When it comes to having a compelling history of head-to-head matchups, the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos rank near the bottom of the NFL.
While it is fairly noteworthy that current Chicago Bears head coach John Fox served in a similar position with both teams and led the Panthers and Broncos to losing Super Bowl efforts, the teams have little in common.
The Panthers and Broncos have four regular-season games in their history, and the Broncos hold a 3-1 advantage in the series. The Broncos won both games played in Denver, while the two teams have split a pair of games in Carolina.
The two teams last played during the 2012 season when the Broncos went to Bank of America Stadium and leveled a 36-14 victory on Ron Rivera's team.
Cam Newton and Peyton Manning were the two quarterbacks in that game, but Newton has become a much better and more consistent quarterback since then. Manning was in the midst of a brilliant first season in Denver, in which he completed 68.6 percent of his passes, threw for 4,659 yards and 37 touchdowns.
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Newton was not the accomplished passer that he has become, but he still completed 21 of 36 passes for 241 yards with two TDs and two interceptions. Interestingly, the Broncos limited Newton to seven rushing yards on four carries.
The key to the outcome in that game was an overwhelming Denver pass rush. The Broncos defense sacked Newton seven times in that game as former Denver DT Kevin Vickerson led the way with 2.0 sacks. Vickerson has not played in the NFL since 2014.
While much has changed between the two teams since that game, a strong Denver pass rush may be the key to the Broncos earning another win in this game.
Newton has become a much more accomplished player and has an excellent chance of coming away with the MVP award for his play in the regular season. Newton threw 35 TD passes during the regular season and he added 10 more on the ground.
His versatility as a runner and a passer has always been his signature, but his ability to come through with big plays on a consistent basis is the reason he has improved so much. The numbers don't tell the full story behind this year's success. He completed 296 of 496 passes for 3,837 yards this year, and those numbers are somewhat similar to what he has done in previous seasons.
However, his 35-10 TD-interception ratio is dramatically better, and so is his 7.1 TD pass percentage. He had never thrown more than 24 TD passes in any season and 5.1 percent had been his best previous TD percentage mark.
Manning's numbers have dipped sharply downward since the end of the 2013 season. That was the year he had a 55-10 TD-interception percentage, and that figure slipped to 7-19 this year. However, the downturn has given the Broncos a new road map to follow when it comes to winning games.
Head coach Gary Kubiak and Manning realize that he no longer has the arm strength at this point to throw the ball successfully all over the field. The Broncos need a successful running game and a dominant defense to have a chance against an explosive team like the Panthers.
The Broncos did not get much from their running game in the AFC title game against New England (3.3 yards per carry), but they were so good defensively that they were able to come through on their homefield.
They will need C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman to come through on the ground if they want to keep Newton off the field.
In addition to the quarterback, running back Jonathan Stewart (989 yards) has the power and nastiness to cause problems with the running game, while tight end Greg Olsen (77 receptions for 1,104 yards and seven touchdowns) and wide out Ted Ginn Jr. (10 TD receptions) are both impact players.
The Panthers are six-point favorites with one week to go before kickoff, according to Odds Shark. The line increased steadily through Thursday and appears to have leveled off at this point.
The Broncos were home underdogs in the AFC title game, but the defense held Tom Brady and the Patriots in check with its relentlessness and pass-rush ability.
They will need to be at least as good against the Panthers, who were 15-1 in the regular season and have been even more impressive in two postseason wins over Seattle and Arizona.
The Panthers are clear favorites in this game, and they will feel plenty of pressure in that role. That could help the Broncos a bit.
However, the Carolina offense has made big plays all season, and the Panthers have shown the ability to get off to fast starts in the postseason. If they can do that against the Broncos, they have the power to put this game away early.
Look for the Carolina defense to control the Denver running game and harass Manning. The Panthers should open a double-digit lead by halftime, and they should dominate the game throughout the second half.
Final score: Carolina 33, Denver 14