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4 things we learned in the Panthers’ 45-21 domination of the Dolphins

Cam Newton looked like his 2015 MVP self.

The Carolina Panthers started slow and then did absolutely anything they wanted to the Miami Dolphins for the final three quarters in a 45-21 demolition on Monday Night Football.

Cam Newton finished the game with 254 passing yards and 95 rushing yards, along with four passing touchdowns. After some inaccuracy early, he looked every bit like his 2015 MVP self the rest of the way and the Dolphins had no answer.

By the end of the game, it was a franchise-best game for the Panthers offense:

While Miami finished with 21 points — its third-highest total of 2017 — the team’s offense struggled for most of the night and gift-wrapped a touchdown to the Panthers late in the second quarter with an interception just before halftime.

Aside from one big touchdown run for Kenyan Drake and some garbage time stats for Jay Cutler, it was another rough night for the Miami offense.

Here’s what we learned:

1. There should be flex scheduling for Monday Night Football

So far in 2017, the Dolphins have had one game each on Thursday, Sunday and Monday nights. In Week 14, they’ll be on Monday Night Football again. That’s four nationally televised games under the lights for the NFL’s worst offense.

Early in the game against the Panthers — when there were only three points scored in the first quarter — it got me daydreaming about better matchups. It would be so much more fun to watch one of the other Week 14 games — like the Seahawks vs. Jaguars or Vikings vs. Panthers — but instead we’ll get the Patriots inevitably beating the Dolphins.

Sunday Night Football has flexible scheduling to avoid getting stuck with duds, but ESPN isn’t as lucky. They’re not exactly happy about the games the NFL has been kicking them, either.

“We’ve had very candid conversations with the NFL, particularly in the last six months, about our expectations from a quality perspective,” ESPN executive Burke Magnus said in April, via Sports Business Daily. “We have high expectations because we’ve been as engaged with the league as we ever have been in terms of what the results are going to be. We’ve done everything we can possibly do to communicate with the league and guide them in terms of our preferences, and now we’ll see.”

So why isn’t there flex scheduling? I’m not really sure. I guess it would make the practice schedule a little goofy, but ESPN could probably tell if a game is going to be a stinker — like Week 14, for example — well ahead of time.

There’s also the danger that networks like FOX or CBS will get bad games instead, but there’s a good chance NBC isn’t going to flex any of their games. Just please no more Dolphins in primetime. Please.

2. The Panthers are so much better when they can run the ball

For most of the year, the Panthers offense has been a frustrating exercise in futility. They entered the night No. 6 in rushing attempts, but No. 15 in yards and No. 25 in yards per attempt. That’s a lot of banging your head against a wall.

The only reason those numbers aren’t way worse is that Newton can take over as a rusher on his own. He showed that again Monday with a 69-yard burst up the middle. Nice.

But when Jonathan Stewart finds as much success as he did Monday, it opens everything else up. Stewart finished a game with more than 100 rushing yards for the first time in 2017 and just looked miles better than he has for most of the year.

With the offense actually able to function properly and not rely on tiny runs and forced throws to Kelvin Benjamin, it looked the best it has all year.

The Dolphins entered the night No. 10 in total defense, so this wasn’t exactly an easy unit that the Panthers battered, but they’ll need to do it against another team before we can really be sold that the 2015 version of the Panthers offense is back.

3. The Cam Newton-Devin Funchess combination works

One of the reasons Kelvin Benjamin was a movable piece for the Panthers is that the team liked what it had in Funchess and felt like he was a more dynamic player in the “X” wide receiver role.

“When you have some vertical speed it gets (defenses) to back off a little bit,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said after the trade. “We saw a lot of single safety with the other safety in the box. And we had to do something to help alleviate the pressure on the offense to run the ball.”

Well so far so good. Funchess finished the night with two touchdowns from 28 and 32 yards:

He also had another 32-yard reception on the night. This is all exactly what the Panthers had in mind when they dealt Benjamin to the Buffalo Bills for third- and seventh-round picks.

4. The Dolphins aren’t playoff contenders

You might be saying “Yeah, no kidding” or “You just now learned that.” But keep in mind, the Dolphins entered the night 4-4.

Somehow this team with the NFL’s worst offense that got shut out twice already got wins over the Chargers, Titans, Falcons and Jets. They’re also in a conference that only has six teams with winning records and the 5-4 Bills sitting in the second wild card spot.

It’s there for the taking, but the Dolphins aren’t going to be the ones to climb into it.

They just don’t have the juice on offense and the defense clearly isn’t there either. The final nine games of the year for Miami include two games each against the Patriots and Bills, as well as a road game against the Chiefs. Don’t expect to see more surprise victories out of this team.

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