Why this game is intriguing: Finally last week -- for the first time since mid-September -- the Panthers won. Finally, we saw a smiling, non-slumping Cam Newton and a coach in Ron Rivera who believed he'd found a way. But for how long? In come the surging Broncos and Peyton Manning, who might offer a lesson or two in how to be professional winners. This balanced Broncos attack should have no problem getting after the injury-plagued Panthers defense.
Peyton Manning has made all the offseason speculation surrounding whether he'd ever return to his MVP-form a distant memory.
Manning looks to direct the AFC West-leading Denver Broncos to a fourth straight win when they visit the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
After missing the entire 2011 season due to several neck surgeries, Manning is putting together an MVP-caliber season for the Broncos (5-3).
"In his case, every time he goes out there, he's got a chance to do something special," said John Fox, who'll be facing the team he coached from 2002-10 for the first time.
The four-time league MVP came up nine yards short of his sixth consecutive 300-yard passing game when he went 27 of 35 with three touchdowns and two interceptions in last Sunday's 31-23 win in Cincinnati.
For the first time since 2004, Manning has thrown three touchdown passes in five straight contests, and if he can get two more Sunday, he'll surpass Dan Marino's total of 420 for second most in NFL history.
The 14-year veteran leads the NFL with a career-best 69.5 completion percentage and a 108.6 quarterback rating, and is on pace to throw 40 touchdowns.
As a result, Denver's receiver tandem of Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas has shined. Decker has caught seven touchdown passes in his last five games, while Thomas ranks fourth in the NFL in receiving yards per game at 94.5.
"I can't emphasize enough what (Manning) means to all those guys," Fox said.
Although they've averaged 31.6 points over a 4-1 stretch, the Broncos could have trouble against a Carolina defense that has allowed one passing touchdown or less in seven of eight games.
The Panthers (2-6) have surrendered an average of 212.3 passing yards over their last four games, and haven't given up a 300-yard passing game since Matt Ryan put up 369 in a Falcons' win on Sept. 30.
"We've settled in defensively," Carolina coach Ron Rivera insisted. "We've found our intensity."
Denver's Willis McGahee looks for a bounce-back performance after managing 66 yards on 23 carries for a season-low 2.9 yards per attempt against the Bengals. He could find some room against a Carolina team that gave up 151 yards on the ground in last Sunday's 21-13 win over Washington.
The Panthers, who have the worst record in the NFC, hope to carry some momentum from last week's victory after finally closing out an opponent. Carolina led in the fourth quarter in three of its previous four games but wound up losing.
Cam Newton completed 13 of 23 passes for 201 yards against the Redskins and showed flashes of his sensational play from his rookie season by throwing for one touchdown and running in another to help his team break a five-game skid. He didn't turn the ball over for just the second time this season, and the Panthers improved to 7-1 when he doesn't have one. They're 1-15 when he has at least one turnover.
"Winning solves a lot of problems, and losing puts you under a microscope," receiver Steve Smith said.
Smith, who hauled in his first touchdown catch of the season last week, and the rest of the Carolina receivers face a tough test against the Broncos' stingy secondary.
Denver cornerbacks Chris Harris and Tony Carter have allowed just 23 completions in 59 attempts on the season. Carter is allowing a league-low completion percentage of just 28 (7 receptions in 25 attempts) among cornerbacks who have been targeted at least 15 times.
"We haven't had young corners play like this in a long time," said Champ Bailey, another one of the team's top corners. "You might get one here, one there. But two like this, it's hard to find that."
The Broncos haven't faced the Panthers since a 30-10 loss in 2008, their only defeat in three meetings.