Broncos have total package; show will go on in Carolina

On the surface, today’s task for the Denver Broncos would not appear to be difficult.

After all, the 5-3 Broncos are now one of the darlings of football, riding a three-game win streak and on top in the AFC West.

Peyton Manning is on pace for a 4,800-yard, 40-touchdown season. If he isn’t the Most Valuable Player at this point in the NFL, he’s certainly on a very short list of contenders.

Offensively, the Broncos rate second in the AFC. Defensively, they are rated fourth best.

That, folks, is the whole package.

Their opponent on the day, the Carolina Panthers, at first glance would seem to be on the opposite end of the spectrum. They are possessors of the worst record in the NFC at 2-6 and average almost 55 yards per game less and allow 18 yards more per game than Denver.

Even the fact the game is in Carolina shouldn’t create much worry for the Broncos and their fans. The Panthers have won only once in four tries at home, that coming in their second game against New Orleans.

Warning: This game will not be a lead-pipe cinch for Denver. Records, especially Carolina’s, can be deceiving.

Carolina snapped a five-game losing streak last week on the road against the Washington Redskins, and they did it in impressive fashion, holding Robert Griffin III & Co. to two field goals and one consolation touchdown that came late in the final quarter in a 21-13 win.

And although that win was a rarity for the Panthers, it wasn’t like they were chopped liver the previous four games, losses by a total of 12 points.

Their last loss took place in the home den of the mighty Bears, a 23-22 defeat in which the Panthers led the through most of the game until Chicago’s Robbie Gould kicked a 41-yard field goal as time expired. Had it not been for a late fumble by Panther QB Cam Newton, the Bears would have two losses, and the Panthers would be much more respected in the eyes of NFL fandom.

Prior to the loss to the Bears, the Panthers lost 19-14 to Dallas, 16-12 to Seattle, and 
30-28 to the still-unbeaten Falcons in a game played at Atlanta. In that one, the Panthers sacked quarterback Matt Ryan seven times, and the Falcons were forced into kicking a field goal with less than a minute to play for the win.

Yes, wins have come over the Panthers, but not easily.

The biggest reason for their inconsistency comes first from the inconsistent play of second-year QB Newton and secondly from their inconsistent, almost nonexistent, running game from anyone other than Newton.

Think back to the Denver Broncos of last season, the read-option runs of QB Tim Tebow. Carolina has done much that sort of thing this season with Newton.

When the Panthers were at their best in the years under John Fox, they pounded the ball relentlessly behind running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Those two are still on the squad, but Newton, the 6-foot-5, 245-pound monster, has taken the shine off of the tandem.

Newton has run the ball 59 times for a team-leading 347 yards, averaging almost 6 yards per carry. Williams and Stewart, on the other hand, have virtually split the rest of the carries, averaging only 3.7 yards per carry.

What has happened is Newton, the top pick in the draft last year just before Denver took linebacker Von Miller, has become a virtual one-man show.

Stop Newton, or force him into mistakes — that happens quite naturally with young QBs — and you will beat the Panthers. He has thrown for a respectable 1,900 yards but has only six touchdown passes compared with eight interceptions. Carolina also has seven fumbles lost and had turned the ball over at least once in every game this season until last week’s win.

The Carolina defense struggled early because of the loss of starting middle linebacker Jon Beason, but first-round draft choice Luke Kuechly has stepped into that role and now is third in the league in tackles with 77. They also have gotten a big push from the front four with ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson having 13.5 sacks between them and tackle Dwan Edwards adding another five sacks.

This is not a team Denver can take lightly.

The Broncos won’t take the Panthers lightly, but they will have to do two things extremely well to win: Protect Manning in the pocket and keep Newton contained in the pocket, not allowing him to get to the edges repeatedly.

That will happen often enough.

I’ll take my 6-2 record picking with or against Denver and say the show goes on: Denver 28, Carolina 20.

Rick Jussel is a former Daily Sentinel sports editor (think Dark Ages) and Grand Junction High School journalism teacher who belongs in the Armchair Quarterback Hall of Fame, if only there was one.


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