Dolphhins 24, Panthers 17
By Mike Cranston
CHARLOTTE ó Ricky Williams is 32 and far from done. And even without Ronnie Brown, the once written-off Miami Dolphins are back in the playoff picture.
Williams rushed for 119 yards and scored three touchdowns, and the Dolphins beat the Carolina Panthers 24-17 on Thursday night for their fourth win in six games.
A day after learning Brown is lost for the season, the Dolphins (5-5) continued their surge after an 0-3 start behind Williams. The 2002 NFL rushing champion had a receiving and rushing touchdown in the same game for the first time in his career that includes a couple of lost seasons.
“Coach always talks about finishing,” Williams said. “Sometimes in this league, in a physical game, it’s difficult to finish. I think in the past we’ve prided ourselves on finishing games and we did a good job tonight.”
It was enough to beat the Panthers (4-6) when Jake Delhomme’s desperation pass into the end zone was knocked down as time expired.
DeAngelo Williams rushed for 122 yards, but Delhomme had his streak of three games without an interception snapped, then couldn’t lead a late comeback bid.
Dolphins coach Tony Sparano hinted his team might abandon the wildcat without Brown, who was placed on injured reserve Wednesday because of a foot injury. And Miami didn’t use the formation until the second quarter. It coincided with the Dolphins’ first touchdown drive ó Chad Henne’s 14-yard touchdown pass to Williams, who wrestled away from linebacker Na’il Diggs.
Miami took a 14-3 halftime lead when Williams took the direct snap at the 1 and got to the end zone ahead of speedy linebacker Jon Beason.
“Our offense really clicked,” Dolphins left tackle Jake Long said. “Ricky ran great.”
The Panthers got within 17-14 on Steve Smith’s leaping 27-yard touchdown catch and DeAngelo Williams’ 2-point conversion run with 5:18 left. But Ricky Williams bounced to the outside and shook off Sherrod Martin at the Carolina 5 on a 46-yard touchdown run on the ensuing possession.
Williams also caught two passes for 19 yards and a touchdown. Chad Henne overcame losing his center and his backup and committed no turnovers.
Still, the Dolphins had to hold off the Panthers. After Williams’ long run, the Panthers kicked a field goal. They then forced a punt, and Delhomme found Gary Barnidge on passes of 29 and 17 yards. But from the Miami 26, Delhomme’s lob into the end zone was knocked down by Tyrone Culver as time ran out.
“We battled. It just wasn’t good enough,” Delhomme said.
Early on, Carolina’s offense stalled under the weight of its makeshift offensive line ó and the return of Dolphins linebacker Joey Porter from exile.
Benched from Sunday’s win over Tampa Bay, Porter served as a captain for the coin toss, then sacked Delhomme on third down on Carolina’s opening drive, leading to John Kasay’s 29-yard field goal.
The Panthers mixed in some of the no-huddle offense on the drive after its effective debut Sunday against Atlanta. But they used it sparingly after that, and the offense got bogged down without Pro Bowl left tackle Jordan Gross.
Porter had two of Delhomme’s three first-half sacks, beating Gross’ replacement Travelle Wharton.
The Dolphins had their own offensive line troubles. Center Jake Grove left in the third quarter with an ankle injury and was replaced by Joe Berger. Nate Garner moved to center when Berger went down early in the fourth. Henne bobbled Garner’s second snap, but he recovered.
Berger returned on the next series and was injured again, but Henne made it look seamless. He completed 17 of 29 passes for 172 yards.
DeAngelo Williams’ 50-yard run early in the third quarter seemed to give Carolina life, but the drive ended when Nathan Jones picked off Delhomme’s pass intended for Smith at the 4.
Smith caught seven passes for 87 yards despite getting into a minor car accident on the way to the game.
Delhomme, who had thrown 13 interceptions in his first six games, had gone turnover-free this month. He was just 19 of 42 for 247 yards, and Carolina fell to 0-4 against the Dolphins. It was a crushing loss for the Panthers, who also began eyeing the playoffs after starting 0-3.
“I think there’s a lot of fight and they’ll continue to work,” Panthers coach John Fox said. “There’s still a lot of football left and we’re still no way in any stretch out of it.”
But the loss to Fox’s old offensive coordinator leaves them in tough shape. Dan Henning, fired by Carolina after the 2006 season, found a way to score just enough without Brown.
Williams, the 1998 Heisman Trophy winner, continued his resurgence after a career that included a brief retirement and a drug-related suspension. The time off might be helping him now when many running backs decline after they turn 30.