KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:15 ET
TV: FOX, Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Cris Collinsworth, Pam Oliver SERIES: 2nd meeting. Broncos lead series 1-0. The Broncos won the only other meeting 34-0 on Nov. 9, 1999, behind two punt returns for touchdowns by Darien Gordon.
2004 RANKINGS: Panthers: offense 13th (25th rush, 9th pass); defense 7th (29th rush, 3rd pass). Broncos: offense 14th (18th rush, 12th pass); defense 2nd (14th rush, 2nd pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Panthers had better score early and stay in the game because the Broncos have allowed just three fourth-quarter points this season. Carolina is expected to get RB Stephen Davis back for at least a few carries and will team with DeShaun Foster for plenty of carries because the strength of the Broncos' defense is the secondary.
The Panthers defense allowed 165 yards and two touchdowns on the ground last week against Atlanta, and will face a similar run-blocking scheme in Denver, where current Falcons offensive line coach Joe Gibbs built his reputation with stretch runs and cut blocks. Denver used RB Reuben Droughns in one-back sets last week as it tries to improve a ground game that has averaged just 2.8 yards per carry the past three games.
FAST FACTS: Panthers: DE Mike Rucker has yet to record a sack this season. Broncos: QB Jake Plummer has thrown 116 passes since his last interception. ... Won the only previous meeting, 34-0, in 1997. ... WR Rod Smith needs three touchdown receptions to pass TE Shannon Sharpe (55) for the most in franchise history.
PREDICTION: Broncos 23-16
--RB Rod Smart (knee) has been downgraded from questionable to doubtful and will not play this Sunday against the Denver Broncos. Smart, recovering from a knee sprain, has not practiced this week.
--DT Brentson Buckner was limited in practice on Thursday and his status remains up in the air for Sunday. But look for Buckner to play as long as the knee doesn't swell on him.
--LB Mark Fields remains a big question mark for the Panthers after sitting out the last two practices with back spasms.
--LB Brandon Short would start this week if Mark Fields isn't able to play because of back spasms. Short played almost the entire game last week because Fields had to leave after the first series with back spasms.
--RB Stephen Davis has been limited in practice this week, but said he expects to play on Sunday. However, don't count him in quite yet. In all likelihood, Panthers head coach John Fox will make a game-time decision.
--RB DeShaun Foster will see a reduction in carries if Stephen Davis returns this week.
--WR Karl Hankton remains sidelined with a hamstring injury, but it is likely he will play on Sunday.
--RB Quentin Griffin missed his second straight day of practice on Thursday, lessening his chances of playing on Sunday. Griffin sprained his ankle against Tampa Bay last week. Reuben Droughns, Tatum Bell and Garrison Hearst would see their workload increase if Griffin can't play. Griffin will try to practice Friday.
--CB Lenny Walls has practiced for a couple of weeks after dislocating his shoulder in Denver's first game, but the Broncos will make sure he is 100 percent before he is put back in the lineup. The Broncos' pass defense has been very good even without Walls.
--FB Reuben Droughns could get more carries than usual if Quentin Griffin is unable to play, which will add to his already large workload. Droughns in a key special-teams player for the Broncos, and is the team's primary kickoff returner.
--DE Trevor Pryce, who had back surgery on Sept. 22, is still on track to return four-to-six weeks after his surgery, Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said. Denver's defensive line has played well in Pryce's absence, but will get a boost when the former Pro Bowler returns.
--S Kenoy Kennedy and John Lynch have made the Broncos' defense tough to read this season because they are interchangeable at free and strong safety. Either Lynch or Kennedy, both hard hitters, could line up near the line of scrimmage to blitz or provide extra support against the run.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
So what will it take to keep Stephen Davis out of Sunday's game against the Denver Broncos?
"A hurricane. Maybe a tornado or something," Davis said.
Davis' comments aside, the final decision on his playing status will be up to Panthers coach John Fox on whether to risk playing him this week or wait until next Sunday's game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Fox anticipates it will be a game-time decision.
Davis was originally scheduled to miss two to five weeks, so he's right on schedule in his rehab. This Friday will mark three weeks since he had surgery.
He practiced both Wednesday and Thursday, but was limited in the amount of reps he received. Part of that is the team didn't want to risk contact on his knee, a sign that he may still have some healing to do.
However, Davis has said he hasn't had any swelling in his knee.
"My whole thing was to get (the surgery) done as soon as possible and get it better and get back in there," Davis said. "Right now I'm doing everything I need to do to get myself back on the field."
DeShaun Foster has started the last two games for the Panthers, running for a combined 225 yards and two touchdowns on 51 carries.
Davis, who ran for a career-high 1,444 yards last year for the Panthers, has missed the last two games following knee surgery to repair torn cartilage.
If Davis can't play, Foster will start and Nick Goings will be the backup. Rod Smart will not play this week.
"Stephen is going to hit the hole and fall forward for one or two more yards," said fullback Brad Hoover. "DeShaun is a little more scattier and he'll try to bounce it... He's hit some big runs, believe me, and some of those runs have been from bouncing. But eventually you are going to get burnt doing something like that.
"The whole thing in the NFL is technique, especially on defense. If they play their assignment, a lot of times those runs don't work. That's the chances you take. But they have two different styles."
Broncos offensive tackle George Foster will get his biggest test as a pro on Sunday.
Foster, a 2003 first-round pick who was only active for one game last season but was put into the starting lineup at right tackle this past offseason, will spend most of his day blocking Panthers end Julius Peppers.
The matchup will be power vs. athleticism. Foster, at 6-feet-5, 338 pounds, outweighs the explosive Peppers by 48 pounds.
"Peppers is a tremendous athlete for a guy that size," Foster said. "It should be a good test."
Foster and the rest of the offensive line has been solid protecting quarterback Jake Plummer this season. The Broncos have allowed only two sacks in four games.
"I think so far, we'll take it right now because we're 3-1," Foster said. "But definitely not where we want to be."
Left tackle Matt Lepsis will have a tough assignment as well, blocking end Mike Rucker. Lepsis, who moved from right tackle to the left side this season, played well last week against Buccaneers end Simeon Rice.
The Broncos' line is helped by the offensive scheme, which is designed to get Plummer on the move and Plummer's elusiveness is a benefit when he does get pressured. But the line deserves credit for keeping Plummer clean.
"Our guys up front are protecting well, they're getting better each game," Plummer said. "If we keep it like that I'll be happy."
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