The Denver Broncos are a team without weakness. An organization who rode a solid defense to the playoffs in spite of Tim Tebow last year added one of the best QBs of all time, and a change at defensive coordinator has resulted in a complete football team the Carolina Panthers will need to play their best football against if they hope to beat. The Panthers are a dangerous team, more effective than their record suggests, but can the offensive move the ball against a stout, aggressive defense? Cam Newton will try.
X-Factor: Steve Smith
In 2012 the Panthers #1 receiver has done everything asked, and more. On pace for yet another 1,000 yard season, Smitty is the sole reason the passing game has succeeded through a combination of stretching the field, down-field blocking, and ceaselessly motivating his teammates.
Among receivers with over 30 catches this season, Steve Smith ranks forth in the NFL in average yards per reception with 16.6. While Smitty hasn't had those signature deep touchdowns, he's still the Panthers best option. Conversely, the Denver Broncos rank 11th in the league in average yards per reception allowed, at just 10.9.
If the Broncos can stop Steve Smith then it's over, the Panthers wont be able to move the ball through the air; from there they can being stacking the box and teeing off on Cam Newton. However, if Smith is able to get a few big catches early, then the offense can keep the Broncos honest, and maybe Chud can add a smattering of the read option.
Carolina run offense vs. Denver run defense
This is a situation where yet again the Broncos don't have a weakness. Currently ranked sixth in the league, they're only allowing 3.7 yards per carry. Meanwhile, the Carolina Panthers running backs have been extremely inconsistent. Johnathan Stewart is averaging 3.8 yards per carry, DeAngelo WIlliams 3.7-- neither have been able to move the chains, and there's no reason to believe they'll have success this week.
If there's a saving grace it's Cam Newton. The Broncos have not seen a mobile QB like Cam this year, and he's running well despite having the cards stacked against him. Against the Chicago Bears he ran at a pace of 7.4 yards per carry, and not even the vaunted Bears' defense had a reliable answer for him. However, like we've seen all year, when teams know Newton is running he's dead to rights.
Carolina pass offense vs. Denver pass defense
We've established how good the Broncos are in coverage, but they're also extremely good at throwing off opposing quarterbacks. When playing against Denver, QBs are completing 60.1% of their passes (10th best defense in the NFL), and allowing 6.5 yards per attempt, which ranked sixth. This is largely in part to a defensive unit who have 24 team sacks on the year.
Cam Newton v. Von Miller will be one of the most intriguing match-ups in the NFL this week. Miller is as natural a pass rusher as I've ever seen, and with nine sacks in eight weeks he's on pace to shatter his rookie totals. Where he's gifted is in his ability to cover a lot of space in a short amount of time, which makes him Cam Newton's kryptonite. When Carolina had issues dealing with Michael Vick at his peak then turned to Thomas Davis, so too I expect John Fox and Jack Del Rio to ask Miller to be their anti-Cam.
Ultimately it comes down to play calling, and I've been burned enough this year to put too much stock in Chud working it all out.