This game has been unofficially dubbed as a potential "trap game." While this point-of-view is understandable, it's not very logical.
In just over a week, the Panthers will travel to the Meadowlands to take on the New York Giants, currently the only team with a better record in the NFC than Carolina. If both teams win—and that's a big "if"—then that contest could decide who gets home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
You'd think that the prospect of getting the chance to play for the right to host the NFC Championship game for the first time in the team's brief 13-year history would be somewhat distracting.
But the key to achieving that potentially epic Giants-Panthers matchup next week is both teams winning this week.
That means that if the Panthers don't beat the Broncos this week—and the Giants beat the Cowboys (which actually could very well end up not happening after the Giants laid an egg against the Eagles at home last week)—the possibility of having those two coveted January home games disappears just like that.
With that said, believe me when I say that the Panthers will be completely focused on Denver, especially the starting defensive backs, who know how badly they've struggled in the last month or so and that the Broncos have one of the deadliest passing offenses in the NFL.
Now that we have that out of the way, onto the analysis of the matchups...
The thing that worries me—as well as other Panthers fans and our team—most about the Broncos is their explosive pass offense. Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall are almost as—if not just as—dangerous of a QB-WR duo as the Saints' Drew Brees and Marques Colston.
Rookie receiver Eddie Royal has provided the balance needed to maximize an air attack's effectiveness with 69 receptions for 799 yards and 5 touchdowns.
TE Tony Sheffler is also a respectable threat in third-down situations as a possession receiver due to his size (6'5", 250 lbs).
In addition, the Broncos' offensive line has given up only eight sacks this season, the lowest total in the NFL. Furthermore, Cutler hasn't been sacked in the last three games.
If the Panthers' defense, which is tied for ninth in the league in sacks at 29, can pressure Cutler enough to get him of out sync with his receivers, then the toll on Denver's timing-based pass offense could be devastating.
The good news for the Panthers is that the passing game is the Broncos' only viable option on offense. Denver is down to their seventh and eighth active RBs of the season after Peyton Hillis went down with an injury last week in a 24-17 win over the Chiefs.
That means Tatum Bell, who was selling cell phones as little as a month ago, and recently-actived, former South Carolina player Cory Boyd will be active at RB this week.
As a result, Carolina should load up on defensive backs and dare the Broncos to try to run the ball. But if the Broncos get into a rhythm throwing the ball (and there's no reason to think they can't), then watch out.
Fortunately, Carolina's defense should have the edge on the Broncos' offense in the field position game. In the kickoff game, the Panthers have 23 touchbacks, most in the NFL by four. Or, even if Carolina kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd allows a return, opponents still only start at about the 21.
Broncos' kick returner Andre Hall averages 22.9 yards per return. However, that doesn't even make things much better for the Broncos than for the average team returning kicks against the Panthers.
Matchup To Watch: Panthers DE Julius Peppers against Broncos RT Ryan Clady
It would a crime for Julius Peppers not end up in Hawaii this February, with his 12.5 sacks on the season and overall dominating presence. Broncos offensive tackle Ryan Clady has been a key figure in pass-protection on Denver's rock-solid offensive line all season.
Cutler has been quoted saying, "He's been tested from the first preseason game all the way through. He's passed all the tests. I'm very comfortable back there with him taking over the blindside against anybody in the league right now."
After rushing for just under 300 yards against the Tampa Bay Bucs and their then-fourth-ranked run defense last week, the Panthers' Smash-and-Dash duo (take that, LenDale White) should have a field day against the Broncos' 26th-ranked run defense.
If Williams hopes to break Stephen Davis' franchise rushing record of 1,444 yards set back in 2003, he needs to have a big game against the Broncos.
He needs 303 yards to tie the record. Stewart needs to take the same advice if he wants to become the first 1,000-yard rookie rusher the Panthers have ever had (he currently needs 301 to break the millennium mark).
QB Jake Delhomme should even have a respectable day against one of the league's worst pass defenses. However, despite the fact that the defense itself looks to be one of the worst in the NFL statistically, its cornerbacks—Champ Bailey (who is questionable for the game due to a groin injury) and Dre' Bly—are imposing.
Delhomme needs to look to exploit Denver's weak safeties (and Bailey, whose speed could be significantly affected by his injury; an awful Achilles Heel to have against Smith, one of the league's fastest receivers) on deep passes to Smith.
Delhomme should have plenty of time to find his receivers, as he plays behind an offensive line that is tied for ninth in the league in sacks allowed at 19. The Broncos' defense ranks 23rd in the league in sacks with 23. However, the Panthers are in top ten and have only six more. The fact that the Broncos rank so low in sacks doesn't mean much.
However, Smith will likely need to do most of the work in the passing game for Carolina, as No. 2 receiver Muhsin Muhammad will likely be locked down by Bly for most of the game. If No.3 receiver Dwayne Jarrett plays this week, he could be a threat to account for in third-down situations as a possession receiver (a role he filled nicely in limited action against the Bucs last Monday).
The punt return game favors the team with the better defense, no matter how good a punter or punt returner's numbers are or how much success one or the other has had at their job.
The reason is that the defense dictates the offense's progression up the field. For example, if a defense holds an offense to a three-and-out from the offense's 10, then it usually doesn't matter how far the punter boots the ball—the other team will still get great field position because so much of the yardage on the punt is spent on just getting the ball out of your own territory.
In that situation it's really just a question of whether the opposing offense will get the ball at their own 35 (solid field position) or the defense's 45 (excellent field position).
With that said, Carolina has the edge in the punt return game because of their superior defense.
However, the Broncos' defense should be helped by their strong kick return game, which forces opponents to start drives at about their own 25. Panthers returner Mark Jones has the potential to break off some long returns, but he's by no means expected to notch several long kick returns in any game.
Matchup To Watch: Carolina's offensive line vs. Denver's defensive line
If the Broncos are going to have any shot at containing DeAngelo Williams and and Jonathan Stewart, their defensive line must keep from getting sealed off from the running lanes by the Panthers' offensive line.
If either of the two backs gets even minimal space against a Broncos defense has been infamously known throughout the season as a unit that can't tackle, then Denver's chances of winning are minimal.
Just to be sure you heard me, this is not—that's right, not—a "trap game" for the Panthers. They have to win this week just to be 100 percent sure that they'll get the possibility of being able to play for at least one home playoff game against the Giants on Dec. 21st.
They'll be ready. And with their severely stilted edge in the running game and impossible-to-ignore 7-0 home record (Carolina is one of only two teams still unbeaten at home in the NFL), they look like the favorites to pull this one out, even if Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall, and Eddie Royal have a little something to say about it.
Source: "Culter, offensive line lead Broncos" by Stan Olson in Saturday, Dec. 13, 2008 issue of The Charlotte Observer
Random Series Facts
The Broncos lead, 2-0.
The Panthers have been outscored 54-17.
The Panthers have 19 first downs to the Broncos' 43.
The Panthers have run 94 plays for 374 yards, the Broncos 136 plays for 827 yards.
The Panthers still have not gained 100 rushing yards between the two games combined (they have 98 and average 2.45 YPC).
Okay, enough is enough. You get the point. The Broncos have dominated this brief series. However, to our credit, all-time Broncos and NFL legend John Elway played in the first game between these two clubs. We got shredded 34-0 by a team helmed a future Hall-of-Famer (if he isn't one already).