4:15 PM ET, December 14, 2008
Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, NC
The road to that berth appears harder for Carolina (10-3), and it begins Sunday at home against one of the league's top offenses in the Broncos (8-5).
A win in this game, along with a loss by Dallas or Atlanta, would wrap up the Panthers' spot in the postseason. A loss Sunday, however, could knock Carolina out of sole possession of the NFC South lead and potentially ruin its chances of gaining home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Carolina is a game behind the New York Giants for the NFC's best record and will visit the defending Super Bowl champions next week before closing the regular season in New Orleans, which is 6-1 at home.
"I wish there was more of a cushion there," Carolina's Jordan Gross told the team's official Web site. "It's going to come down to the wire, and we talked about winning this one at a time. The nice thing is that we're in control of our own destiny."
So are the Broncos. They only need one more win or one San Diego loss to clinch their first AFC West title since 2005.
Even if they lose Sunday, their next two games are not overly daunting, as both matchups are against teams with losing records -- at home versus Buffalo and in San Diego.
While Denver is likely to rely heavily on Jay Cutler and the passing game, especially after Peyton Hillis became its fifth running back to go on injured reserve, the Panthers will keep counting on their ground attack.
They set a franchise record with 299 rushing yards in a 38-23 win over Tampa Bay on Monday night, breaking the mark they established three weeks earlier with 264 yards against Detroit.
DeAngelo Williams ran for a career-high 186 yards on 19 carries Monday, and Jonathan Stewart added 115 on 15 attempts. Both runners had two touchdowns to become the first teammates in league history to gain more than 100 yards, score twice and average more than 7.0 yards per carry in the same game.
"Both of those backs have been special for us," Panthers coach John Fox said. "They're a big reason that we're sitting with the record we have. They've done a perfect job."
Williams became the third player in franchise history to top 1,000 rushing yards, and much of that has come in the past six weeks as he's run for 727 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Stewart, who has two 100-yard games in the last four weeks, is tied for the league lead among rookies with eight rushing touchdowns and is fourth with 699 yards.
Williams and Stewart could have another big day against one of the league's worst run defenses. The Broncos have given up 139.5 rushing yards per game to rank 26th in the NFL, and the team is 28th in total defense (371.3 ypg).
Williams has run for more than 100 yards in three straight home games, averaging 8.3 per carry, and the Panthers are 7-0 at Bank of America Stadium this season.
Denver has won three in a row on the road, part of its current 4-1 stretch following a three-game losing streak.
Cutler has keyed the turnaround, averaging 302.0 yards passing in the last five games while throwing eight touchdown passes and four interceptions. He's 321 passing yards shy of joining Jake Plummer and John Elway as the only Denver quarterbacks to throw for 4,000 in a season, and 410 away from Plummer's franchise record from 2004.
The league's third-highest rated passer leads an offense which averages 393.5 yards per game to rank second in the league to New Orleans.
Denver has done that despite having to use a myriad of running backs. Hillis, a seventh-round pick in this year's draft, seemed to solidify the position recently and had become the team's leading rusher. However, Hillis was lost for the season to a torn hamstring suffered in last Sunday's 24-17 win over Kansas City.
"We lost a lot," Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said. "Any time you lose a guy that can catch the football, it's not good. He has proven he was a tough runner."
Hillis ran for 343 yards and five touchdowns, and had 14 catches for 179 yards. He had a score in each of the last four games and also became the first Broncos rookie to have a 100-yard rushing game and a 100-yard receiving performance in the same season.
Tatum Bell, who had a season-high 52 yards on 11 carries against Kansas City, will take Hillis' place. Bell rushed for 1,025 yards in 2006 for Denver but spent last season in Detroit. He was selling cell phones in a nearby mall before the Broncos signed him last month.
"We've got T-Speed back there," Broncos receiver Brandon Marshall said. "Hillis has been doing a great job, and that's the only thing keeping Tatum on the sideline. He's a premier back in this league, and I'm excited to see what he's going to do."
The Broncos have won both previous meetings with the Panthers, including a 20-17 victory at home on Oct. 10, 2004. Denver hasn't played in Charlotte since Nov. 9, 1997 in a 34-0 victory.
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Running games will be key for Denver, Carolina
This is a battle of division leaders who want to improve their chances of gaining home-field advantage for the postseason. The Panthers currently hold the second seed in the NFC, but they have only a one-game lead over second-place Tampa Bay in the NFC South. Carolina does not want to allow Tampa Bay or Atlanta to catch up and take over the division title, so the Panthers will be playing with a lot at stake. The Broncos have the AFC West pretty much wrapped up but want to head into the playoffs on a roll. Denver's passing offense can be one of the most explosive units in the NFL; Carolina gave up more than 300 yards in Week 14 to Tampa QB Jeff Garcia, with WR Antonio Bryant gaining 200.
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|Avg Points Allowed||26.1||18.9|
Team Averages & NFL Ranks
|TEAM OFFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|TEAM DEFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|Pass Yds Allowed||DEN|
|Rush Yds Allowed||DEN|
Head to Head Matchups (Since 2001)
|Series tied 1-1|
|Oct 10, 2004||DEN 20, CAR 17|