The Carolina Panthers dominated the passing game on their way to a home victory over the Denver Broncos, 30-10. The win clinched the Panthers' first undefeated season at home since the 1996 season, the year the team went to the NFC Championship game but lost to the Packers.
The Carolina rushing game was relatively quiet in the first half, as the Broncos stacked eight in the box and were completely committed to stopping the run. Maybe a little too committed.
Panthers QB Jake Delhomme completed 17-of-26 passes for 253 yards, a touchdown, and an interception. WR Steve Smith was his favorite target, catching nine throws for 165 yards and a score.
Smith was especially involved on the Panthers' first drive, reeling in three tosses for 66 yards and taking a quick screen pass to the right 15 yards for a touchdown through a front corner of the end zone. He even rushed for nine yards and a first down on a fake handoff-turned-reverse.
Muhsin Muhammad also caught four passes for 70 yards. TE Jeff King came up a superb grab in between two Denver defenders for a key third down conversion.
The success of the passing game, on the first couple drives in particular, opened up the running game in the second half. RB DeAngelo Williams ripped a 56-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter on his way to 88 yards on 12 carries.
Fellow RB Jonathan Stewart picked up 52 yards on 16 carries and in the second quarter walked into the end zone from two yards out as LT Jordan Gross and LG Travelle Wharton opened a gaping hole for him to run through.
Not only did the offensive line run block well when it mattered, but it also didn't allow Delhomme (who was heavily relied on to play well with the Broncos stacking the box eight defenders to stop the run) to be sacked in a little over 25 pass attempts.
John Kasay kept his outstanding season going, nailing 3-of-3 field goal attempts from 39, 44, and 42 yards.
Carolina's defense struggled early, allowing Broncos QB Jay Cutler to go 9-of-11 for 93 yards on Denver's first two drives, both of which they scored on.
But following those early 10 points, the Panthers' defense held the Broncos scoreless for the rest of the game. Cutler in particular was confined to 12-of-22 for 79 yards and an interception but no touchdown after the Broncos' first two drives.
His favorite receivers, Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal, were handled, notching five receptions for 48 yards and six for 48 yards, respectively. Cutler, overall, went 21-of-33 for 172 yards, a score, and a pick, one of his worst performances of the season.
Denvers' running backs, P.J. Pope and Tatum Bell, actually exceeded expectations. The two backs combined for 94 yards on 14 attempts, a 6.71 yards per carry average.
Cornerback Chris Gamble had the Panthers' only interception, and he's lucky he came down with it. After the ball was tipped by a couple other players, he bobbled it multiple times before finally getting a good grasp on it and bringing it in.
Delhomme's only interception was tipped three times, two by Panthers receivers who had a chance to catch the ball, and once by a Broncos defender. Denver DB Josh Barrett intercepted the pass off a perfectly placed ricochet off of Panthers TE Dante Rosario's hands.
The Panthers' offense's old issue with false-start penalties reared its ugly head a bit again against the Broncos—Steve Smith, Jordan Gross, and Jeff King were called for the infraction once apiece (although Smith's false-start was iffy)
Although Gamble had the best game of any Panthers defensive player with seven tackles (six solo) and an interception, a couple others played particularly well. DE Tyler Brayton sacked Cutler once (the Panthers as a team got three—and would've had four if not for a loophole in a league rule—against an offensive line that had given up eight all season) and made five tackles.
The other is FS Charles Godfrey, who nearly got a pick but did force a fumble and notch four tackles.
Denver's Josh Barrett had the best game of any Broncos defender with a pick and seven tackles.
Nothing about this win really sticks out to me. I mean, yes, Delhomme played well. But he was throwing against a banged-up Denver secondary that was missing its best player, CB Champ Bailey, who sat out the game with a groin injury. Not to mention the fact it isn't exactly overwhelmingly good even with Bailey.
However, the trend I've seen in the Panthers in the past few weeks is that they attack their opponent's biggest strength and neutralize it. That trend carried over to this game, and Cutler got thrown out of his rhythm by the Panthers' defensive pressure.
Having the ability to take away an opponent's biggest strength makes any other team above-average at best. That seems to be what this team is best at—taking an opponent's biggest strength out of the equation. And an ability like that is something that could win a Super Bowl.