CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers have put themselves in good shape as they begin the second half of their schedule.

The Miami Dolphins figure they're not that far from being in an ideal position, too, but it's going to take more work.

The teams play a pivotal game Monday night at Bank of America Stadium.

"I think we've shown what we potentially could become," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said of his 6-3 team, which sits second in the NFC South.

The Dolphins (4-4) have lost back-to-back games, so there has been some slippage as they hold third place in the AFC East.

"We're probably not exactly where we want to be," Miami coach Adam Gase said. "We've had too many ups and downs. … When we finally move the ball on offense, we stub our toe on defense. I feel we're close to clicking. We have to find a way to play a good game of complementary football. We have to find that balance."

It won't be easy for a sometimes wobbly Miami offense. The Panthers have the top-rated defense in the NFL.

"There's a lot of football left to play, but I thought this group could be very good on defense," Rivera said. "They understand how we want them to play."

The Panthers have yielded 274.1 yards per game.

Now, they've been bolstered by the re-emergence of quarterback Cam Newton's knack for picking up valuable yards on the ground.

Newton said he has picked up pointers through the years for how to be an effective and yet responsible ball carrier.

"Trying to put this offense in the best shape as possible," Newton said. "That's what you have to learn over the years. It's easy to get sidetracked and think this is a guy who is smaller than me and I can just throw my body into whatever."

Newton said he still has pain in his shoulder from time to time stemming from offseason surgery.

He said he's pleased with how he has found ways to be safe and productive.

"It's just the confidence of the coaches," Newton said. "The more they see me scrambling and everything holds up, that gives them confidence. As long as I keep giving those guys confidence, I just have to make sure I protect myself and get as much yards as possible."

Miami quarterback Jay Cutler has had a more recent ailment. He came back last weekend after missing a game with cracked ribs.

Still, Gase said the Dolphins' injury situation isn't too bad.

Cutler has thrown for seven touchdowns in the last eight quarters. But the Panthers are bound to provide a stiff test.

"How well can we protect? That's where it starts and it filters down after that," Gase said. "It's a huge puzzle and you're trying to put it together. …We just have to find a way to clean a few things up. I feel like we're close."

There have been signs, Gase said, of the rushing attack breaking out. He said he likes where that aspect is headed and that Kenyan Drake will receive more chances.

The Panthers have mixed up their personnel in the defensive backfield, something that has helped that unit add depth.

"It just depends on the feel of the game," Rivera said. "You can have confidence and feel good about who you put out there. We feel good about the seven guys we have (at cornerback)."

Meanwhile, Gase is demanding tighter coverage from the Dolphins' secondary.

"We just gave them too much air," he said of the loss to the Oakland Raiders. "We have to make sure we do a better job."

The Dolphins have had five games decided by six points or less. Three of the last four games had three-point margins.

"Everything is up for grabs," Gase said. "The guys have a great opportunity. We have a shot, eight games (left). If you prepare well, you play well, you can find yourself in a good spot at the end of the year."

The Dolphins should have safety T.J. McDonald available after he served his eight-game suspension for violation of the NFL substance abuse policy. After playing for the Los Angeles Rams last year, he'll be making his Dolphins debut when he plays.

"I expect him to be out there and ready to go," Gase said. "We knew what we were getting into with the suspension. We thought it was going to be about this time (when he became available)."

The Panthers are 9-6 all-time in Monday night games, including a 6-3 mark at home.

"A prime-time game and peaking right when we're supposed to be," Newton said. "Come Monday night, everybody come ready to rock and roll."

Miami is one of two teams that Carolina has never defeated at home (in two attempts). The other is the Tennessee Titans.