Four-win football team
The Dolphins recently strung together a three-game win streak, something only a handful of teams have managed to do this season. Yet, they stand at 4-4 as they head into their third straight primetime game. At times Miami has looked like a potential playoff team, but more often than not, they've looked like a team on a decline since a 10-6 season in 2016.
"We're 4-4 at the halfway point. [There is] a lot of football left to play," quarterback Jay Cutler said. "There's a lot of opportunities for us to put it together."
The Dolphins's problem is consistency and discipline have cost them meaningful games. Sunday night against the Raiders, Miami mostly beat itself with a season-high 11 penalties for 107 yards. In games the Dolphins have lost this season, they've committed at least seven penalties and lost the turnover battle (excluding the Raiders).
The defense has been a mixed bag as well. Through the first six weeks, Miami held each of its six opponents to 20 points or less. But over the last three games, the Dolphins have allowed an average of 31.6 points per game, slipping toward the middle of the pack in the NFL's defensive rankings.
Coming up short on offense
When opportunity knocks, the Dolphins have shown they're capable of delivering, but it doesn't knock often enough. Although the Dolphins hold the third best red zone efficiency (66 percent) in the league, they rank dead last in red zone scoring attempts per game (1.9).
Against the Raiders, Cutler had his best game as a Dolphin throwing for a season-high 311 yards and three touchdowns, but Miami didn't cash in like it had been doing. Twice the offense was gifted fantastic field position but couldn't finish the drive. A successful onside kick in the first half was followed by a Kenyan Drake fumble in the red zone. In the second half, Ndamukong Suh's strip-sack failed to translate into points.
"It's really tough to beat a good team when you hurt yourself," tight end Julius Thomas said. "That's something that we have to address as a team. We work too hard every day and every week to go out there and make it even harder on us to win a game."
When quarterback Ryan Tannehill was ruled out for the season with a knee injury, the Dolphins called Cutler. The 34-year-old put off retirement and a broadcasting career to play at least one more year. Cutler reunited with offensive coordinator Adam Gase, who he paired with in 2015 in Chicago, arguably Cutler's best season as a professional.
Gase's Cutler-led Miami offense hasn't been as productive. The Dolphins rank 29th in passing offense and are dead last in points per game. Cutler has really taken a step back throwing downfield, something he was known for earlier in his career. He's averaging a career low 5.9 yards per attempt and has yet to complete a pass for 40 or more yards – even with deep threats Kenny Stills and Davante Parker. In fact, Cutler has only completed 10 passes for 20 or more yards – a career low through seven games.
Running without Jay Ajayi
Several questions surrounded the trade of Jay Ajayi trade last week, but the biggest was how the Dolphins would now fare without the Pro Bowl running back.
"We'll see how it works," Gase said last Wednesday. "We're going to go through practice this week and see what fits. I like the three guys that we got, their skill sets. We're going to be able to maximize what they do well."
Despite falling to the Raiders, the Dolphins maximized Damien Williams and Drake on minimal reps. Combined, the duo replicated Ajayi's production and then some. Williams and Drake rushed for 83 yards on 16 carries and added 82 yards on 12 receptions and a touchdown. While the Dolphins backfield performed well against the Raiders' lowly defense, they'll face a heightened challenge against Carolina's top-ranked unit.
View the top photos from Panthers vs. Falcons by team photographer Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez and second shooters Andrew Dye and Jamey Price.