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Saturday November 25th, 2017 4:41AM

Dolphins need to find answers on defense to challenge in AFC

By The Associated Press
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Despite an embarrassing performance on Monday night, the Miami Dolphins remain in playoff contention in the mediocre AFC.

But if the Dolphins (4-5) hope to challenge for a postseason berth they'll need to fix a struggling defense. Miami has allowed 37.3 points per game during its current three-game losing streak, which included a 45-21 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Monday night.

Carolina piled up 458 yards of offense, the most in the franchise's 23-year history.

"There is no way we should give up 350 yards with the players we have, let alone 550," said Dolphins defensive end Andre Branch. "We just have to go back to work and it will be fixed for sure."

It will need to be soon.

Things won't get much easier for the Dolphins who still have to face Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots twice in the next four weeks.

"It was a frustrating night," Branch said. "The coaches will figure out how to get it fixed."

The Panthers gashed the Dolphins repeatedly on the ground, running for 294 yards and averaging 8.2 yards per carry — and that includes two kneel downs by backup quarterback Derek Anderson which brought the average down significantly. The pass defense wasn't any better, allowing Cam Newton to throw for 254 yards and four touchdowns.

At one point the Panthers scored touchdowns on five straight possessions.

The Panthers had 30 first downs and were 11 of 14 on third down conversions.

"We didn't get off the field when we needed to get off the field, especially on third downs," Dolphins defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said.

"We have to figure out where we're having our issues, quickly, because it's not going to get any easier with the teams we have coming up on the schedule," Dolphins coach Adam Gase said.

Some things we learned from Carolina's dominating win over Miami:

THE DOLPHINS ARE NOT PRIME TIME: In three consecutive prime time games, the Dolphins went 0-3 with opponents outscoring them 112-48. Two starting quarterbacks in that stretch (Baltimore's Joe Flacco and Carolina's Cam Newton) had early nights because their teams were so far ahead.

DRAKE CAN MOVE: The Dolphins started Damien Williams at running back, but it was Kenyan Drake who had the better game. Drake displayed great burst on a 66-yard touchdown run on a fourth-and-short carry and finished with a team-high 82 yards on seven carries. Williams had 19 yards on nine carries, which will make it interesting to see who gets the starts next week against Tampa Bay.

CONCERN FOR SAMUEL: Panthers coach Ron Rivera offered no update after the game on an ankle injury sustained by starting wide receiver Curtis Samuel after he dropped a pass in the end zone. The rookie was seen hobbling to the locker room with the help of trainers, careful not to put pressure on his leg.

Samuel had stepped into the Panthers' starting lineup after Kelvin Benjamin was traded to Buffalo, giving the team more speed. If he can't play, Russell Shepard would likely start.

The good thing for Samuel is the Panthers have a bye this week giving him an extra week to recover, but the injury didn't look good. Meanwhile, Carolina will catch a break as tight end Greg Olsen is eligible to return from injured reserve and play against the Jets after the bye.

KUECHLY'S BIG PLAY: It's impossible to explain how important Luke Kuechly is to Carolina's defense.

Down 10-7 late in the first half, Gase decided to air it out. Kuechly's interception gave the Panthers momentum to rattle off 21 consecutive points and take control for a 45-21 victory.

"That's Captain America," Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said.

Kuechly credited the rush from the defensive line and fellow linebacker Thomas Davis for getting into the flat so Cutler had to elevate the ball. He caught it while backpedaling in coverage.

"When you have guys on your team who do a good job of playing their responsibilities, sometimes you are just in the right spot at the right time to make a play," Kuechly said.

Gase said he doesn't regret going for points in that situation and said he has no plans on relinquishing the team's play calling duties.

O-LINE STEPS UP: Carolina's offensive line seems to be rounding into form. Not only did they not allow a sack for the second time in three games, but they paved the way for the team's second straight 200-yard rushing game.

"The O-line is doing a heck of a job getting us started, and when you've got guys taking turns making plays, it really helps the flow of the offense," said running back Christian McCaffrey, who scored two touchdowns.

Added Jonathan Stewart, who ran for 110 yards: "When you bully guys around, it gives the offensive line confidence. It gives us momentum."

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Freelance writers Justin Parker and Eli Pacheco contributed to this report

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