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Five Things To Watch: Panthers vs. Broncos

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It's crunch time. Get ready for game day, and don't forget the chips when the Panthers face the Broncos on Sunday. Here are five things to watch for in the matchup.

SUNDAY'S RESPONSE

Panthers coach Matt Rhule won't run out of object lessons this season when it's time to talk about responding to adversity or unusual circumstances.

But he's particularly curious to see how his team responds this week, after the blender they've been thrown in the last month.

This week alone included another setback for their best offensive player and a long list of players hitting the reserve/COVID-19 list, which left them scrapping for guys to fill certain positions in practice.

All of that made it feel like forever since they've played a game, which is part of the reason Rhule added an extra practice on Friday just to make sure his team got in enough work. Christian McCaffrey picking up another injury, and being without two of their top three receivers and most of the defensive line complicated matters.

But harkening back to the last two games they played, the Panthers have experienced the entire range of emotions.

After bouncing back from their late collapse against the Buccaneers to beat the Lions with backup quarterback P.J. Walker, things seemed promising. Any degree of that momentum was lost with the last-minute loss to the Vikings before the bye, when things looked good for them right up until they didn't.

"All across the board, I'm excited to see our team play this week," Rhule said. "Bouncing back after a tough loss, then a week off, and then some of the COVID list additions, their ability to stay focused this week.

"If we play well this week, what will it say about this team, that they're able to come back after a heart-wrenching loss, a gut-wrenching loss, a week off when they couldn't even come in the building and get it out of their system, all of these distractions? If they play well, I think it will really speak to the character of this football team.

"So I'm anxious to see them. I'm anxious to see them go play. I like the way they've been practicing, and we'll see when the game comes."

NO SYMPATHY FROM DENVER

Of course, any struggles the Panthers may have this year pale in comparison to what the Broncos have been dealing with.

I mean, this is still the team that had to play a practice squad wide receiver at quarterback two weeks ago because all their quarterbacks were on the COVID-19 list. They've also been without defensive coordinator Ed Donatell for the last six games as he battled the virus.

They've been particularly hard hit by injuries this year, losing veteran pass-rusher Von Miller and star wideout Courtland Sutton early in the process.

This week, cornerback A.J. Bouye was suspended six games for violating the league's policy on performance enhancing substances.

Juston Burris

TAKE IT AWAY

Oh, by the way, there's a football game happening at the end of a week of all this other stuff.

So with the Panthers getting healthier in the secondary, there's a chance they could make some plays.

The Broncos' quarterbacks have been particularly generous this year, with a league-high 21 interceptions thrown this season. That's five more than the next team on the list (the Eagles). Drew Lock is back under center this week, and he has 13 picks in nine starts.

The Panthers haven't been able to reel in many of their own, with just five picks this year. That's tied for 30th in the league, though they lead the NFL with 12 forced fumbles.

ON THE OTHER HAND

The Panthers' struggles in the red zone have been well-documented this year. Other than one brief hot streak, they've settled for far too many short field goals this season.

They'll be tested Sunday, as the Broncos are second in the league in red zone defense.

Without McCaffrey and wide receiver DJ Moore, things will get complicated for Teddy Bridgewater when things get close, particularly since that's where the Broncos are actually best at playing defense.

Donte Jackson

A WILLING VOLUNTEER

With all the talk about missing players early in the week, and the Broncos' unusual quarterback situation two weeks ago, there was some talk this week about disaster plans.

The Panthers have at least one volunteer to change positions in case of emergency, who actually sounded more than willing.

Cornerback Donte Jackson did everything short of lobbying offensive coordinator Joe Brady for some plays to be called for him, when asked if there was another position he could competently play besides his own.

"Oh, receiver," Jackson said with a broad grin. "Night, day morning, whatever. I could literally line up at receiver and the Panthers' offense would not miss a beat. That's how I feel.

"I've got to go talk to Joe. Hopefully we can get some things worked out. But I would definitely go in the receiver room and it would be like I've been there since training camp."

He was mostly kidding, we think. And by getting Curtis Samuel back from the COVID-19 list late in the week, any potential crisis at receiver was averted.

But it's early yet, and Jackson just wanted to make it clear he's available, if needed.

Carolina is 1-5 all-time against Denver with a 1-1 record at home.

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