CHARLOTTE – **Before Sunday, Head Coach John Fox had plenty of experience on the sidelines at Bank of America Stadium. Nine years' worth, to be exact.
But Sunday was his first time as a visitor.
"Well it was strange," Fox said. "I've never been in this visitor's locker room. Prior to even coming here as a head coach I had never been here as an assistant coach. That part was strange for sure. But, it was great getting back. My sons are still out here going to school. It was neat to see family – we came out Friday, so I was able to at least see them. I have a home here that we had in our tenure here so it was nice getting home and sleep in my bed Friday night. It was good."
During both the week prior to the game and the game itself, Fox made a concerted effort to keep the emotions associated with coaching against his former team on the backburner. He said he finally allowed himself to think about the relationships he formed in Carolina when the game was over.
"It is hard before the game," Fox said. "There are a lot of people here that I have fond feelings about and players on the other side, so you try not to see them too much before the game, but after the game it was nice to see a lot of those faces."
Coaching for the first time as a visitor on Carolina's home field, Fox led the Broncos to a 36-14 victory over a team he coached from 2002-10. While Fox downplayed the importance of squaring off with his former team, his players understood the significance of Sunday's win.
"When you spend a lot of time in one place, especially nine years – that's a long time in this league, it's going to mean something to you to beat them," cornerback Champ Bailey said. "We knew what it meant to him. He didn't preach it all week, but I wasn't in his shoes, but I kind of understand what he's going through."
After the game, Fox was an easy choice to be the recipient of the team's game ball. It was a decision made by Owner Pat Bowlen and one the entire locker room stood behind.
Fox was just one of several members of the Broncos coaching staff who had spent time in Carolina. That added even more meaning to the victory for quarterback Peyton Manning.
"You like to win a game for those guys, but those guys were professional all week," Manning said. "I know they have great memories from their time here, but to win that game, and to win this game for them, that was something the players wanted to do."
*HOLLIDAY STRIKES AGAIN *
After one quarter Sunday, the Broncos and Panthers were tied at 7 and momentum could swing either way with an explosive play.
A week after changing the complexion of the Bengals game on the first play of the third quarter, wide receiver Trindon Holliday struck again.
Holliday fielded a 59-yard punt by Carolina's Brad Nortman at his own 24-yard line. After securing the catch, Holliday paused briefly to find an open lane.
Then, in the blink of an eye, Holliday was at full speed and approaching the sideline thanks to a big block by linebacker Nate Irving. For the second time in as many weeks, Holliday had proven that all he needs for a game-changing touchdown is a small crease. He knew long before he got into the end zone that he was on his way to another score.
"It was a called return, so I caught the ball, I jabbed to the left and I had seen my teammates making a good block for me on the right side," Holliday said of his 76-yard touchdown return. "So I just hit the hole."
"After I break the first wave, I think pretty much it's over with," Holliday added.
With touchdowns in back-to-back weeks, Holliday's big play Sunday marked a pair of career firsts – his first score on a punt return as well as his first time finding the end zone in consecutive weeks.
"It feels great to be able to come back and do it back-to-back games," he said. "I'm just going to build on this, go to practice this week and be ready to go."
Including his three return scores in the preseason, Holliday has now scored five return touchdowns in 2012. After being waived by the Texans, he signed with Denver prior to the team's Week 6 game against San Diego.
"I was brought here to return kicks and punts and make plays for this team," Holliday said. "I just try to do my best when I get out there and make it happen for the team."
After Holliday's score to start the second quarter, Denver outscored Carolina 22-7 the rest of the way. After the game, the Broncos recognized Holliday's big play as the spark for the team's strong play over the final three quarters.
"Any time you score I think it changes the game," Fox said. "They went right down the field and scored on us. We answered it and it was still kind of nip-and-tuck. Every once in awhile it gets like that in a game and that was an explosive play in the game that changed the momentum at that point."
STILL ROOM TO GROW
With Sunday's victory, the Broncos have reeled off four consecutive wins to improve from 2-3 to 6-3.
It all started with a historic-comeback win over the Chargers in Week 6 that gave San Diego and Denver identical records at that time.
Since then, the Chargers have dropped two of their next three, allowing the Broncos to open a two-game lead in the AFC West. The teams will meet again in a Week 11 rematch in Denver, which represents an opportunity to take a three-game division lead heading into the final six games of the season. But to do that, Denver will be looking to improve on its own play.
Sunday, Denver lost two fumbles in Carolina territory and also dropped a few passes. Improving on such errors will be a point of emphasis in practice this week, said wide receiver Brandon Stokley.
"That's our goal is to keep improving," Stokley said. "I thought today was just an average game for us offensively. I thought the defense played great. Our special teams played great. But offensively, there in the second half, we got kind of in a lull there and didn't do much with a couple drives. There's definitely a lot of work to do."
Even with the defense recording seven sacks, including a safety, and a pair of interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown, Bailey said he expects improvement going forward.
"We've still got a lot of things we have to iron out," Bailey said. "We need to watch this tape and focus on what we need to get better because we're not perfect. No team is, but (to be) where we want to be, we're not even close."
After a strong performance by the defense and special teams, which outscored Carolina's entire team 16-14, the Broncos left little to be desired in two of the game's three phases. But the goal isn't to merely do enough to win. Fox said he is pushing the team to a far loftier standard.
"You strive for perfection, but it never happens," Fox said. "We played well enough in each phase that were all factors in the game. Whether it is a defensive score, a punt return for a touchdown by Trindon and our offense is our offense. We had some drops and we fumbled some balls and we left some points out there no doubt. Those are things we'll talk about and work on when we debrief when we get back."