This week the Panthers head south to play their second straight 2008 division winner that, coincidentally, they will also meet during the regular season.
The Miami Dolphins were one of the surprise teams of 2008, going from a 1-15 season in 2007 to an 11-5 first place finish in the AFC East and a playoff spot. In doing so, they established the 12th best offense in the league and the 15th best defense.
On offense, they were effective both in the air and on the ground. Their passing attack was 10th in the league, while their running game was 11th.
Defensively, however, they were a little more unbalanced. They were 10th against the run, but as their 25th place ranking suggests, they were vulnerable to the pass.
Still, it was their defensive play that was credited with their turnaround. The Dolphins switched to a 3-4 defense in 2008, and that unit should be even more successful in 2009 with a year in the system.
Strength of schedule was another factor in their success. They played a rather easy schedule in 2008, and most of their wins came against teams with losing records.
In fact, although the point differential in their games was 345-317, they played in only three games where the outcome was decided by four points or less. When the matchups were favorable, they won and won big. When they weren't, they got killed.
The passing defense figures to improve this year, as the Dolphins got a serious steal in Free Agency, landing free safety Gibril Wilson from the Raiders. They also have a pro-bowl corner in Will Allen, but on the other side they're still not set, although one of their draft picks is looking pretty good.
Rookie Sean Smith did very well as the other starting cornerback in Miami's first preseason game against Jacksonville, more or less shutting down Torry Holt. He should easily win the job over Eric Green, who got torched by the Jaguars' second string receivers. *UPDATE* - Green has since been released by the 'phins.
The Jacksonville game was really marked by defense, with a final score of 12-9. The Jaguar starters managed just 18 yards in three series over the first quarter against Miami, who got 95 yards and a field goal in the same span. The Dolphins also registered a sack against David Garrard.
Both teams were fairly sloppy, with 18 penalties and generally anemic offenses. The Dolphins were able to move the ball through the air, but the running game was surprisingly absent.
That's not a big concern for the Dolphins though. They know what they have in running backs Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown. Miami is more interested in how first round pick Pat Williams plays and in how their defense brings pressure while stuffing the run.
When the Panthers come to town, look for the Dolphins to show very little on offense. Chad Pennington will throw several short passes for a high completion percentage, and will likely look for the tight ends as much as the receivers. Miami's tight ends scored twice as many touchdowns in 2008 as the receivers did.
Among the Dolphin receivers, word is that Ted Ginn, Jr. is finally looking like the number one wideout he was drafted to be. He had two nice receptions and an end-around that showcased his speed against the Jaguars and will provide a stiff test for Chris Gamble and Richard Marshall.
Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams will run with the starters, and Williams will likely stay in the game when Pat White takes over at cornerback.
White's a dynamic runner who will fit well in the wildcat package, but he will probably be throwing more than he runs. The Dolphins know what he can do on the ground and want him to develop his arm better, particularly after his 2-7 effort against the Jaguars.
In sum, the Dolphins don't have many real stars, particularly on offense. But they have a well balanced group of capable players and can move the ball equally well on the air and on the ground.
And they throw just enough trick plays in the mix to keep things interesting. But don't look for too many of those in the preseason, they'll probably keep things fairly vanilla and save the good stuff for when the game counts.
On defense Miami will bring pressure much like the Giants did. The difference is in where it comes from. Miami runs the 3-4 offense, and their outside linebackers are very good.
Pro Bowler Joey Porter lines up on one side while Matt Roth and Jason Taylor are on the other. Against Jacksonville, Taylor spent as much time in the Jaguar backfield as David Garrard.
Rookie corner Sean Smith looks great, and the Panthers will have their hands full making plays in the passing game against the Dolphin corners, particularly in the face of the pressure Miami can bring.
The best way to beat that sort of pressure is with draws, screens, and quick slants. However, those plays don't occupy prominent places in the Panthers' playbook, and given how vanilla Fox will want to play it, you shouldn't expect to see them Saturday.
So look for another defensive struggle in Miami. Williams will get his yards, but without Smith and with little incentive to win, the Panthers will likely play things close to the vest, both on offense and defense.
Miami will bend the Panther defense, but the Dolphins don't have the playmakers required to break it. They're a good running team, but don't have the power-style running attack like the Giants, one that can expose the Carolina defensive line.
When the scrubs get in, it's anyone's guess as to what will happen. Miami isn't a roster packed with talent, but they do lead the league so far in bench players quitting the team. The players are quitting because they know they're not going to make the roster. Most of the Dolphins' positions are well set, and the starters known.
Carolina faces a similar situation as far as their starters are concerned, but with their cap issues they lost several key backups in the offseason. There are more roster spots to be won on the Panthers this year.
The Panthers' first string probably won't look any better than it did against the Giants. But when the second and third stringers are on the field, the Panthers' will likely out-hustle their opponents. Fringe players will bring superior energy to the field in an effort to make the team, and that should be enough to make a difference on the final scoreboard.
Prediction I: Carolina 17, Miami 10
Prediction II: Fans of both teams will forget that it's a preseason game, and will make WAY too much of what they see on the field.
Prediction III: This game will look NOTHING like the one played this Thanksgiving.