The Dolphins must win to keep their flickering playoff hopes alive. For any other 4-5 team, I probably wouldn't bother mentioning the postseason as a significant storyline, but the Dolphins are better than most teams with losing records. The Dolphins can make a run. They have a decent chance of heading into December a game over .500 with a win over the Panthers and another next Sunday against the Buffalo Bills. The Dolphins' remaining opponents are a combined 32-21. They haven't lost consecutive games since September and came close to knocking off the top two teams in ESPN.com's Power Rankings.
Miami is coming off one of its gutsiest games in recent years and will need to dig even deeper against Carolina. The Dolphins went into last week's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers without several key players, including outside linebacker Joey Porter, left guard Justin Smiley and tight end Anthony Fasano. Porter is expected to return Thursday night, but star running back Ronnie Brown is done for the year with a broken foot. Ricky Williams has been a phenomenal sidekick all year, but can he shoulder the load like it's 2004? The only other Dolphins running back with a carry this year is fullback Lousaka Polite.
The Wildcat could get even more creative, or it might disappear altogether. Without Brown at the controls, the Wildcat won't be the same. Williams has taken a few of the direct snaps, but what makes the Wildcat work is when he's in the high-speed motion role. If the Dolphins put Williams behind the center, then a critical pre-snap component of the formation is eliminated. It's hard to imagine reserves Lex Hilliard or Kory Sheets getting enough practice reps to make it work, never mind their drop-off in ability. But Miami's staff is imaginative. They could find more ways for scrambly backup quarterback Pat White to contribute. Although it's technically not a Wildcat play when White's back there -- a non-quarterback has to take the snaps to qualify -- his running of the option two weeks ago against the New England Patriots indicated there might be more surprises we haven't seen yet.
Porter needs to have a big game to back up his big mouth. Miami's yappy pass-rusher needs to make a statement on the field for a change. Porter has been battling a hamstring problem but didn't play last week because the organization benched him for disciplinary reasons. Last year's AFC sacks leader hasn't recorded a full sack since a Week 3 loss to the San Diego Chargers. The last time he was on the field, Patriots rookie left tackle Sebastian Vollmer shut him out in tackles and sacks. That was a few days after Porter popped off on the NFL Network, saying the Patriots should have asterisks affixed to their championships and that the league gave Tom Brady special treatment. Porter has been quieter, but not silent. On the NFL Network this week, he noted that the Dolphins' defense is good enough that the offense should need to score only 17 points to win.