If you strictly look at records going into the matchup between the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers in Week 10 of the NFL season, this looks like an incredible mismatch between a 5–3 record versus 2–6.
As with many situations in football, however, the numbers don’t even begin to tell the story.
Carolina has been one of the most snake bitten teams in the 2012 season, as they’ve come out on the short end in many of their losses.
Outside of the blowout loss to the New York Giants in Week 3, the Panthers' five other losses have been by six points or less. Suffice to say, they’ve been competitive in most of their games despite a bit of a sophomore slump from their do-everything quarterback Cam Newton.
They’ve been done in by unfortunate mistakes at key points or their opponents making a huge play when necessary to win, and that combination can usually spell doom for a young team trying to find themselves.
Carolina did show some fight in their last game defeating Washington 21-13 in Week 9.
Denver has begun to find their stride offensively and it couldn’t come at a better time as they start to take control within the AFC West race. After losing to New England in Week 5 in a close battle, the Broncos were hit in the mouth figuratively during the first half of their date with San Diego in Week 6 as they were down big at halftime.
Against all probability, the Broncos showed incredible resolve to dominate the second half to win against the Chargers, and the Broncos have beaten New Orleans and Cincinnati respectively to push their record to the 5-3 mark they enjoy now.
I do expect this to be close game despite the disparity in wins simply because Carolina is a better team than their record, while Denver still has a tendency to keep games close on the road.
After having control against the Bengals in the second half and driving towards a decisive touchdown to extend their lead, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning threw two key interceptions to give Cincinnati some hope and they ended up taking the lead until Denver rallied late. With the theme of a competitive game in mind, here are my three bold predictions regarding the Broncos – Panthers match-up.
1. The Denver defense will pressure Cam Newton and keep him under control. Denver’s defense has also shown remarkable improvement over the past few weeks, and their Week 10 match-up provides the unique challenge of facing a quarterback that is a dual threat. Newton is as dangerous with his feet as with his arm, and so it will be important for the Denver defensive line to not only pressure him regularly, but not lose containment and allow Newton to escape and gain yards when the pocket breaks down.
I would expect that Von Miller will be a key to the defensive approach, as he could be the “mirror” player assigned directly to cover Newton. Knowing the innovative defensive mind that Denver defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio was, I would also anticipate that the Broncos will disguise a lot of their coverages to keep Newton guessing where the pressure is coming from.
2. The key battle in this game will be between Denver’s desire to establish the run versus Carolina’s defensive line. Denver has the winning streak coming into this match-up, but their offense lately has relied upon Manning and the passing game to get their points. Cincinnati kept Denver from establishing the run, but yet didn’t pressure Manning regularly with blitzes and the veteran quarterback was able to find open receivers regularly outside of the nightmarish third quarter.
Broncos coach John Fox wants to have a balanced offensive approach, and that means getting Willis McGahee involved early to then hopefully opening up the passing lanes. Denver is missing one of their key offensive linemen as guard Chris Kuper will be out after suffering an ankle injury against the Bengals.
Kuper was put in as right guard in Week 6 and helped the offensive line gel nicely, as the Broncos haven’t given up a sack with Kuper in the lineup. Reserve lineman Manny Ramirez will be counted upon to stand up to the pressure, and I think he’ll be up to the task. He’ll need to be for the Broncos to get the road win.
3. For Carolina to win, they will need to win the third down percentage battle and I’m not convinced they can do that. The Panthers have only been dominated in one of their eight games this season, as coach Ron Rivera has used a fairly conservative approach in all aspects of the game. For long stretches, they’ve had reasonable success running and passing the ball, but as Rivera put it in comments to the Denver Post, Carolina has kicked too many field goals when they should have had touchdowns.
Their offense and defense has also struggled on third downs, meaning not only does the Panther offense fail to sustain long drives to hold onto the ball, but their defense isn’t able to stop the opposition from earning first downs at key points.
A 37 percent third-down conversion rate for an offense isn’t going to win many ball games, and Carolina must do better in this category to get the win.
I don’t think that will be the case this week, however, because not only is Denver improving on their third down defense, the Broncos offense is converting third downs at an over 47 percent success rate. This means simply that Manning is making plays when he needs to for the Broncos to sustain drives, and I don’t see that trend falling off in this match-up.
As with most matchups this year, Carolina will be in this for the entire game, but I expect Manning and McGahee to do their best to control the ball and the clock for Denver. The end result will be Denver 28, Carolina 24, keeping the Broncos in control of their destiny in the AFC West.