Luke Kuechly (59) and Ron Rivera celebrate a Panthers touchdown against the Redskins in Week 9.
With Ron Rivera's head coaching job on the line, the Carolina Panthers (2-6) could go a long way toward giving Rivera and his staff a third season in Charlotte by defeating Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos (5-3) on Sunday.
Expectations were through the roof for the Panthers heading into the season, and they have come close to winning several times this season before falling short in the closing minutes of the game.
In fact, leading up to the Panthers' Week 9 victory at the Washington Redskins (3-6), Carolina had lost five games in a row, including four straight losses by five points or less.
In three of those losses, the Panthers led heading into the final five minutes of the game, and they were twice beaten by last-second field goals.
If Carolina hopes to turn their season around with a winning record in the final eight games, they can get started on accomplishing that goal when former Panthers head coach, and current Charlotte homeowner, John Fox brings his Denver Broncos to Bank of America Stadium.
Anything less than a 6-2 closing record to finish the season at .500 could spell doom for Ron Rivera and the rest of the Panthers coaching staff, especially with a new general manager coming on board after the season.
Here is a look at Carolina's five keys to victory against the Denver Broncos.
Charles Johnson (95), Greg Hardy and Dwan Edwards have to attack Manning the way they got after Atlanta's Matt Ryan in Week 4.
The Panthers' Charles Johnson (7.5 sacks), Greg Hardy (6.5 sacks) and Dwan Edwards (5.0 sacks) each rank among the NFL's top 25 sack leaders.
In order for Carolina to have any chance of slowing down the Denver Broncos' high-scoring offense, Johnson, Hardy and Edwards will have to become intimately familiar with Peyton Manning on Sunday.
By game's end, they will have to know every inch of his frame, the way he smells, and the sound of his grunt when he is knocked to the ground.
Carolina's trio of sack masters has to hit Manning at every opportunity.
They have to take him down early and often.
They have to disrupt his timing, because if Manning and the Broncos offense (29.4 points per game) get into a rhythm, the scoreboard operators at Bank of America Stadium might go on strike.
However, Carolina has to generate pressure from the defensive line because they cannot afford to live by the blitz. Manning will pick the blitz apart.
Denver's quarterback is essentially an offensive coordinator in shoulder pads and a helmet. Without taking Gregg Williams' words literally, Carolina has to "kill the head" of the Broncos offense.
Denver loves to run the no-huddle offense with their quarterback calling plays and making adjustments at the line of scrimmage. The Broncos gain an advantage when they can control their offensive personnel and keep the defense from making situational substitutions and keeping their players fresh.
If the Panthers' front four can rough up No. 18 on a regular basis the way they roughed up Matt Ryan (six sacks), Jay Cutler (four sacks) and Robert Griffin III (four sacks) in previous weeks, they will at least be able to substitute defensive personnel and give Manning a variety of defensive looks.
And that may be just enough to slow the Broncos down.
Sean McDermott and his defensive staff will not get much sleep this week trying to devise a scheme to harass perhaps the greatest field general the NFL has ever seen, but if they are successful, the Panthers will have a chance to record their biggest win of the season.
Rookie punter Brad Nortman has struggled in recent weeks.
The Carolina Panthers have struggled and generally lost the field-position battle in most games this season, primarily due to their inability to generate an advantage in the kick and punt return game.
Rookie kick and punt returner Joe Adams, who has not played since fumbling a kickoff and a punt return in Week 3 against the New York Giants, is back on the Carolina Panthers' active roster following Kealoha Pilares' season-ending shoulder injury.
However, Adams has not yet had his return privileges reinstated.
Instead, the Panthers announced Thursday that wide receiver David Gettis will return kickoffs this weekend against Denver. Captain Munnerlyn will likely continue returning punts.
I asked Charlotte Observer beat writer Joe Person about Gettis' and Adams' expected roles this weekend via Twitter:
Gettis returning kicks. Adams might get a shot at punts. Don't expect either to be involved in WR rotation. — Joe Person (@josephperson)
Carolina's regular kick returner, Pilares, was placed on IR earlier this week with torn rotator cuff and labrum injury suffered during a third-quarter kickoff return in Week 9 against the Redskins.
Gettis missed all of 2011 with a torn ACL and he spent the first half of the 2012 season on injured reserve. Pilares' season is over.
However, Carolina's most glaring special teams weakness in recent weeks has been rookie punter Brad Nortman.
Nortman shanked a six-yard punt against the Chicago Bears in Week 8 and he punted a 14-yarder against Washington in Week 9.
Nortman needs to punt the ball deeply each chance he gets, and he needs to place the ball inside the 20-yard line at every opportunity.
Denver's offense has proved it can score from anywhere on the field, and they have multiple 90-plus-yard drives this season.
But the Panthers special teams cannot afford to make it any easier for the Broncos by giving them a short field to work with.
Charles Godfrey returned an interception for a touchdown against Drew Brees and the Saints in Week 2.
The Panthers (minus-five) and the Broncos (minus-four) are both in the red in turnover margin this season.
Simply put, Carolina's offense has to protect the ball and McDermott's unit has to take it away.
The Panthers' defensive players are undoubtedly working on ball drills this week just as certainly as Cam Newton is working on protecting the ball when he runs and making smart decisions in the passing game.
Manning has only thrown six interceptions in eight games this season, but the Broncos are tied with the Philadelphia Eagles for 30th in the NFL with 10 balls fumbled away. Only the Kansas City Chiefs (15 fumbles) are worse.
Everyone on the Panthers defense—from Charles Johnson to Luke Kuechly to Charles Godfrey—has to rake and scrape and tug at the pigskin every time Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Willis McGahee get the rock in their hands.
Carolina faces an uphill challenge if they lose the turnover battle this week, but they can put themselves in position to win with a plus-two ratio on Sunday.
Jonathan Stewart (28) puts a move on Redskins safety Reed Doughty.
Despite all of the national hype about Cam Newton's passing statistics during his record-setting rookie season in 2011, the Carolina Panthers were a running team then and they are a running team in 2012.
Running the ball is Carolina's bread and butter, and with Newton, Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams in the backfield, they should be as good of a running team as there is in the NFL.
The Panthers, who finished third in the league in rushing last season (150.5 yards per game) have dropped to 12th in the NFL this year (116.2 yards per game) and they have yet to produce a 100-yard rusher in a game this season.
Carolina's biggest difficulties in the running game have stemmed from the battered offensive line's inconsistent play and from offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski's insistence on using the read-option as their primary method of running the ball through the first six games of the season.
The Panthers have since returned to a more effective and more consistent power running attack in the past two weeks.
The adjustment came in light of increased media scrutiny and a decree that change was in order after owner Jerry Richardson gave his good friend and longtime Panthers general manager, Marty Hurney, the boot following Carolina's loss to the Dallas Cowboys in Week 7.
The Broncos, ranked 17th in the NFL in rushing (106.9 yards per game) have a pretty good pair of backs on their team, as well, in workhorse runner Willis McGahee and rookie speedster Ronnie Hillman.
The key to stopping Denver's running game is to tackle, tackle and tackle some more.
The failure to execute one of football's most fundamental skills earlier in the season is the biggest reason the Panthers surrendered three consecutive 100-yard performances by opposing backs in September.
However, since rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly replaced the injured Jon Beason in the middle against the Seahawks in Week 5, the Panthers' tackling has improved significantly and no opposing back has enjoyed a similar outburst ever since.
The Panthers do not have to outgain the Broncos in total offense on Sunday to have a chance to win, but they have to keep McGahee and Hillman in check.
A 100-yard ground performance by Williams or Stewart, or even by Newton, will be helpful, too.
Former Panthers coach John Fox is in his second season roaming the Denver sidelines.
Ron Rivera's honeymoon as the Panthers' new coach is over.
So much so that many Panthers fans mourn for the days when Denver's John Fox roamed the home team's sidelines at Bank of America Stadium.
Fox has been received warmly in Charlotte at each of the PGA's past two Wells Fargo Championship practice rounds at Quail Hollow where he still owns a massive home on the 14th hole, and there will likely be a lot of cheers around a spattering of "boos" when his name is announced as the visiting coach on Sunday.
But Rivera, whose 8-16 record in a season and a half coaching the Panthers has placed his job in jeopardy, cannot afford to chase Fox's ghost this weekend.
And he should not be directly concerned with outcoaching Fox.
Ron Rivera simply needs to coach his team up this week in practice as he has done throughout much of the season and make adjustments and decisions throughout the game that put the Panthers in a position to win.
The latter is something he and his staff have not done particularly well this season at the end of games.
John Fox's conservative approach still remains, but he now has more weapons on offense with Peyton Manning running the show than he ever had with Jake Delhomme and Jimmy Clausen in Charlotte.
Rivera will have to take chances this weekend to give the Panthers an opportunity to win, and he must do so without worrying about the repercussions.
There is a reason Jerry Richardson hired the former San Diego Chargers' defensive coordinator to coach his team two seasons ago and Rivera has eight more games, beginning with the Broncos game on Sunday, to prove that he is the right man for the job.
Jimmy Grappone is a Featured Columnist covering the Carolina Panthers and the NFL on B/R.
You can follow me for random updates and pointed commentary on Twitter @JimmyGrappone.
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