MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – With rain in the forecast one afternoon this week, the Miami Dolphins practiced indoors and emerged to find the sun shining.
"Our weather forecast was right on," coach Joe Philbin observed facetiously. "As usual."
Everything about the Dolphins this season has been unpredictable. They won at first-place Indianapolis and lost at home against last-place Buffalo. They lost to winless Tampa Bay and beat first-place Cincinnati. They're mired in a bullying scandal that threatens to sink the season, but they've won two of three games since tackle Jonathan Martin left the team complaining of daily harassment.
Despite a so-so defense, a feeble offense and questions about the locker room culture, the Dolphins (5-5) find themselves in the thick of the AFC wild-card race heading into Sunday's game against surging Carolina (7-3). The Panthers are coming off a thrilling Monday night win over New England, and they're favored to extend their winning streak to seven games, which would be their longest since 2003.
Here are five things to consider as the Dolphins try again to confound prognosticators:
WINNING CLOSE GAMES: Seven of the Dolphins' 10 games have been decided by four points or less, including the past three.
"We've been in more four-or-less games than just about anybody in football since the beginning of last year," Philbin said. "Why we end up in that spot you could debate. But the fact of the matter is we are in a bunch of close games, so every snap is important. Every possession is important. Minimizing mistakes is important. Playing penalty-free is important."
Thanks to solid play in the red zone and some big plays down the stretch, the Dolphins are .500 even though they've been outgained by 57 yards per game and are even in turnover differential. Four of their victories have been by a total of 14 points.
CAM VS. CAM: The effort to contain Panthers quarterback Cam Newton will be led by defensive end Cameron Wake, who leads the Dolphins with 6½ sacks.
During the Panthers' winning streak, Newton has completed 67 percent of his passes while throwing for 10 scores and running for three. Wake said a 40-yard pass hurts a defense as much as a 40-yard scramble, and the Dolphins know Newton is capable of either.
"I feel like we're up to the task," Wake said. "We've got a lot of guys who can run and make plays, we've got guys who rush the passer well and can make sure everybody is on the same page as far as keeping him contained."
Newton threw or ran for 75 of the 83 yards in the Panthers' late game-winning drive Monday. He celebrated afterward at a Waffle House with a meal of scrambled eggs, orange juice, hash browns, cheese grits and a waffle.
"It's to die for," Newton said.
DEEP DECOY: The self-proclaimed fastest player in the NFL can't get going.
Mike Wallace, who signed a $60 million, five-year contract when he joined the Dolphins last offseason, has only one touchdown and is averaging a career-low 12.1 yards per catch. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill takes the blaming, noting he has repeatedly misfired when Wallace was open deep.
"I just get conservative," Tannehill said. "I just have to trust it and let it rip. We talked to coach Philbin, and that's one of the things he told me: 'Just go out there and let it rip.' When a guy gets that open, sometimes you kind of tense up and you don't want to overthrow him, so you end up underthrowing him."
Wallace was several steps behind the defense in each of the past two games. One time Tannehill threw the ball out of bounds, and another pass he underthrew. Both were incomplete.
Wallace had four catches for 39 yards last week, and afterward offensive coordinator Mike Sherman raved about his performance, saying his effort set a positive tone.
Wallace shrugged off the praise.
"I had 39 yards," he said. "You can't rave when you have 39 yards. There's nothing to rave about."
GINN AGAIN: Ted Ginn Jr. will play in Miami for the first time since he left the Dolphins as a first-round bust following the 2009 season.
Ginn caught a 25-yard touchdown pass with 59 seconds left Monday to beat the Patriots. That was his third scoring reception this year, a career high. He's averaging a career-best 17.1 yards per catch on 24 receptions.
"Ted is a buddy," said Miami receiver Brian Hartline, who ran track against Ginn in high school in Ohio. "It's great to see him score that winning touchdown and having success like I always knew he would."
STARTING FAST: Kickoff is at 1:05 p.m., and the Dolphins had better be ready.
Carolina has outscored opponents 45-8 in the first quarter and 113-45 in the first half. The defense hasn't allowed a TD in the first quarter, and the Panthers have led at halftime in nine of their 10 games.
The Dolphins, by contrast, have scored only three of their 23 touchdowns in the first quarter.
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