 6-5 the rest of the way. Those Dolphins ended up 10-6 and missed the playoffs in one of the rare occasions when a 10-6 team didn’t at least get a Wildcard. A feat replicated just three years ago by Brian Flores’ 2020 Dolphins. Yay us. Lesson: don’t count your chickens.

Other side of the coin: The Dolphins handily beat an NFL team while still making several unforced, very correctable errors. And they are 4-1 and back atop of the AFC East for the moment, after the Bills lost to the Jacksonville Jetla - er, Jaguars in London early Sunday morning, ‘Merican time.

The win over the Giants certainly had its head-scratching moments, but those were outnumbered by the excellent moments on both offense and defense. The result was a very convincing 31-16 win in which the score undersells just how much better the Dolphins looked than New York. It wasn’t quite the lop-sided score that I predicted, but I was still essentially correct on the week, upping my predictions a tad:

driftinscotty’s Straight Up Picks for 2023 Season

Game # Opponent Prediction Outcome My Straight Up Season Record
Game # Opponent Prediction Outcome My Straight Up Season Record
1 @Chargers L, 27-24 W, 36-34 0-1
2 @Patriots W, 27-20 W, 24-17 1-1
3 Broncos W, 34-17 W, 70-20 2-1
4 @Bills W, 34-24 L, 48-20 2-2
5 Giants W, 41-17 W, 31-14 3-2

Next up is the second in the double pack of Twinkies: the Carolina Panthers. Yes, they’re still a team in the National Football League. How do they stack up against Miami?

The Tale of the Tape

We’re five weeks in now, inching closer to when we can truly put all of our stock into season averages. A few outliers aside, the five games of data we have are enough to get a pretty good idea of what teams are bringing to the table. Here’s what we have:

Key Team Stats for Miami & Carolina

Stat Per Game Dolphins Panthers
Stat Per Game Dolphins Panthers
Passing Yards 327.8 (1st) 198.4 (22nd)
Rushing Yards 185.8 (1st) 96 (21st)
Points Scored 36.2 (1st) 18.2 (25th)
Pass Yards Allowed 237.4 (20th) 185 (5th)
Run Yards Allowed 115.8 (18th) 140.8 (26th)
Points Allowed 27 (26th) 28.8 (28th)
Net Turnovers -3 (tie 22nd) -4 (tie 25th)
Against Penalty Yards 56 (24th) 61.6 (28th),

If this looks similar to last week’s comparison to the Giants, it’s probably because it is. A bit, anyway.

The Dolphins offense continues to light up the universe, thanks to Mike McDaniel’s brain, immense skill and speed on that side of the ball, and going against a couple of pretty lame defenses in recent weeks. The numbers for Miami’s defense are still underwhelming, but facing the Giants last week helped them right their ship a bit. In fact, they arguably had a better game than the offense last Sunday. The Panthers? Well, the numbers aren’t flattering. That #5 ranking in pass defense looks really good until you notice that they’re 26th in run defense. Why would a team take the riskier route of passing against a defense that they can run all over? And their offense ranks in or very near the bottom third of the league in the major categories.

On paper, the Fins look like the far better squad. Is there anything on Carolina’s tape from the last two weeks to suggest otherwise?

Carolina Panthers’ Last Two Games: Vs Minnesota and at Detroit

Minnesota Vikings v Carolina Panthers
Panthers WR Adam Thielen couldn’t get much going against his former team - a theme echoed by his new teammates.
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Two weeks ago, the Panthers hosted the Vikings, a team whose luck from the last couple of seasons seems to have run all the way out. This game was hard to watch. Neither squad got a lot going on offense. For the Panthers’ part, this was due to a general blandness and lack of standout talent on offense. For the Vikings, it was due to essentially being little more than Justin Jefferson and Kirk Cousins’ ability to find and get the ball to said Justin Jefferson. In the first quarter, Cousins threw a top-shelf WTF pick that was returned 99 yards for a TD. A few more self-inflicted wounds by the Vikings set the Panthers up for another field goal in the 2nd quarter. Cousins, Jefferson, and a solid ground game got Minnesota back on track, as they outscored Carolina 14-3 the rest of the game. It was a slog to watch, with 13 penalties for 117 yards between the two teams. Minnesota had a rather lame 265 yards of total offense, with Carolina actually posting an even less impressive total of 232 yards. The Panthers dropped to 0-4 at this point.

Last week, Carolina went up to the Motor City to face the Lions. This did not go well for the out-of-towners. By the end of the first quarter, they were down 14-0 to the Lions. They did put together a 14—play, 75-yard drive that culminated in a TD in the 2nd quarter, cutting the deficit to 7 points. And that was that. The Lions responded with a touchdown. Then another. Halftime score: Detroit 28, Carolina 10. The third quarter was a scoreless tussle, and then the Lions put up another TD early in the 4th to make the score 35-10. At this point, Carolina head coach Frank Reich seemed resigned to his fate. His team did put together another TD drive, only to have Detroit respond with one of their own. Carolina put up another garbage-time TD before it was all over. Final score: Lions 42, Panthers 24. Carolina drops to 0-5.

My main takeaways from watching these two games:

  1. Rookie Carolina QB Bryce Young isn’t all that bad, but he’s very much a rookie with limitations right now. He seems fine with routine throws to open receivers, but is still working on the more advanced elements of the NFL game. He had a couple of really bad reads that led to ugly interceptions against Detroit. He may work his way out of that, but it will probably be a little while. This might be why...
  2. The coaching staff doesn’t seem to want to ask much of Young and the offense. Even when the Detroit game was still in reach in the 3rd quarter, they were still running a very conservative, dink-and-dunk offense that had no prayer of overcoming a two- or three-score deficit against a potent Detroit offense.
  3. There isn’t much to hang one’s hat on with this team right now. There were a few series where the offense or defense would look OK, only to fade away during the rest of the game. I didn’t come away from watching these games overly nervous about any particular individual or unit on Carolina. They’re not without talent, but the unit cohesion is still under construction.

Miami vs Carolina Unit Matchups

Dolphins Offense vs Panthers Defense: This is getting to be a bit cliche, but I can’t see how Carolina stops the Fins offense, or even slows it down much. The two lowest yardage totals the Fins have put up have been 393 yards against a mostly healthy Bills defense two weeks ago and 389 yards to a healthy Patriots defense back in week 2. Yes, they will be without rookie supernova De’Von Achane, but the offense was really strong even before he emerged as a Rookie of the Year Candidate two weeks ago. I didn’t see anything in the Panthers’ last two games that suggests that they can account for all of the weapons the Fins bring to this side of the ball, even without stud center Connor Williams. Major advantage: Dolphins.

Miami Dolphins v Buffalo Bills
Andrew Van Ginkel has been stepping it up to the next level this season.
Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

Dolphins Defense vs Panther Offense: The Dolphins' defense is still clearly a work in progress. And there was a bit of progress to be seen last week. Yes, yes - it was against an injury-plagued Giants offense that one would be excused for confusing with an XFL offense. Still, they showed a bit more cohesion and made sure the Giants didn’t get anything going at any point. The Panthers offense is better than the Giants, but not by a whole lot. Their O-line is healthier than the Giants unit, able to run block a bit and keep opponents from sacking Bryce Young into oblivion. Still, they’re clearly below average in every department, fading away badly down the stretches of their two previous games. I can’t say the defense will clearly dominate them since we’ve yet to see that from Fangio’s defense against any but the absolute worst opponent, but they should be able to handle Carolina here. Oh, and here’s a fun fact: the most total offensive yards the Panthers have put up - 378 against Seattle in week 3 - is 12 yards less than the lowest total the Dolphins offense has put up this year. Yikes for them. Slight advantage: Dolphins.

Special Teams, Coaching, and Other Factors

Special Teams: Carolina has actually been OK in the special teams department in most areas, except for kickoff return yards surrendered. The Fins actually have a good returner in Braxton Barrios, so this might be a place Miami can pick up a little extra field position. That aside, Miami’s special teams has remained mediocre at best. The Panthers haven’t shown to have any homerun hitters in this department, so this area is a push. Advantage: NONE

Coaching: We Dolphins fans are still waiting for Jaelen Phillips to return to the field and for Vic Fangio’s vaunted defensive scheme to fully take root. Until that latter happens, it’s hard to have faith in the Fins’ defense stopping the better offenses in the NFL. Fortunately, the Panthers aren’t one of those. They don’t have much high-end talent, and they have a rookie OC who hasn’t shown any signs that he can work magic to squeeze extra juice out of his players. Panthers’ HC Frank Reich has had success in the past and showed to be a decent head coach, but his best years were when he had a few established, high-end offensive players on his team. He doesn’t have that right now, while his counterpart Mike McDaniel has plenty of it - talent that McDaniel has been using to great effect thus far. McDaniel still makes some questionable decisions, often of the overly aggressive variety, while Reich is currently in a conservative mode. I don’t see that working out well for the Panthers. Advantage: Dolphins.

Injuries: For the Dolphins, the most glaring injury is Connor Williams being officially out. The last time he missed a game, his backup Liam Eichenberg got treated like a moldy pinata by the Bills' front seven, throwing the offensive rhythm off more than a little (oh, and Eichy even managed to fall onto Terron Armstead’s leg, injuring him as well). The good news here is that Carolina’s defensive line, while decent, is not on par with Buffalo’s. On top of that, they have much worse injury woes on their hands. Starters ruled out for Sunday include RB Miles Sanders, LG Chandler Zevala, and both safeties: Vonn Bell and Xavier Woods. There are a few “Questionable” players on both sides, but suffice it to say that any gains the Panthers might have had due to Miami injuries have been more than wiped out, and then some, by their own dealings with the injury bug.

Venue & Climate: This doesn’t look great for Carolina. I know they are not total strangers to hot weather, but this one in Hard Rock stadium looks like it’s going to be in the 90s, with high humidity bringing the heat index up over 100. This is the kind of mugginess that can sap the life out of a struggling team in the second half of a game. Advantage: Dolphins.

New York Giants v Miami Dolphins
Mike McDaniel has been solid in helping his players avoid downshifting for potential trap games.
Photo by Rich Storry/Getty Images

X-Factors: Hard to think of one, aside from this possibly being a trap game against a winless team. We older Fins fans know how that donut on the left side of your season record can steadily ramp up the desperation with every passing week. The Dolphins faced a Giants team last week who, while not winless, were only 1-3 and were trying anything to get back on track. Fortunately, Miami was coming off a really bad loss to Buffalo the week prior, which seemed to keep them focused. I loved Mike McDaniel’s oozing-with-sarcasm statement on Monday about how his ultimate goal was to lead the offensive stats categories after five weeks. He is all too aware of how looking great in a few games in September and October is not the end goal - they’re steps in a larger process. And frankly, I would argue that since he took over the team in 2022, McDaniel has yet to lose the proverbial “trap game” to a clearly weaker opponent, such as what his team is facing this week.

Prediction: Dolphins 41, Panthers 20

I predicted that the Fins would post 41 points against New York last week, but they came up short thanks to a few poor decisions on offense - decisions that I hope they have worked on hard this week. Carolina’s defense is on par with the Giants, so I think the Fins can get mostly whatever they want on that side of the ball. I would hedge this a bit due to the absence of Connor Williams, but I offset that with the Panthers’ defensive losses to injury. On the other side of the ball, it wouldn’t shock me if Miami’s defense clamped down on Carolina and kept them well under 20 points, but I’m still yet to see a good all-around performance from that group. Last week was their best one, but that was against the worst offense in the NFL. Until I see better, I’m going to assume that even a below-average offense will put up a couple of TDs and a pair of field goals on them.

What are you thinking out there? Do we see our guys get to 5-1? If so, do they look good doing it? Do the injuries somehow give the Panthers a chance to snipe the Fins for their first win of 2023? Throw a comment or two down at the bottom.

Fins Up!!!