The Panthers will welcome a few familiar faces to Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, but their focus will be on the Denver Broncos' household names wearing helmets rather than headsets.
Former Panthers head coach John Fox and eight former Carolina assistant coaches will be on the Broncos sideline, but the Panthers will be paying more attention to quarterback Peyton Manning, cornerback Champ Bailey and the like.
"I played four years for Fox and have a lot of respect for him, but it doesn't change my job," Panthers center Geoff Hangartner said. "It's not the Panthers versus him. It's players versus players."
Left tackle Jordan Gross, who hadn't played for a head coach on the NFL level other than Fox before the Panthers hired Ron Rivera in 2011, did admit that it would be nice to knock off Fox and Co.
"If everybody's being honest, Foxy definitely wants to beat us and we want to beat him," Gross said. "That's not because it's a bad relationship or bad blood, but anytime you play someone you're familiar with, you want to get the upper hand."
Here's what the Panthers (2-6) need to do to get the upper hand on the Broncos (5-3).
GET MANNING OFF HIS MARK: When Manning has time to throw, he's deadly, and he's had time to throw of late.
The Broncos haven't allowed a single sack over the last three games. On the other hand, the Panthers have piled up 10 sacks over the last two games.
That doesn't mean, however, that Manning's level of success will be determined entirely at the line of scrimmage.
"You have to be able to cover those guys, first and foremost," Rivera said. "If you can make him hold the ball a little longer and not let him throw the ball quick, you have an opportunity to give your pass rush a chance to get there. If he throws the ball as he gets to that third or fifth step, he's tough to get to."
The Broncos feature a group of savvy receivers, headed by Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker. The Panthers' secondary has done a solid job in coverage the last few games, but it's more important than ever in this game that they don't allow big windows for Manning's throws.
KEEP CAM ON HIS MARK: The Broncos also feature a potent pass rush, and they have one of the most accomplished cornerbacks in NFL history on their side in Bailey.
"They can rush the passer really well, and on top of that, they cover people well (in the secondary)," Hangartner said. "When you can cover and rush the passer, it makes things a little bit difficult, but we have a plan for them."
That plan, from quarterback Cam Newton's perspective, starts with figuring out how to avoid turnovers against the combination of a strong pass rush and a strong cover corner.
Through Newton's first 24 NFL games, the Panthers have lost just once when he doesn't turn the ball over.
"I have to protect the ball better, running and throwing it," Newton said. "I also have to make better decisions as far as going through reads and checking the football down. I've been saying that since Week 1, but it's a process. It has to always be in my head."
PASSING ON PASSING: The most obvious way for either team to deal with the other teams' pass rush/pass coverage is to not pass.
The team that does a better job establishing its run game should be in the running for a victory.
Broncos veteran Willis McGahee is enjoying the best individual season of the running backs that will be on display Sunday, ranking 12th in the NFL with 620 yards. But the Panthers, despite being much-maligned, have more rushing yards as a team, actually ranking 12th (compared to 18th for the Broncos) with 116.2 yards per game.
The difference comes when comparing the quarterbacks. Newton has 347 rushing yards; Manning has 9.
Newton needs to wisely use his legs Sunday to try to give the Panthers a leg up.
HOME BUILDING: The Panthers are 1-2 all-time against Manning, winning twice in Indianapolis while dropping his one appearance in Charlotte, in 2007.
That isn't that surprising of a stat because the Panthers traditionally haven't been that much better at home than they have on the road.
With a high-profile Broncos team making a long trek, Newton sees no better time than the present to start bucking that trend.
"We have to claim what is ours, and in this situation, that's Bank of America Stadium," Newton said. "We have to have a swagger about ourselves and have an extra boost of morale going into every single home game because we feel very confident that our fans are going to come with their game face. We have to give them confidence that we're going to do the same."
SUNDAY SALUTE: The Panthers will continue their tradition of honoring veterans and active duty members of the military with their annual Military Appreciation Day.
During pregame, the Panthers will hold a moment of silence for prisoners of war and those missing in action and recognize veterans before hosting an on-field oath of enlistment ceremony with a live hook-up to troops in Afghanistan, which will be led by Brig. Gen. Thomas A Gorry – the commander of the U.S. Marine Corps Installations East. U.S. Navy Lt. Richard Bristol will provide the invocation, and U.S. Air Force Maj. Erin Karl will sing the national anthem with a multi-service color guard from Joint Base Charleston, S.C., during which time there will be a four-ship flyover by the Louisiana Air National Guard 159th Fighter Wing.
Service members will lead the Panthers onto the field, deliver the game ball and participate in the coin toss. A Purple Heart recipient, Staff Sgt. Williams, and his service dog Carly will be the special Keep Pounding participant. At halftime, the 82nd Airborne Division Band from Fort Bragg, N.C., will perform and there will be a recognition of Purple Heart recipients from the last four major conflicts going back to World War II and flyover pilots. The USO-North Carolina will accept cash donations at each Bank of America Stadium gate to support its programs that benefit local military personnel and their families.
|Fuel Up To Play 60 Kids Combine
|Located on the Panthers' practice field adjacent to Bank of America Stadium and open from 10:45 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Free, interactive area promotes youth fitness through a variety of football skills and drills for children and their families. Activities include 40-yard dash, vertical jump, wide receiver/quarterback challenge, TopCats dance studio and inflatable obstacle course.
|Located on the corner of Mint Street and Morehead Street and open from 10:45 a.m. to 12:45 p.m., with TopCats signing autographs and posing for photos at the 107.9 The Link booth from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. and Sir Purr appearing throughout the morning. See an F-16 Thunderbird jet at Command Center Alpha, a unique reality experience that immerses visitors in the high-tech world of the U.S. Air Force. Visit the AT&T Fantasy Football Lounge to find out how you can make your tailgating and game day experience even better. Play games at the Keffer Hyundai vehicle display.
|Located outside Bank of America Stadium's North Gate on Graham Street and open from 10:45 a.m. to 12:45 p.m., with TopCats signing autographs and posing for pictures from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. at the WBT 1110-AM booth. Join the USO of North Carolina in celebrating the Panthers' annual military appreciation game. Throw a virtual football with Verizon and learn about protecting your home from CPI Security. Get information about the 2012 ACC Football Championship at Bank of America Stadium.
|U.S. Navy Lt. Richard Bristol
|Joint Base Charleston
|U.S. Air Force Maj. Erin Karl
|Louisiana Air National Guard 159th Fighter Wing
|82nd Airborne Division Band (Fort Bragg, N.C.) and special recognitions