If you were a Carolina Panther defensive lineman and you absolutely did not want to miss a certain game, that game would be Sunday against the Miami Dolphins.
The Dolphins have allowed more sacks this season than any other NFL team. Ryan Tannehill has gone down 41 times, which is literally a staggering number for a quarterback. It is no coincidence that the Dolphins' bullying scandal took out two of the team's offensive line starters.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, their defensive line will not be at full strength, either, for Sunday's 1 p.m. game at Miami. I would not be surprised if defensive end Charles Johnson (above, being carted off Monday night) misses 2-3 games with that sprained ligament in his knee, perhaps not returning until the key showdown at New Orleans Dec.8th. He's definitely out for this one. (And speaking of New Orleans, the Saints won again Thursday night, edging Atlanta 17-13 with the help of a terrible decision by Falcons coach Mike Smith at the end. Smith incomprehensibly tried a 52-yard field goal down four points with less than three minutes remaining. In that situation, even though it's fourth-and-15, you've got to go for it, because otherwise you will never see the ball again with Drew Brees needing just a first down or two to seal it. The Saints (9-2) now lead the NFC South by 1.5 games over Carolina (7-3). But I digress....
-- The news could have been worse after Johnson was viciously leg-whipped by New England's Marcus Cannon Monday night -- Cannon was fined nearly $16K for the play -- but it still doesn't help Carolina this week. There will be a big opportunity for some of the Panthers' young ends in this game, as Greg Hardy will now attract the double-team on most plays -- assuming Hardy is OK to play, which he should be.
-- To me, the steady progression of Cam Newton as a quarterback can best be defined statistically by how good he has been on third down this season. That's when Newton does his best scrambling work, and he also has been very good throwing the ball under pressure this year.
He's always been above average on third down, which is the down that makes or breaks quarterbacks. The Panthers were No.10 in third-down conversion percentage in Newton's rookie year (2011). They rose to No.6 in 2012. But now Carolina ranks No.1 in the NFL third-down conversions, a shade above Denver, which is the gold standard of NFL offenses this year. The Panthers have converted almost half of their third downs -- 62 of 128 for 48.4 percent.
Like the Panthers, I am 7-3 this season -- in my case, that's my record picking the team's outcome each week. (As you may recall, before the season I picked the Panthers to go 10-6 and make the playoffs; that one I did not feel too good about after the 1-3 start). I have managed to get seven of the past eight weeks right, getting back on track last week by choosing Carolina to beat New England by three (the Panthers won by four). This one I don't believe will be that close. My prediction: Carolina 27, Miami 13.