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Panthers will be a dangerous team if they can consistently run the ball

The Panthers moved to 7-3 after imposing their will on the Dolphins Monday night.

The Carolina Panthers entered Week 10 with a 6-3 record and solid spot in the playoff race, but their offense hasn’t been too consistent and they’ve mostly scraped by with strong defensive showings. So it was clearly an encouraging sign when they hosted the 4-4 Miami Dolphins on Monday night and blew the doors off, scorching Miami in a 45-21 win.

One of the biggest keys to the Panthers’ rout was a rejuvenated running game, with a combined 294 yards and two touchdowns on 36 carries. That ground game will be a major factor going forward as Carolina tries to re-establish its offensive identity following the trade of Kelvin Benjamin.

It hasn’t been just one man dominating all the touches, but more of an ensemble cast featuring Jonathan Stewart, Christian McCaffrey, and Cam Newton. These three men form the core of a potentially outstanding attack, but they haven’t quite meshed together until Monday’s game. After that performance, we can see a clear path forward for this offense.

Stewart is the grizzled veteran, an old-school grinder who’s happy just pounding it up the middle. He’s also 30 years old and showing clear signs of decline, hitting a low point last week with two lost fumbles against the Atlanta Falcons. But the coaches kept their faith and Stewart got to eat, picking apart the Dolphins for 110 yards on 17 carries and playing a big role in the second half as the Panthers salted away the game.

Obviously, Stewart is way past his prime and won’t get 100 yards every week, but the Panthers need him to deliver in his role, and he accomplished that well.

McCaffrey is almost the polar opposite of Stewart, a flashy pass-catching specialist who doesn’t quite excel between the tackles. His rookie year hasn’t lit the world on fire, but McCaffrey showed glimpses of his immense potential on Monday, scoring two touchdowns and putting up a combined 50 total yards on eight touches (five carries, three catches).

Having already set the franchise record for receptions by a running back, McCaffrey has the coaches’ full trust despite not destroying defenses like he did at Stanford. He’s clearly struggled adjusting to the speed of the NFL game, but if McCaffrey flips that switch and is put in the right spots, then watch out.

Finally, there’s Newton, who had a newfound confidence and swagger against the Dolphins. We know how dangerous Newton is on the ground, and he showed it again with 95 rushing yards on five carries. But he remains a gifted passer on his best days, stinging the Dolphins with four touchdowns and 254 yards on 21-of-35 passing.

Newton will always have his poor habits — in the first quarter, he threw a brutal red zone pass straight to the defense, which was almost an interception but got overturned on review. But when everything is going right, Newton remains one of the most electrifying quarterbacks in football. We already saw what he’s capable of during his 2015 MVP year, and if that version of Newton comes back, the rest of the NFC should be on alert.

The Panthers are sitting pretty heading into the holiday season. They now get to enjoy their bye week at 7-3, well in position for a Wild Card spot and still a half-game behind the 7-2 New Orleans Saints for the NFC South lead. All eyes will be on their Week 13 rematch, which could go a lot differently than the Week 3 game. There, the Saints blew out the Panthers, 34-13, and Carolina will be eager to avoid a repeat. They’ll give themselves a better chance if the offense can establish a more consistent identity.

It feels like the Panthers are still underrated, which is understandable. Despite having Newton, they don’t play the most exciting brand of football (run the dang ball, play defense), and are prone to baffling missteps at times (that 17-3 loss to the Chicago Bears really sticks out like a sore thumb now).

Still, Ron Rivera has always been steadfast in his vision, and when it’s executed well, the Panthers are one of the league’s hardest teams to figure out. And when they can run the ball as well as they did against Miami, in addition to a great defense, they’re almost unstoppable.

We’ll see if this plan is sustainable in January, but for now, count out the Panthers at your own risk.