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5 things we learned from Panthers win over Dolphins

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

After shellacking the Miami Dolphins 45-21 on Monday Night Football, the Carolina Panthers enter their bye week winners of three consecutive games. With a record that now stands at 7-3, Carolina is finding its identity after last years disappointing season coming off the Super Bowl loss.

Losers of three in a row, the Dolphins would love to have their previously scheduled bye week to regroup and gear up for a run at a wild-card berth in the AFC, but the unfortunate aftermath of Hurricane Irma leaves Miami with 16 consecutive weeks of football and no break.

While the game was lopsided, there was still plenty to take away from the contest. Let’s examine five things we learned from Carolina’s dominant win over Miami.

Cam Newton has found his rhythm

It’s been an up and down start to the season for Newton, but if Monday Night’s performance is any indication, Newton has found his rhythm in the Panthers offense. Completing 60 percent of his passes, Newton passed for 254 yards and four touchdowns. Adding 95 rushing yards, it was a vintage performance from the former NFL MVP.

After offseason shoulder surgery forced him to miss all of the OTAs and most of training camp, Newton wasn’t a full practice participant until late August. He threw a total of two passes in the entire preseason.

While most NFL quarterbacks were building chemistry and timing with their skill players, Newton was rehabbing his shoulder so that he could actually throw a football. With all of the critical time missed, the sloppy start to the season should be no surprise, especially when considering the new structure of the Panthers offense.

Newton engineered an offensive explosion on Monday Night, and he looks like he is back to his dominant ways.

Panthers rushing attack emerging

The Panthers followed up their season-high 201 rushing yards last week against Atlanta with an even better performance against Miami, finishing with 294 yards on the ground. Averaging 8.2 yards per carry, the Panthers ran the ball at will against Miami, who had the NFL’s seventh-best run defense entering the game.

Prior to Monday, every Panthers running back was averaging under three yards per carry, but they collectively averaged 6.93 yards per rush on Monday. While Jonathan Stewart was the lead back, Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula effectively worked in both Christina McCaffrey and Cameron Artis-Payne.

The Panthers offensive line created rushing lanes and the backs pressed the line of scrimmage with confidence.

Nov 13, 2017; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart (28) runs the ball during the second quarter against the Miami Dolphins at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Luke Kuechly is a special football player

Regardless of position, Kuechly is among the elite talents in the NFL.

His ability to rapidly diagnose plays, fight through contact and finish plays is rare. His range and athleticism are off the charts. The way he drops in coverage and gets depth in his drops with a keen awareness to defending his zone may be the best in NFL history.

Watching him play defense is likened to seeing Peyton Manning or Tom Brady orchestrate an offense. Kuechly is locked in pre-snap barking out signals, lining up his teammates and seemingly calling out plays before they are run.

Kuechly is the ultimate defender and a true field general.

Panthers are a contender in NFC

The disappointment of last year is clearly behind the Panthers, and they are absolutely in the mix of contenders in the NFC. With the way Newton is playing, paired with the rushing attack and a lights-out defense, Carolina has the makeup of a team primed for a deep playoff run.

Led by two-time NFL Coach of the Year Ron Rivera and a roster littered with veterans who have postgame experience, there’s no reason to think Carolina isn’t a contender.

With five teams with a record of 7-3 or better, the NFC is highly competitive. Having said that, Carolina’s nucleus and coaching staff are far more battle tested than their contemporaries. I expect Carolina to be playing in the divisional round of the playoffs at a minimum.

Dolphins still alive in AFC playoff race

Believe it or not, Miami’s playoff chances are alive and well. At 5-4, the Buffalo Bills are currently clinging to the sixth seed but were embarrassed by the New York Jets and New Orleans Saints consecutive weeks. Along with the Ravens and Raiders at 4-5, Miami is a game back of Buffalo with seven to play. Most importantly, two of Miami’s final seven games are against the Bills, so they have a direct opportunity to earn that final wild-card spot by taking the season series.

With losses to the Ravens and Raiders this season, Miami does not hold many tiebreakers, so they will likely need to finish with a better record than Oakland or Baltimore.

In a wide open AFC, Miami is still in the mix despite dropping its third consecutive game.

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