The Panthers come off a week to rest and recharge, but unfortunately they’re not back to full strength following the bye. Running back Christian McCaffrey has been laid up yet again with another injury. This time his quad, along with several key players are on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Not exactly how you want to start the final quarter of the season. But at least they’re facing a team that is having plenty of its own struggles. The Denver Broncos are also 4-8 on the season, although they put up a good fight in a 22-16 loss to the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs Sunday night.
The Broncos’ biggest issue has been a lack of scoring. A team that second-to-last in the league, averaging just under 19 points per game. Denver has dealt with a quarterback situation riddled with injuries, lots of interceptions, and of course, the week 12 fiasco against the Saints, when the entire quarterback room was on the COVID-19 list. The NFL forced the Broncos to start practice squad receiver (and former Wake Forest standout) Kendall Hinton under center. He had no NFL experience at any position prior to the start. And in fact, neither did two assistant coaches that Denver tried to place into the lineup at QB before the NFL rejected the idea. Hinton went 1-of-9 for 13 yards and two interceptions in the 31-3 loss vs. the Saints.
The Broncos lead the league with 21 interceptions, 13 of those from Drew Lock, who has been the starter most of the season. “He’s a guy with a big arm, he can make a lot of throws,” said Panthers cornerback Donte Jackson. “He’s got a lot of fast play makers.”
One of those playmakers is second year tight end Noah Fant, who has 44 catches, two of them for touchdowns. He teams with Tim Patrick and first round draft pick Jerry Jeudy, who’s averaging nearly 16 yards a catch with three scores. The Broncos also have an excellent running attack, ranking 12th in the league with nearly 119 rushing yards per game. They’ve got a 1-2 punch at running back in Pro Bowlers Melvin Gordon and Phillip Lindsay, who have combined for 1,125 yards and seven touchdowns. The Panthers have done a much better job of stopping the run the last few weeks, allowing just 101 total rushing yards over their last two games.
The Broncos might be able to run the ball, but they have trouble stopping it and are ranked 26th in the league allowing over 131 yards per game. Injuries have certainly contributed to the Broncos woes with several key players out to season ending injuries, including star linebacker Von Miller. But second year linebacker Bradley Chubb has stepped up to fill the void. The former NC State standout leads the team with 7.5 sacks on the season. The Broncos passing defense has been solid, they currently rank 8th in the league, allowing an average of 218 passing yards per game.
But they’ll be missing their top three cornerbacks Sunday after Bryce Callahan and rookie Essang Bassey both landed on IR, along with A.J. Bouye being suspended this week for PED use. Of course the Panthers will likely be without receivers D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel, so maybe the playing field will be evened out? The Broncos still have an All-Pro at safety in Justin Simmons, he leads the team with four interceptions. “It’s a defense that’s very sound,” said Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. “They’re rushing the quarterback and those guys make some plays on the back end.”
In spite of missing some key players this week, Bridgewater and the Panthers are looking to start the last quarter of the season strong. Coach Matt Rhule made it clear this week that he wants his team to play “winning” football these last four games. “We have to go out and play our best,” said Rhule. “We have to find a way to win this game. We’re anticipating that we’ll go out and battle, take it to the fourth quarter, try to make one more play and win it at the end.”
As for McCaffrey, he may be out for this game but has a family tie to the Broncos. The all-pro rusher grew in the Denver metro area with his father, Ed, playing a majority of his 13-year NFL career at wide receiver for the Denver Broncos. Christian sees his hometown team on the schedule for the first time in his NFL career and admitted the feeling was “surreal”
“That was when I started to see what football meant to me. Just watching and being able to run around on the field after the game,” McCaffrey said. “Seeing them win two Super Bowls, even when I was two or three years old, I just knew how much my dad loved football. To be playing against my dad’s former team, it makes things come full circle.”