Let the pillow fight commence.
For those who are a glutton for punishment, Denver heads east to take on the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
DraftKings Sportsbook has the Broncos as a -2-point favorite. The last time Denver was favored, it lost. On the season, the Broncos are 3-7 against the spread. The total sits at 35, one of the lowest numbers of the season. That’s still too high. The under is 9-1 in Denver games this season and it’s likely to hit again on Sunday.
To preview the game, we go behind enemy lines with Walker Clement from Cat Scratch Reader to get a feel for the Panthers, to find out who has the worse situation and what to expect in Sunday’s game.
MHR: What is the story of the Panthers through the first 11 games of the season?
Walker: In a word, chaos.
Matt Rhule provided a sputtering, blustery excuse for leadership that never actually had answers when faced with real football questions. As a result, the Panthers are now paying for three years of floundering at the quarterback position and never solving the Christian McCaffrey puzzle. A decently built defense is no excuse for the absolute train wreck that the offense, composed of good players, became under his tenure. That left a team with little cohesive preparation through the offseason on the doorstep of longtime Carolina Panthers assistant and former Arizona Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks.
As an interim, Wilks’ 2-4 mark has looked remarkably more consistent than the 1-4 team he took over. The team has ultimately been held back by a rash of injuries on the usually stout defense and a continued inconsistency at quarterback. It’s the proverbial attempt at making chicken salad out of chicken...well, you get the idea. There is a reason why there is a sizeable portion of the fanbase that is fully on board for the tank. Despite the 3-8 overall record and an absolute lack of any hope for anything this season, Wilks has kept the team together in the face of fan negativity and their own presumable doubts. It has been an incredible coaching job for a team that has to be tired of hearing that they are only one quarterback away from relevance.
Where that story goes from here is a giant question. This team held their own against a good Ravens team last week and clearly has the talent and the focus to surprise some people. That is, if the quarterback-of-the-week is able to complete passes to the correct team. That’s a two-step process with a whole lot more opportunity than margin for error. My guess is Carolina will win a couple more games, possibly starting this week, just enough to knock them out of serious contention for one of the top quarterbacks in the draft and leave the Panthers shopping for a middling free agent or trade target that won’t move the needle. That’s the stuff that keeps us fans warm and angry through the offseason.
On an unrelated note, what is Russell Wilson’s contract situation like next season?
MHR: How are fans feeling about the current state of the Panthers and the future?
Walker: As I said above, the fanbase in the Carolinas is relatively split between the “entertain me now” crowd and the “I’ll sacrifice my first born for a top pick in the draft” crowd. I think both crowds have some challenges in the strategic reasoning department, but that doesn’t mean I don’t identify a bit with each.
The real answer is that Panthers fans are tired. They haven’t seen a playoff game since a wild card loss in 2017, the last year Cam Newton was healthy. Since then it has been promises about developing young talent while never actually solving the quarterback position, or the head coach position as it turns out. Counting interims, the Panthers are on their fourth head coach and eighth quarterback since 2017. Purgatory has gotten old enough to become its own hell, and the only constant in that descent is current owner David Tepper. We don’t know how much to blame him for the decisions that led to chasing Rhule or the disappointing litany of quarterbacks, but we also don’t know how much not to blame him and fans tend to blame whatever has been standing in their area the longest.
Panthers fans want hope for a brighter future, but there is a lot of emotional work to be done before they are ready for it.
MHR: What should Broncos Country know about the Panthers? What can fans expect from Carolina on Sunday?
Walker: A quick first half should be on the radar for both teams. Strong defenses and questionable offenses that lean on the running game are going to generate a lot of blood from the clock and a lot of punts. The usual Panthers MO is a 0-0 halftime score followed by something falling apart in the second half. What that is depends entirely on whether or not Sam Darnold can generate more first downs than turnovers. I say that not as a joke, to be clear. The Panthers have failed to gain a first down on offense in the first half on at least two occasions. They have not gained a first down on offense in the third quarter in many more.
The Panthers' defense seems to live and die by whether it can ever catch its breath in the second half, so offensive efficiency this week is both the biggest predictor and least predictable wild card this week. All in all, it is shaping up to be a standard game this season.
MHR: What is your best bet at DraftKings Sportsbook for Sunday’s game? What do you think of the Broncos as the favorite?
Walker: The DK Squares-Any Quarter option lets you place a bet on the score at the end of any quarter. Take the 0-0 score. I don’t think it can pay off twice, but I’m still expecting that 0-0 halftime score. Of course, I wouldn’t put too much on that. The Panthers never do what it is expected and are as liable to score a touchdown as give up a safety on their opening drive. I’ve been wrong more often than I’ve been right this season and not because the Panthers met expectations.
MHR: What are your expectations/predictions for Sunday’s game?
Walker: Did I already say chaos? Let’s flip the script a bit. These two teams are known for their defenses and ridiculed for their offenses. I’m expecting all caution to be thrown to the wind by staffs that are busy fighting for their jobs and for this to turn into a shoot-out. Let’s go ahead and call it at 35-35 heading into overtime and the coin flip decides the winner. I think that is equally as likely as a 9-7 slog, if harder to stomach.
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