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What to watch for in Panthers-Dolphins on 'MNF'

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  • By Edward Lewis NFL.com
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The Carolina Panthers (6-3) are looking to stay ahead of the pack in the race for the NFC wild card spots while also hanging around in striking distance of the NFC South's first-place New Orleans Saints. The Miami Dolphins (4-4), meanwhile, are in a similar spot in the AFC, trying to stay with the AFC East's first-place New England Patriots and in the thick of things for wild card berths.

Here's five things we are watching for when the two square off at 8:30 p.m. ET on Monday Night Football:

1. Dolphins fans clamored for Matt Moore when Jay Cutler struggled to start the season. Then Moore failed to lead the Dolphins' offense to even a point in his lone start last month against the Baltimore Ravens. Cutler returned last week, and while Miami took the loss, there aren't too many chants for Moore anymore. Cutler finally appeared to knock off the rust he picked up from an offseason that was supposed to be filled with the first months of his retirement. Cutler had by far his best game as a Dolphin against the Oakland Raiders, throwing for 311 yards and three scores on 34-of-42 passing. His 121.3 quarterback rating was his highest since he beat the Rams with the Bears in November 2015. The Panthers' secondary presents a much tougher challenge than the Raiders', allowing just 195.7 passing yards per game. But if Cutler is able to shine again this week, the Dolphins have to feel good about their chances down the stretch.

2. The Panthers traded away Kelvin Benjamin, in part, to get more speed at receiver and make their offense more explosive down the field. In their first game without the big, lumbering wideout, that didn't really happen. Cam Newton completed passes to just three players, and one of those, Christian McCaffrey, was a running back. Perhaps with another week of adjusting their offense to no Benjamin, this is the week Carolina's deep passing offense takes off. Curtis Samuel is expected to see the field far more, and maybe this is when Newton finds him behind the Dolphins' secondary.

3. Jonathan Stewart's 2.9 yards per carry this season isn't impressing anyone, and his two fumbles last week nearly cost the Panthers a big win over the Atlanta Falcons. Could that mean now is the time that the more explosive McCaffrey finally gets his shine as Carolina's lead back? Deion Sanders openly begged for this on NFL Network last weekend, and he, like the rest of us, might finally get to see it Monday night. McCaffrey thoroughly outplayed Stewart against the Falcons once he finally got the bulk of carries, toting it for 66 yards on 15 attempts. Stewart had just 21 yards on 11 carries. This could be the night we see the rookie usurp the veteran in the backfield.

4. The Dolphins traded away powerhouse running back Jay Ajayi, and their offense actually improved against the Raiders last week. Why is that the case? Maybe it's because the Dolphins' offense has become less predictable. When Ajayi was in, because of his shaky hands, the threat of a receiving tailback wasn't much. But with Kenyan Drake and Damien Williams in the backfield, the defense now has to respect Miami tailbacks' route-running abilities. Drake and Williams combined to catch a whopping 12 balls, including one for a score, in the loss to Oakland. Seeing how Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and the rest of the Panthers' linebackers and safeties choose to defend the Dolphins' more versatile backfield will be something to keep an eye on.

5. In less sexy but still important football, watch the two teams' place kickers. Dolphins kicker Cody Parkey (9-for-10) and Panthers kicker Graham Gano (19-for-20) have missed just one kick each this season. If the game comes down to field goals, don't expect many miss-hits from either side.

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