THE PANTHERS’ STRENGTH ON OFFENSE: Part of what makes Carolina a bona fide Super Bowl candidate — albeit a surprising one — is the Panthers’ tremendous balance. The Panthers are solid in every area, and that includes both their running game and passing game on offense. What stands out on the Carolina roster is the abundance of quality running options, with former first-round picks DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, short-yardage specialist Mike Tolbert and, of course, quarterback Cam Newton. But Newton also can do some damage with his passing, as he showed in leading the Panthers’ game-winning drive against the Patriots on Monday night. Carolina has plenty of speed at wide receiver with Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell and former Dolphins first-round pick Ted Ginn Jr., plus a reliable pass-catching tight end in Greg Olsen.
THE PANTHERS’ QUESTION MARK ON OFFENSE: The Carolina offense has been pretty impressive throughout its current six-game winning streak, with the exception of the 10-9 victory at San Francisco, but pass protection was a major issue early in the season. In losses at Buffalo and Arizona, Newton was sacked a combined 13 times — an awfully high number for anyone, but even more so for a quarterback with his strength and mobility. Carolina is averaging 125.3 yards a game on the ground, but the Panthers haven’t broken many long runs, with their longest on the season being a pair of 27-yarders by Williams — against the New York Giants and the 49ers.
THE PANTHERS’ STRENGTH ON DEFENSE: Carolina is third in the NFL in total defense, third against the run and fifth against the pass. They’re tied for third in interceptions and tied for ninth in sacks. In the seven games that preceded the Monday night matchup against New England, Carolina gave up an average of 249 total yards. Basically, the Panthers are very good on defense. First-round pick Star Lotulelei has joined veteran Dwan Edwards in the middle of the defensive line and made the Panthers tough to run against. The pass rush has been the biggest factor in the pass defense, while defensive backs Mike Mitchell and Robert Lester share the team lead with linebacker Luke Kuechly with three interceptions apiece.
THE PANTHERS’ QUESTION MARK ON DEFENSE: Perhaps it was no coincidence that Carolina’s defense gave up almost 400 yards against New England on the night when its best pass rusher, Charles Johnson, missed most of the second half with a knee injury. Johnson was diagnosed on Tuesday with a sprained knee ligament and there’s a distinct possibility he’ll miss Sunday’s game. If Johnson can’t go, he’ll be replaced in the starting lineup by Mario Addison, Frank Alexander or Wes Horton. Regardless of who it is, it would be a major drop-off for the Panthers. Johnson doesn’t only lead the team with 8.5 sacks, he makes everybody on that defense better. His absence also should put more pressure on a secondary that isn’t considered elite by any standard.
THE PANTHERS’ STRENGTH ON SPECIAL TEAMS: After flaming out in Washington, former Florida State kicker Graham Gano has become a major asset in Carolina. Gano has made 14 of 15 field goal attempts this season and is a perfect 5-for-5 from 50 yards or beyond. Carolina’s kick coverage teams have been solid, as the Panthers haven’t allowed a kickoff return longer than 34 yards or a punt return longer than 22 yards.
THE PANTHERS’ QUESTION MARK ON SPECIAL TEAMS: Dolphins fans obviously are familiar with Ted Ginn Jr., whose biggest impact as an NFL player so far has come as a kick returner. Ginn signed with the Panthers this offseason after three years in San Francisco but has yet to make much of a difference in the return game. Ginn’s longest kickoff return this season has been only 38 yards and his longest punt return has been 25 yards. As a result, the Panthers are ranked 17th in punt return average and 24th in kickoff returns. That said, the Dolphins and their fans should be well aware that Ginn is capable of breaking a long return at any time.