They’ll also have to move on without key cogs in their ground attacks.
Ronnie Brown’s(notes) absence could limit the effectiveness of the Dolphins’ wildcat formation Thursday night in Charlotte, while the Panthers will try to get back in the wild-card mix without star tackle Jordan Gross(notes) paving the way for their tailback tandem.
Carolina and Miami both began 0-3 after winning their respective division titles in 2008, seemingly putting themselves in major peril considering no team has made the playoffs after such a poor start since the 1998 Detroit Lions.
Instead, they’ve each won four of six to improve to 4-5. The Panthers’ 28-19 win over Atlanta on Sunday put them one game behind the Falcons, Packers, Eagles and Giants in the wild-card picture, with a game at New York still remaining on their schedule.
“I think we were at a major crossroad in the season being 3-5,” said receiver Muhsin Muhammad(notes), who had six catches for 91 yards in his return from a knee injury. “If you look at the playoff picture, we have as good a chance as anybody else with seven games left in the season.”
Muhammad’s return, Steve Smith’s two touchdowns and a no-huddle offense - which Smith referred to as “controlled chaos” - seem to have signaled a resurgence for Jake Delhomme(notes), who has three touchdowns and zero interceptions in the past three weeks. Delhomme had thrown an NFL-high 13 picks in his first six games, when many were calling for him to be benched.
The Panthers have survived on their running game, which is third in the league (156.6 yards per game) behind DeAngelo Williams(notes) (5.1 yards per carry, seven touchdowns) and Jonathan Stewart(notes) (4.8, six). Williams had 92 yards Sunday and Stewart finished with 82 and two scores.
That rushing attack - and Delhomme’s blind-side pass protection - might be in trouble with the loss of Gross, the All-Pro left tackle who broke his ankle against Atlanta. Gross had only missed one game in his seven-year career, but he’s out for the season after undergoing surgery Sunday night.
“He’s a leader, a top-10 pick,” Delhomme said of the eighth selection in the 2003 draft. “He was placed at tackle at the first minicamp and he hasn’t left.”
Now, veteran Travelle Wharton(notes) will move from left guard to left tackle, and Mackenzy Bernadeau(notes), an untested 2008 second rounder, will fill Wharton’s spot with just two practices to prepare for Miami.
The Dolphins appeared on the verge of dropping to 3-6 on Sunday in Tampa after Chad Henne’s(notes) interception with under 2 minutes to play led to a touchdown that gave the Buccaneers a 23-22 lead with 1:14 to go.
Henne didn’t make a mistake when Miami got the ball back, though. He completed two passes for 41 yards and Ricky Williams’(notes) 27-yard run put the Dolphins in position for Dan Carpenter’s(notes) 25-yard field goal, which gave them a 25-23 win.
Henne finished 17 for 31 for 175 yards and improved to 4-2 as a starter.
“I told him after the game in the locker room, ‘You grew up today,’” defensive end Jason Taylor(notes) said. “It’s a maturation process. He’s going to make mistakes. We all make mistakes. I still do after 13 years. The key is to bounce back when you do, and that’s what he did today.”
Williams topped 100 yards for the first time this season, part of a 199-yard day for the league’s fourth-best rushing attack (156.2). But Brown hurt his right foot in the victory and was placed on injured reserve Wednesday.
That means the 32-year-old Williams, who’s averaging a career-best 5.3 yards per carry, will be the triggerman in the wildcat formation.
“He’s a good pro and knows that if Ronnie’s not out there, his role is going to change,” coach Tony Sparano said. “The guy carried the ball 20 times the other night. (We’re) talking about a guy that led the league in rushing at one point. He gets it, he knows what he has to do.”
The Dolphins figure to be in better position to stop the run, considering they feature the league’s seventh-best rush defense (97.6). Carolina allows 128.1 yards per game on the ground to rank 25th.
Miami will get pass-rushing linebacker Joey Porter(notes) back this week after Sparano deactivated him for “off-field conduct” against Tampa, but it’s been vulnerable through the air, allowing 239.4 yards per game and ranking 27th.
The Panthers’ pass defense ranks fourth (186.4), and they’ve picked off eight passes in their past three games.
Carolina has never beaten the Dolphins in three meetings and hasn’t faced them in Charlotte since Nov. 15, 1998.
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