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Carolina Panthers vs. Miami Dolphins: Storylines, prediction in a must-win game for both teams

Tua Tagoavailoa and the Miami Dolphins host Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers in a game rife with playoff implications.

The Miami Dolphins (4-7) haven’t yet saved their season, but they’ve done enough over the last three weeks that their season conceivably could still be saved. The Carolina Panthers (5-6), meanwhile, have a pretty clear path to the playoffs. Even after last week’s 27-21 loss to the Washington Football Team — Carolina’s sixth in its last eight games — the Panthers are just a half-game out of the seven seed with six games to play. Are the Panthers and Dolphins playoff contenders or pretenders? We’ll learn more Sunday at Hard Rock Stadium.

Carolina Panthers vs. Miami Dolphins storylines

FOX is sending Dolphins-Panthers to just a select few markets in the South, including Birmingham, Alabama, and Roanoke, Virginia. This is just the seventh all-time meeting between the teams, with the Panthers winning the last two after the Dolphins took the first four.

Can Cam Newton keep it rolling?

There were many reasons Carolina lost to Washington in Week 11. Cam Newton’s play was very low on that list. He played about as well as anyone could have reasonably expected, considering he had only been on the roster for 10 days.

Newton, in an admittedly small sample size, has completed 77.4% of his attempts, has a passer rating of 125.3 and a QBR of 69.0 — which are all outstanding. Panthers coach Matt Rhule gushed about Newton’s impact on the organization in his short time back.

“I just wish everyone can see how hard he works,” Rhule said. “What Cam Newton did on Sunday — to go out there and lead us to 21 points, and go whatever he did passing and protect the football with an offense he learned in three, four days — is unheard of. Unheard of.”

Rhule continued, “I’m in the building on Monday night at like 8:15, I walk down the weight room, and he’s down there still getting treatment. He’s been there all day.”

Tua Tagovailoa still controls his fate

The month began with the Dolphins trying to replace Tua Tagovailoa. It ends with Tua on the hottest streak of his young career. Tagovailoa has had a passer rating over 100 in three of his last four starts, including in Week 11 when he completed 81.8% of his attempts in a 24-17 Dolphins win over the Jets.

Tua is surely aware that he needs much more of that over the season’s final month-plus to convince Stephen Ross not to swing an offseason trade for Deshaun Watson that the team nearly executed at the deadline. Tagovailoa has largely done his part since returning from an early season rib injury. On the year, he’s 10th in QBR (58.0) and 13th in EPA + CPOE (0.12) but tends to struggle against top defenses. The Panthers — third in defensive EPA (-0.102) — qualify.

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“Fast. Fast, athletic,” Tagovailoa said of Carolina. “They’re very good as far as their communication up front and then the back end, I do understand that they … I think they’re the No. 1 pass defense, which forces us to … it gives us a challenge, I would say.

“I would say philosophy-wise with this defense, they don’t give up big plays much. It’s more of an eight-play or 12-play drive. They really make you work for points. You don’t ever see them blow coverages. You rarely ever see a three-play or four-play drive and a team scores on this team. They do present a big challenge for us.”

A Thanksgiving weekend elimination game?

Just how long is the NFL season? The Dolphins still have a playoff pulse despite previously losing seven straight. The Panthers lost four straight earlier in the year and haven’t won consecutive games in more than two months, yet they’re alive too. But a loss for either Sunday would probably be the end of the dream.

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The Panthers have the eighth-hardest remaining strength of schedule. The Dolphins, meanwhile, finish the year against the Saints, Titans, and Patriots. FiveThirtyEight gives the Panthers a 15% chance of reaching the playoffs, but those odds would be cut in half with a loss. The Dolphins’ 1-in-20 playoff odds drop to 1-in-100 if Carolina wins.

Panthers vs. Dolphins betting line and game prediction

The Panthers are 2-point road favorites, and that feels like excellent value. Carolina is 19th in overall DVOA, while Miami is 27th. The Panthers have a positive point and yard differential on the season. The Dolphins, on the other hand, have been outscored by an average of 6.2 points per game and outgained by 72.4. This one probably won’t even be close.

Prediction: Panthers 27, Dolphins 14

Adam Beasley is the National NFL Analyst and Insider for Pro Football Network. You can read all of Adam’s work here and give him a follow on Twitter @AdamHBeasley.

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