ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --The Denver Broncos (5-3) will square off against the Carolina Panthers (2-6) for just the fourth time in their history when they travel to Charlotte to cap a two-game road swing. Kickoff at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday is set for 1 p.m. EST. Below is a preview that includes important matchups on both sides of the ball and a key to the game for the Broncos.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL: Similar to last week's matchup, Sunday afternoon's game in Charlotte will feature a key battle in the trenches.
The Panthers are another sack-happy football club. Their 24 sacks on the year rank them in the top-10 in the league, but Offensive Coordinator Mike McCoy said they could have more. Even if the Carolina defense doesn't get to the quarterback in time for a sack, oftentimes it gets there in time for a hit.
"They hit the quarterback a lot," McCoy said. "They've had a number of sacks. They are up there at the top of the leaderboard or up close to that throughout the league. They've done a nice job."
That means the Denver offensive line will once again have its work cut out. In the last three weeks, it has been up for the challenge. Quarterback Peyton Manning hasn't been sacked in a month and the team is tied for second with only 10 sacks allowed all season.
"There were a couple hands that got him but it wasn't really a hit at all," McCoy said. "It was just someone running by him. The offensive line, tight ends and the running backs deserve a lot of credit for that, understanding and being on the same page in protections."
Playcalling-wise, don't expect Denver to get away from the run. Last week, the Broncos continued to run the ball throughout the game, even without seeing much success through the first three quarters. McCoy said having that balance is key, especially against a good pass-rushing team.
The persistence paid off, as Manning was kept clean all game and the rushing attack found success late. It's clear that the running game is a major part of Denver's winning formula.
"In the fourth quarter, the last two drives of the game, that's when we ran the ball best," McCoy said. "We didn't get away from it. You can't do that. You can't just drop back every down in this game and let the quarterback get teed off on when the defense knows that."
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL: Along with the Panthers' run game, quarterback Cam Newton and wide receiver Steve Smith have drawn the most attention throughout the Broncos' week of preparation, and that will continue in the game.
Going up against Newton, an athletic quarterback with a strong arm, a big body and quick feet, the read-option offense can present a challenge. To contain it, cornerback Champ Bailey said discipline will be important. All 11 players on the field must play their assignment to keep Newton – or the running back if he chooses to hand it off – from finding open field.
"It's simple: Do your job," Bailey said. "Once you try to do someone else's job, that's when the big runs take place. Watching tape of a couple teams, one guy has the quarterback, one guy has the pitch. Both of them played the pitch, and the quarterback goes 40 yards. You just have to do your job."
Like most other weeks, Bailey will be the one that's primarily in charge of keeping the quarterback from connecting with his favorite receiver. This week, it's Smith.
In his 12th year in the league, the receiver is leading the team in receptions and yards with 38 and 630. At 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds, Smith is undersized compared to many other No. 1 receivers in the league, but the way he plays makes up for his lack of size.
"He plays bigger than he is, so he's really no different (than other No. 1 receivers)," Bailey said. "When the ball's up, he goes up like he's 6' 4''. He runs the ball like he's 220, so he's no different. They guy's been amazing for the last 10, 12 years, or whatever it's been. He's a special talent, and he hasn't fallen off at all."
KEY TO THE GAME: Two Against One
An important and fun matchup to keep an eye on is between last year's No. 1 and No. 2 draft picks, and subsequently the Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year. Linebacker Von Miller, who has continued his success since exploding onto the scene last year, will look to make a big impact by chasing down Newton all afternoon.
"I definitely want to win," Miller said. "Him being No. 1 and me being No. 2, I definitely want to win and I'm sure he would say the same thing, too. I'm Cam's biggest fan, but Sunday, I definitely want to win."
Denver has played Carolina fewer times than it has played any other team in the NFL. In three games against each other, the Broncos lead the series 2-1.
Carolina, however, won the most recent matchup in December of 2008 by a score of 30-10. It was the only game the teams have played with the Panthers as the home team.
- The Broncos enter Sunday's contest in Charlotte ranking fourth in the NFL or better in three major offensive categories: yards per game (399.5, 3rd), yards per play (6.1, 4th) and points per game (29.4, 4th). The Panthers are in the top 10 in yards per play (5.9, 7th) but rank in the bottom half in yards per game (344.9, 20th) and points per game (18.6, 27th).
- Carolina has rushed for 116.3 yards per game in 2012, ahead of Denver's 106.9.
- Each team is in the top-10 in red zone touchdown percentage, as the Broncos rank second with touchdowns on 68.97% of their trips inside the 20-yard line and the Panthers rank seventh with touchdowns on 59.09% of their trips to the red zone.
- Defensively, each team is in the top-10 in yards per play allowed and gives up fewer yards per game and per play than they average on offense. The Broncos allow 4.8 yards per play (2nd) and the Panthers allow 5.2 yards per play (10th).
- In the red zone, Denver allows opponents to find paydirt 61.5% of the time (28th), while Carolina ranks sixth in the NFL with a percentage of 41.3.
- After tying for fifth on the team's all-time interception list with his Week 9 pick, cornerback Champ Bailey can move up another spot with an interception against Carolina. It would put him in a tie for fourth-place with former Bronco Tyrone Braxton.
- Wide receiver Eric Decker, on the receiving end of a touchdown in five straight games, can tie the franchise record for most consecutive games with a TD reception if he extends the streak in Charlotte.
- Defensive end Elvis Dumervil needs one forced fumble to tie for the NFL lead and set a career-high in that category.
- Quarterback Peyton Manning needs a victory to tie Dan Marino for the third-most wins by a starting quarterback in NFL history (147). He also needs one passing touchdown to tie Marino for the second-most in NFL history (420).
- Running back Willis McGahee is 14 rushing yards shy of becoming the 44th player in NFL history to reach the 8,000 yard mark.
- Linebacker Von Miller is one tackle for a loss away from passing Houston's J.J. Watt for the NFL lead in that category. He also needs a half sack to tie Dumervil and Rulon Jones for the most (21) by a Bronco in his first two NFL seasons.
- With a Broncos win and a New York Giants loss on Sunday, Fox will tie Giants Head Coach Tom Coughlin for the third-most wins among active NFL head coaches.
Several coaches on Denver's staff have prior experience in Carolina. Head Coach John Fox got his first head coaching opportunity with the Panthers and stayed there for nine years (2002-10). Fox was joined in Carolina by several other coaches who are now with him in Denver.
Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio was Fox's D-coordinator in 2002 before taking a head coaching job in Jacksonville.
Offensive Coordinator Mike McCoy held various offensive coaching positions with the Panthers from 2000-08.
Special Teams Coordinator Jeff Rodgers (2009-10), Assistant Secondary Coach Sam Garnes (2010), Offensive Line Coach Dave Magazu (2003-10), Secondary Coach Ron Milus (2009-10), Linebackers Coach Richard Smith (2009-10) and Wide Receivers Coach Tyke Tolbert (2010) all worked with Fox in Carolina.
Linebacker Nate Irving is from Wallace, N.C. and played at NC State for five years.
The game will be televised on CBS, with the network's No. 1 crew of Jim Nantz (play-by-play) and Phil Simms (color commentary) calling the game, marking 13 of the last 14 Broncos games that have been called by a network's top crew.
Locally, KOA Radio (850 AM) will feature Dave Logan (play-by-play) and Ed McCaffrey (color commentary) with Alan Roach reporting from the sidelines.