CHARLOTTE — The message was simple.
In the wake of the Broncos' Week 11 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders, quarterback Russell Wilson acknowledged the dire situation in which Denver finds itself and outlined the needed expectations for the remainder of the season.
"We can't lose any more games," Wilson said. "This is the truth. That has to be our mentality."
The Broncos currently have just a 0.7 percent chance to make the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight, but they'll try to kick-start a season-saving winning streak on Sunday against the Panthers.
Carolina (3-8) has faced similar struggles this season, but they've won two of their last five games and held the Baltimore Ravens to just three points until the late stages of the game in Week 11.
As the Broncos aim to salvage their 2022 campaign, they'll face a tougher-than-expected test in Charlotte.
These are the questions that will determine if the Broncos can earn a win over the Panthers:
CAN THE BRONCOS CONTAIN SAM DARNOLD?
The Panthers will start their third quarterback of the season on Sunday, as Sam Darnold makes his 2022 debut. The 2018 third-overall pick spent the first part of the season on injured reserve, but he'll get his chance against the Broncos.
A four-year starter, Darnold's athleticism and arm talent makes him difficult to contain. In a 2020 meeting with the Broncos, Darnold — then with the Jets — scrambled for a 46-yard touchdown that gave New York an early lead.
"I would say he's underestimated as an athlete," Head Coach Nathaniel Hackett said this week. "He can take off, he can extend plays, he can run with the ball, and he can make scramble drills come alive. That's going to be the probably the biggest challenge for us — making sure we contain him in the pocket and not let him get out and get loose."
Darnold, though, also has a proclivity to turn the ball over. He's thrown double-digit interceptions in all four of his seasons as a starter, and he fumbled nine times in 12 games last year with the Panthers. If the Broncos can make Darnold uncomfortable, they may be able to come up with a game-altering play.
CAN A YOUNG RECEIVER MAKE HIS MARK?
The Broncos will again be without Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler, as the two players were ruled out with ankle and hamstring injuries, respectively.
In their place, Courtland Sutton will guide a group of receivers with limited game experience. Kendall Hinton, Jalen Virgil, Brandon Johnson and Montrell Washington comprise the rest of this week's receiving corps, and Hinton has the most experience with 28 career receptions.
If the Broncos are going to earn a win against the Panthers, they'll need at least one of the receivers to help Sutton produce in the passing game. Hinton, who has caught seven passes for 119 yards in the last two weeks, seems to be the most likely option. He'll play in his home state in front of more than a dozen family members, and he could certainly be the additional impact player the Broncos need.
Virgil, meanwhile, will try to build off his 66-yard touchdown catch from Week 10, while Johnson will look to capitalize in his second game of the season.
Tight end Greg Dulcich, of course, could also be an option in the passing game.
WILL THE BRONCOS LIMIT BRIAN BURNS?
Las Vegas' Maxx Crosby hurt the Broncos in Week 11, as the Pro Bowl edge rusher posted a pair of sacks, six tackles, two tackles for loss, three quarterback hits — and a blocked field goal on special teams for good measure.
Facing the Panthers, the Broncos must ensure that Pro Bowl defensive end Brian Burns does not have the same sort of impact. Burns, the 16th-overall pick in 2019, is on pace to set a new career high in sacks, as he's posted eight through 11 games. The Florida State product, who attended the same high school at Pat Surtain II, has posted a sack in each of his last three games.
Denver's task to slow Burns will not be easy; the Broncos' offensive line has been battered by injuries and allowed nine sacks over the last two weeks.
The Broncos must find a way to give Russell Wilson time to operate within the pocket, particularly on third down. If they can hold up and keep Burns in check, they should have a chance to find success. But if Burns can make the critical plays that Crosby made in Week 11, the Broncos' offense may again struggle.
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