ENGLEWOOD, Colo. –Even though the Panthers bring a 2-6 record into this week's matchup, the 5-3 Broncos won't be taking anything for granted Sunday in Charlotte.
Everyone in the Denver locker room knows that given the amount of talent in the league, any team is dangerous.
"Never judge a team by their record," safety Rahim Moore said. "I don't care if they're 0-11, 0-16, 16-0, it doesn't matter. You watch the film and every team has big-time players. They have a great two backs that can run you over, (juke) you, they can do it all, great quarterback, (wide receiver) Steve Smith, (wide receiver) Brandon LaFell, the tight ends make big-time plays. When you're watching film, they're good versus Chicago, versus Atlanta, they show some signs of play-making ability so you always have to be aware of that."
A closer look at many of Carolina's six losses shows that the Panthers have been far more competitive than their record indicates. Only one of the team's losses has come by more than six points. Carolina's ability to keep games close has caught the attention of quarterback Peyton Manning.
"We are all about the Carolina Panthers," Manning said. "I think their record is misleading to the kind of team they have. They're coming off a big win on the road. They'll be fired up at home and so it's about trying to get better every week. "
Despite sitting in last place in the NFC South, the Panthers have shown that they can play with anyone, including the class of the NFC.
Carolina led the undefeated Atlanta Falcons for nearly the entire fourth quarter until a 40-yarder by Atlanta kicker Matt Bryant with five seconds to play spoiled the upset.
Just two weeks ago, the Panthers again led one of the league's top teams, the Chicago Bears, until the final seconds, as the Bears needed a game-winning field goal as time expired to pull out the victory. It was a particularly notable effort against a 7-1 Chicago team that has won by 16 or more points in five of its seven victories.
"Right now we're not judging the Carolina Panthers by their record," safety Rahim Moore said. "We're watching film and they make big plays. A lot of times they came close to winning some big-time (games)… so it's going to be a tough challenge for us this weekend."
FOX RETURNS TO CAROLINA
One of the most prominent storylines going into Sunday's Broncos-Panthers matchup is Head Coach John Fox's return to Charlotte to face a team he coached from 2002-10.
Fox has admitted he looks forward to seeing family and old friends, but has said that come gameday, it will be like any other week.
"I've been with so many teams that I've had a lot of homecomings, so it'll be another one," Fox said of returning to Carolina. "I think if you're in this business long enough, you have a lot of them. I still have a home there. I have a lot of close friends. I've had a lot of great relationships there over a nine-year period. It's always good to see old friends."
Though Fox has said more than once that Sunday will be just another game, his players believe that taking on his former team will add something to the table.
"I definitely understand what he's saying as far as you have to prepare like it's any other game," tight end Joel Dreessen said. "But it's going to be emotional on Sunday for him. Any time you spend a lot of time at a place, you're going to have some emotional attachment."
Fox's return to Carolina will undeniably be a factor in Sunday's game. Just not a big one.
"I guess there's always something there in that sort of thing, but it's like he told us today, it's just about the game," tight end Jacob Tamme said. "A lot of people will try to make things that aren't really there sometimes. When you spend a lot of time in a place, there's always that little factor. At the end of the day, it's about going and winning a game. That's what our goal is for this Sunday."
Sunday against Carolina, the Broncos will look to earn a victory for their head coach who was at the helm for the Panthers for nearly a decade. But it's not because of the opponent or the circumstances. Playing for Fox is a big part of Denver's motivation every week.
"He's our leader," Manning said. "Every week you want to win for your head coach. I've always believed that players should want to win for many reasons but one of them should be for their head coach. I can't speak for him, for what his emotions are or whatnot but it's an important game because it's the next game for us and it's a tough team on the road against a defense that's probably improved more than anybody the past few weeks."
PREPARING FOR THE PASS RUSH
Another week brings another imposing defensive front for Manning and the Broncos offense.
After shutting out a Cincinnati pass rush that ranked among the league's best going into last week's game, Denver takes on another formidable front four this week against the Panthers, who are currently tied for sixth in the NFL with 24 sacks.
What makes Carolina's rush notable is that it has shown the ability to get to the quarterback with just its defensive line. Defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy have recorded 7.5 and 6.5 sacks, respectively, with defensive tackle Dwan Edwards adding five.
"I think all defenses, you kind of start up front," Manning said. "They are active guys up front, they have a lot of sacks. Most of those sacks have come just by rushing four, which tells you they can get pressure with just rushing four. But they have all the blitzes as well. I think we've got a real challenge up front, running the ball and pass-protecting against their front seven. Hopefully we will step up to that challenge."
The Panthers' pass rush has been at its best in recent weeks, as Carolina brought down Bears quarterback Jay Cutler six times in Week 8, including three by Hardy. In the Panthers' last game, a win over the Washington Redskins, they recorded four sacks of Robert Griffin III. The increase in quarterback pressure has played a big role in the team's recent success as a defensive unit. Carolina is allowing just under 18 points per game over its past four contests.
"Carolina is tough," wide receiver Eric Decker said. "They are one of the teams that seems like, defensively, is always keeping teams under 20 points. We have a big challenge ahead of us. They've really improved, as well, from the beginning of the season until now. We have to make sure we take care of our jobs. You can never be overconfident because every Sunday you have to show up and play and these guys can play. We have to make sure we take care of our business."
Taking on a unit that seems to be hitting its stride means the Broncos will need another strong week of practice and preparation.
"They're very talented on both sides of the ball," Tamme said. "Their defense has a lot of talented guys up front. They've got some guys that can make some plays over there, and we need a good week of preparation."