The Carolina Panthers have vastly improved on defense over the last month, but now they're facing arguably their toughest test of the season as they look for ways to counter Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. It's not that John Fox's team are are infallible, but they are extremely effective at moving the ball through the air-- typified by Manning having one of his best seasons. The Panthers are a unit who are getting better, but it's unlikely they'll have enough firepower to counter the onslaught.
X-Factor: Carolina's defensive line
Sean McDermott's defense has taken strides in both their ability to stop the run, and contain passers; even with less than stellar defensive backs. The development of the Panthers' defensive line is a huge reason why. Charles Johnson, Greg Hardy, and Dwan Edwards represent 19 of Carolina's 24 sacks this season, but as impressive as the three have been, they've also been inconsistent.
Assuming the last two weeks are the rule, not the exception, we can expect the pass rush to be extremely good yet again. However, as good as the Panthers have been rushing the passer, the Broncos' offensive line is better. Pair an excellent offensive line with one of the most cerebral pre-snap quarterbacks in the NFL, and you have a situation where it will take a small miracle for the Panthers to get Peyton Manning out of his rhythm.
Carolina run defense vs. Denver run offense
At this point we know who Willis McGahee is. He's a year-in-year-out back who is reliable, but won't necessarily scare a defense. The real risk, again, is Peyton Manning and his ability to audible into a run as he sees fit. The issue here is that Carolina are relying on supremely talented, but inexperienced Luke Kuechly to organize the defense.
Given that the unit has managed to handle Matt Forte and Alfred Morris over the last two weeks, it's reasonable to assume they can account for McGahee also. It's here where I think the Panthers can win the battle, and it will be up to the Bronco's passing game to beat them.
Carolina pass defense vs. Denver pass offense
There's a lot to be excited about with the defense, but this week could be a sobering experience for Carolina Panther fans. It will be stunning if the pass rush rattles Manning, so it will be up to the defensive backs to help cover a group of receivers who excel at getting yards after the catch.
Josh Thomas has broken out in recent weeks, and has been separating himself from the pack. Meanwhile, Josh Norman is continuing to develop, and we're seeing flashes of the ability we saw in training camp. Ultimately, they're not up to the task. While Peyton Manning may not have the league's biggest arm any more, he's still the NFL's smartest passer, and rarely makes mistakes. There's little reason other than hope to think this defense can stop an offense averaging 30 points, and 400 yards per game.
Any other week you might be able to take this contest as a trap game. However, with John Fox coming to Carolina I think it's safe to count that out. Personally, I don't buy that Fox has an ax to grind and will run up the score, but it will be enough that his team will be prepared.
The offense are still trying to find their legs, and the defense wont be enough to stop the high-flying Broncos offense.