Quick sketch of Monday night: Don't expect a lot of points. Two good defenses meet two unimpressive offenses. The Dolphins have dropped two straight games and need a win in Carolina on Monday night or they drop to 4-5. Carolina (6-3) has won two straight to give the idea its season has found its way.
Here are five questions about this matchup:
1. Will the league's best defense dominate the league's worst offense? Well, you need to manipulate the numbers here, but the general idea holds. Carolina gives up a league-low 274.1 yards per game. The Dolphins score a league-low 14.5 points a game. That's a bit of an apples-to-bananas comparison, but you get the idea. Carolina is only slightly lower rated in giving up a fourth-best 17.7 points a game. And the Dolphins offense ranks second-to-last at 270.3 yards a game. The question is if this offense has found anything different in recent weeks in scoring 31 against the Jets and 24 against Oakland. Of course, you have to overlook the zero in Baltimore. Also, on the road, the Dolphins have struggled even more than at home, having been shut out by the Ravens and in London by the Saints and scoring only on the last play at the Jets.
2. Jay Cutler or Cam Newton? Cutler has had a couple good games in a row. Newton has struggled for the past month with ratings of 48.5, 54.9, 66.4 and 71.0. Cutler has 10 touchdowns and five interceptions. Newton has 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Cutler has been good against pressure, completing 66.4 percent of his passes. Newton hasn't been good at home. Carolina isn't winning with offense. It's telling Newton has been Carolina's leading rusher the past four games. Both these quarterbacks will be going against good defenses – Carolina has a great defense. As good as Carolina's defense is, it only has four interceptions, which is tied for 26th in the league. The Dolphins, by comparison, have – uh, well, they have three interceptions. So while each quarterback is going against good defenses, they haven't been turnover-heavy defenses. A lot of Monday comes down to what kind of a night Cutler and Newton have.
3. Will T.J. McDonald immediately upgrade the defense against Cam Newton? Answer: Yes. He's that good. He was a big upgrade over Nate Allen, who was injured and replaced by Michael Thomas the last couple of games. This is like getting a major trade in mid-season as McDonald comes off his eight-game suspension. He could not have come at a better time, too. The defense has developed a slow leak, especially in pass defense, as opposing quarterbacks are averaging a 69.9 percent completion rate. That's second-worst in the league. The defense has dropped out of the top 10 at season's start to giving up a 17th-best 22.8 points a game now. Sure, Baltimore scoring 40 skews some numbers. The spotty safety play opposite Reshad Jones has been a reason. Now defensive coordinator Matt Burke has two big-play safeties to use. And he'll need everything tonight because the Dolphins' defense needs to match Carolina's.
4. Can the offensive line survive this game? Ted Larsen is healthy and gets his first start at left guard. That helps. But right tackle Ja'Wuan James is out so Jesse Davis, who was playing left guard, takes over at right tackle. Carolina's defense yields 78.4 rushing yards a game, good for second-best in the league. They're tied for second-most with 29 sacks. So they present a challenge for a line that's struggled many games this year.
5. Who wins special teams? When defense rules, so does field position. Carolina punter Michael Palardy has led the league in net punting average the past three weeks. (He also a good back story as a former St. Thomas teaching sub, as I wrote in a column). Carolina kicker Graham Gano has made 19 of 20 field goals this year (long of 48) and 15 of 16 extra points. The Dolphins' Cody Parkey has made nine of 10 field goals (long of 54) and nine of 12 extra points.
Prediction: The Dolphins will have chances to win this game, but I'm taking Carolina's defense: Carolina 24, Dolphins 13. As a matter of fact, no Sun Sentinel staffers are picking the Dolphins to win tonight.