The 5-3 Denver Broncos visit the 2-6 Carolina Panthers for the Broncos’ second away game in a row. The Broncos are going after their fourth consecutive win while the Panthers are trying to string two wins in a row together. The two teams have only met three times in history with the Broncos holding a 2-1 advantage. Of course, the major storyline is John Fox making his return to Carolina for the first time since he left after nine seasons as head coach. In four of the Panthers’ defeats, they have lost by five points or less. This is a much better team than their record indicates. Kickoff is set for 11:00 a.m. MDT on CBS.
Broncos: The Broncos are a difficult team to stop with the one-two punch of Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker. The question will be will Peyton Manning have enough time in the pocket to find his young receivers? The offensive line hasn’t give up a sack in the last three games, but the Panthers have 24 sacks on the year. Chris Kuper will be out of the lineup due to an ankle injury so Manny Rameriez will replace him at guard. Willis McGahee had just 66 yards on 23 carries last week, so he’ll need to do a better job of taking some pressure off of the passing game. The Broncos are 3rd in total yards per game (399.5) and 4th in points per game (29.4).
Panthers: The potential for the Panthers to run the ball is off the charts with Cam Newton, DeAngelo Williams, and Jonathan Stewart on the roster. Still, the Panthers are 12th in the NFL in rushing at 119.0 yards per game. Perhaps there’s been too much pressure placed on Newton. He has 6 passing touchdowns and 8 interceptions on the year after posting 21 passing touchdowns and 17 interceptions during his rookie season. The Panthers are 20th in yards per game (344.9), and 27th in points per game (18.6). Because Newton is so active in the pocket, the Panthers have given up 17 sacks on the year.
Broncos: The Panthers are a team that’s prone to turning the ball over. They have fumbled the ball 14 times which is three more times than the Broncos, but they’ve only lost 7 as opposed to the Broncos’ 10. The defense will need to scrap and claw at Newton’s hands as he moves around the pocket. Of those 14 fumbles, Newton has 5 of them. The matchup to watch will be Champ Bailey on Steve Smith in the secondary. The two haven’t seen each other since 2003 when Bailey was with the Washington Redskins, but they match up well. The Panthers primarily use the read-option as their method for running the ball. The Broncos defense is all too familiar with that after practicing against Tim Tebow last year.
Panthers: The Panthers have cornerback Chris Gamble and linebacker Jon Beason on injured reserve, but they’re holding their own defensively. They are giving up 343.0 yards per game which is tied for 13th, and they’re giving up 22.5 points per game which is 16th in the league. Rookie Luke Kuechly took Beason’s spot at middle linebacker and he’s averaged 15 tackles since he entered the starting lineup. Expect the Panthers to play more zone coverage in the secondary which works out nicely for Manning who reads the zone better than anyone around. Charles Johnson has 7.5 sacks, and Greg Hardy has 6.5 sacks on the year. Dwan Edwards has added an additional 5 sacks.
Broncos: Trindon Holliday returned one for 105 yards last week, but the Panthers are allowing just 14.4 yards per kickoff return.
Panthers: With returner Kealoha Pilares being placed on injured reserve with a shoulder injury, Joe Adams will come back for return duties. He hasn’t played since fumbling a kickoff and a punt in week 3. On the other end, Panthers’ punter Brad Norman has shanked punts (6 yards and 14 yards) in weeks 8 and 9, respectively.
Broncos: It’s not just John Fox that makes his return to Carolina. Jack Del Rio, Mike McCoy, and special teams’ offensive coordinator Jeff Rodgers make their returns. Not only that, but Dave Magazu (offensive line), Ron Milus (secondary), Tyke Tolbert (receivers), Richard Smith (linebackers), and Sam Garnes (assistant secondary) have worked there too. That’s a lot of extra motivation for almost an entire coaching staff.
Panthers: Ron Rivera is 8-16 in his second year as head coach, so he’s got to be feeling a little heat. His defense has come on strong, but his team overall looks to be on the downslope after a 6-10 season in 2011. Fox is the stronger coach, and that should show up on Sunday.
Prediction: Broncos – 33 Panthers- 20