Denver Broncos (8-5) at Carolina Panthers (10-3)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:15 ET
TV: CBS (Dick Enberg, Randy Cross, Dan Fouts)
SERIES: 3rd regular-season meeting. Broncos lead series, 2-0, with both games coming in Denver. The Broncos have never played at Carolina in the regular season, but played two preseason games there. One was at Clemson, S.C., during the Panthers' 1995 expansion season and the other was in Charlotte in 1997.
PREDICTION: Panthers 31-26
KEYS TO THE GAME: Denver's defense knows what's coming - a whole lot of Panthers RBs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart attacking Denver's run defense allowing 139.5 yards per game. The injury report will play a big role. Denver hopes LB D.J. Williams can return to help combat the ground game, while CB Champ Bailey's status could go until game-time as the Broncos seek to get their top cover man back in time to battle Panthers WR Steve Smith. ... The Broncos are down to RB Tatum Bell as their featured back, but they can't afford to be too one-dimensional. As QB Jay Cutler goes, so goes the offense. But if Denver can't establish a running game, the defense is going to tire out against Carolina's run-based attack. A great matchup is Panthers DE Julius Peppers, who has already tied his career high with 13 sacks, working against Broncos rookie LT Ryan Clady, who has been charged with just a half-sack on Cutler's blind side.
KEY INJURIES: Broncos: Bailey (groin) will attempt to practice full late in the week; Williams (knee) is practicing and could play; WR Brandon Stokley (heel) is uncertain; RB Selvin Young (groin) could return this week. Panthers: LB Adam Seward (ankle) is uncertain.
FAST FACTS: The Broncos have won both previous meetings, although this will be their first trip to Carolina. ... Denver wins the AFC West with a win or a loss by San Diego. ... The Panthers clinch a playoff spot with a win and a loss by Dallas or Atlanta.
--CB Champ Bailey was limited in practice for a second straight day. His injured groin will be tested before Denver's game on Sunday. The Broncos have been cautious with him since he hurt his groin on Oct. 20, and will be careful once again this week.
--FB Spencer Larsen missed practices on Wednesday and Thursday with a groin injury and might miss Sunday's game against Carolina. If he can't play, Andrew Pinnock could be active for the first time since the Broncos signed him to play fullback.
--RB Selvin Young went through his second straight full practice on Thursday and could be ready to return from a groin injury. His role might be limited as he works his way back into football shape.
--WR Brandon Stokley practiced on Thursday, after missing Wednesday with a heel injury. He was limited in Thursday's practice, but has a chance to play Sunday at Carolina.
--DE Tim Crowder, a 2007 second-round pick, hasn't played since Oct. 20. He has been inactive every week since the bye. He'll get a chance to work back into Denver's plans next training camp, but this has been a wasted year.
--QB Jake Delhomme has won four straight against the AFC.
--RBs Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams have run for 100 yards each in their last two home games.
--DE Julius Peppers has 12.5 sacks in his last 11 starts. The Broncos will pass the ball probably 40 or more times, but have allowed just eight sacks all season.
--DE Hilee Taylor did not practice Thursday (calf) and looks like a scratch this week.
--LB Adam Seward did not practice on Thursday and will likely miss his third straight game with an ankle injury.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
The Broncos have a lot of respect for Carolina receiver Steve Smith, who they'll have to slow down on Sunday.
Smith has six 100-yard performances in his last eight games and had nine catches and a touchdown against Tampa Bay on Monday night.
"He is a complete football player," Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said. "He can do it all, beat you one-on-one, in the press and in the two-deep (zone). He competes in the running game and takes pride in everything he does. If you are looking for a great wide receiver, his picture is next to it."
Champ Bailey could return from a groin injury this week, but he hasn't played since Oct. 20 and it would be a lot to ask him to match up with Smith even if he does play. The Broncos would likely use Dre' Bly on Smith for most of the game.
"As a competitor you have to thrive in situations like that and look forward to it," Bly said. "If you don't, you won't last in this league."
Bly has played some of his best games with Denver since Bailey has been out. In the six games the Broncos have played without Bailey, they are 4-2 and have allowed 18 fewer passing yards per game.
"He's playing physical, playing the run game better than he has and doing very well in his coverage, so we're very pleased with how he stepped up," Broncos defensive coordinator Bob Slowik said.
Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams said he screwed up when he scored on a 36-yard touchdown run late in Monday night's win over Tampa Bay.
Williams' initial burst of excitement was replaced by a sinking feeling as he left the field, realizing that the smarter move -- and the move coach John Fox would have preferred -- would have been for him to stay inbounds and fall down after picking up the first down. That basically would have allowed the Panthers to run almost all of the final 2:07 on the clock and kick a field goal. The Bucs had no timeouts left at the time.
Instead, the Bucs were put in a position where, hypothetically, they could have scored, recovered an onsides kick and then scored again (and added a two-point conversion) to send the game into overtime. It never came to that, of course, as the Panthers stopped the Bucs on their final drive and then took a knee to run out the clock to preserve a 38-23 win.
When Williams left the field after his touchdown, Fox was the first one to greet him on the sidelines and spoke to him for about 10 or 15 seconds making sure he understood the error in clock management.
Not that Williams needed to be reminded. "After I scored I looked up at the clock and I knew it right then," Williams said. "(Fox) kind of looked at me and he knew that I knew. There wasn't much to talk about because I knew what I should have done. But sometimes you get caught up in working and having fun."
Williams said before the play he was more worried about picking up the first down and staying inbounds than scoring a touchdown.
"I didn't know I was going to go 36 yards for a touchdown. But I should have known situational football. But hey, things happen," Williams said. "It won't happen again."
In a game last year, Philadelphia running back Brian Westbrook was presented with the same situation against Dallas and purposely fell down at the 1-yard line although he could have easily scored a touchdown. The Eagles then proceeded to run out the clock instead of scoring.
Although Westbrook took some grief from his Fantasy Football owners, the reality is it was a smart play.
"Had I done that I would have been up here today apologizing to all of my Fantasy Football owners," Williams said with a laugh.
But with 13 rushing touchdowns on the season, Williams doesn't have to apologize to anyone, except maybe Fox.
Fox refused to talk directly about what he said to Williams, but when asked if his third-year running back should have fallen to the ground after picking up the first down, Fox grinned and said, "That would have been an option."
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