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Five things to watch vs. Denver: Another change at quarterback

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CHARLOTTE – The Panthers return home for one more game this Sunday before their Week 13 bye.

Carolina (3-8) will host the Broncos (3-7) at Bank of America Stadium, with kickoff set for 1 p.m.

Both teams are looking for some sparks from their offense. Denver comes to Charlotte having lost six of its last seven games and failing to score more than 21 points since Week 5, despite the addition of nine-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion quarterback Russell Wilson this offseason.

The Panthers' offense didn't score a touchdown in last week's 13-3 loss at Baltimore and have made another quarterback change heading into the Broncos matchup, benching Baker Mayfield in favor of Sam Darnold.

Here are five things to watch in Week 12:

DARNOLD'S DAY

Darnold will see his first action of 2022 against Denver after a preseason high ankle sprain landed him on injured reserve through Week 10.

Darnold backed up a struggling Mayfield in Week 11, but interim coach Steve Wilks waited to give Darnold his opportunity until the Broncos game.

"(Changing quarterbacks) was something that I wanted to do," Wilks said. "I felt like just putting us in the best position to have an opportunity to win. … He had to go through the process of working his way back. I think the skill set is there. I felt like I wanted to give him that opportunity to see what he can go out and do."

Darnold has a 4-9 career record as the Panthers' starting quarterback, throwing nine touchdowns and 13 interceptions with a 71.9 passer rating last year. His touchdown-interception ratio and passer rating were career lows for Darnold, who is in his fifth season.

They're hoping for the more efficient Darnold from early last year. In his first four starts (including the three with a healthy Christian McCaffrey), Darnold threw for 1,189 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions and a 95.4 passer rating, and at one point led the league in rushing touchdowns. They were 3-1 at that point. It got worse in the middle of the season, as in the next five games, he threw for 797 yards, with two touchdowns and eight interceptions and a 49.4 passer rating, and they went 1-4 in those games.

The Broncos boast the NFL's third-best total defense and scoring defense, particularly strong against the pass, an area where they are also ranked third in the league.

Denver's rushing defense ranks 14th in the NFL, so the Panthers may look to open up more opportunities for lead running back D'Onta Foreman, who has 413 rush yards (fifth in the league) and four rush touchdowns (tied-sixth in the league) since Week 7.

WILSON, BRONCOS SEEKING POINTS

The Broncos have the league's worst scoring offense, are 31st in the league on third down (ahead of only the Panthers), rank last in red zone offense, and are 28th in sacks – so it's safe to say things haven't been going well for Wilson in his first season at Denver.

Wilson's seven pass touchdowns this season are the fewest among the NFL's 22 quarterbacks with over 250 pass attempts, and he has completed a career-low 59.5 percent of his passes this season.

The Broncos looked to create a spark by giving passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach Klint Kubiak offensive play-calling duties in last week's overtime loss to Las Vegas. But Wilson still failed to throw a touchdown pass, and the Broncos did not improve on third down (3-of-12).

Denver also waived its leading rusher, Melvin Gordon III, this week after he lost his fifth fumble of the season and second within 2 yards of the goal line. Latavius Murray made his Broncos debut in Week 4 and is set to lead the way on the ground against Carolina. He has totaled 209 rush yards on 63 attempts with three rushing touchdowns this season.

They'll also be without Jerry Jeudy, the Broncos' leader with three touchdown receptions, as he is ruled out with an ankle injury. Courtland Sutton leads Denver with 46 receptions and 613 receiving yards this season and will likely see most of the targets in Jeudy's absence.

PANTHERS LOOKING TO "FINISH"

Carolina kept it close for three and a half quarters in Baltimore and held the Ravens to 13 points, but an offense unable to protect the football put the defense in bad situations down the stretch.

Wilks has continued to speak about the importance of "finishing" after getting off to a strong start, emphasizing the message throughout the week between the trip to Baltimore and hosting Denver.

"I felt like we played a hard game (against the Ravens), gave ourselves the opportunity to win the football game but didn't find a way to finish in the end," Wilks said.

The Panthers' defense has held its last two opponents (Falcons and Ravens) to no more than 15 points, and it has pieces that have performed well.

Defensive end Brian Burns leads Carolina with 8.0 sacks and 14 quarterback hits this year, and he has totaled at least 1.0 sack in each of the last three games, tied for the second-longest active streak in the NFL.

Cornerback Jaycee Horn has allowed a 45.6 passer rating in primary coverage this season, the lowest in the league among 264 players targeted at least 15 times.

EYES ON INJURIES AND ILLNESS

The Panthers will be without three key contributors on defense when the Broncos come to town. Linebacker Cory Littleton (ankle), safety/nickel Myles Hartsfield (ankle), and defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis (calf) were all ruled out for the Denver game after not practicing all week.

Wilks said to expect rookie Brandon Smith and Damien Wilson to split snaps in Littleton's absence.

Safety Juston Burris (concussion) practiced on Thursday and Friday and received no injury status for the Denver game. Burris, who hasn't played in the last three games while in concussion protocol, is likely to help bolster the Panthers' secondary without Hartsfield.

Quarterback PJ Walker (ankle) and tight end Giovanni Ricci (neck) are both considered doubtful for the Broncos matchup, while tight ends Stephen Sullivan and Ian Thomas missed Friday's practice with illness and are considered questionable. Tommy Tremble is the only tight end on the active roster who hasn't landed on the injury report before Denver.

Wide receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. returned to full participation in Friday's practice but is considered questionable for Sunday while he deals with a shoulder injury.

JANSEN SET TO TIE FRANCHISE RECORD

Veteran long snapper JJ Jansen will tie a Panthers franchise record when he takes the field against Denver, appearing in his 221st career game Sunday.

Jansen will tie former kicker John Kasay, who played at Carolina for 16 seasons from 1995-2010.

Jansen has been on the Panthers' roster since 2009 and has played in every regular season game since he got here.

View photos from Wednesday's practice as the Panthers get ready to take on Denver on Sunday.

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