Fox returns to Charlotte as Broncos visit Panthers
For nine seasons John Fox lurked the sidelines at Bank of America Stadium and along the way became the winningest head coach in Carolina Panthers history.
This Sunday, however, Fox will be patrolling the opposite sideline as he leads his Denver Broncos into Charlotte to face the 2-6 Panthers.
Fox had a 73-71 record in the regular season during his tenure in Carolina, earning 43 more wins than Dom Capers, who is second in the team's annals. Although they eventually came up short against the New England Patriots, Fox also led the Panthers to their only Super Bowl appearance in 2003.
Yet, despite all his time living and coaching in North Carolina, Fox has tried to downplay his return to Charlotte by calling it a "business trip" in a conference call earlier this week.
"I've been at this for 25 years and I've had a lot of homecomings so it'll be good to get back and see some old friends and relationships I built over nine years there," Fox added during the conference call.
Fox's time in Carolina came to an end after a 2-14 season in 2010 that marked the fourth time in five years the team had failed to qualify for the postseason.
Now in his second season with the Broncos, Fox is aiming for a second straight postseason berth. Denver made it to the playoffs last year by winning the AFC West with an 8-8 record and Fox has the team in first place again with a 5-3 mark in 2012.
While Fox's troops ride a three-game winning streak into his old stomping grounds, his former team had lost five in a row before they righted themselves with last week's 21-13 win in Washington.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Fox built a reputation in Carolina as a sharp defensive mind who played it conservatively on offense by pounding the ball on the ground. However, since quarterback Peyton Manning came to Denver, Fox's offensive strategy has been altered accordingly.
Manning is currently leading the league with a 108.6 quarterback rating and is the overwhelming favorite for the NFL Comeback Player of the Year Award. The 11-time Pro Bowler has seemingly put the injuries that caused him to miss all of last season behind him and Manning's play has validated John Elway's decision to lure the QB to the Rocky Mountain State.
Behind Manning's arm, the Broncos have the third-rated offense in the NFL and the club's passing attack is ranked fourth with an average of 292.6 yards per game through the air.
Manning's deadliest weapon this season has been wideout Demaryius Thomas, whose 16.8 yards per catch is the best average in the NFL among players with 40 or more receptions.
Thomas has 46 catches on the season, leaving him one reception behind Eric Decker for the team lead. Decker has been limited in practice this week due to a thigh issue, but he is expected to play.
Manning has thrown for three TDs in each of his last five games, but had his streak of 300-yard games last week in Cincinnati when he had 291 yards to go with three TDs and two interceptions. All told, Manning has 20 TD passes and six interceptions this season.
The four-time NFL MVP only needs one TD pass this week to tie Dan Marino for second place on the all-time list. Marino threw for 420 TDs during his Hall of Fame career for the Miami Dolphins.
"Peyton Manning obviously is a great quarterback, a Hall of Famer who has all the hype coming in, but as a defense we're looking at him as 'QB,'" said Panthers cornerback Josh Thomas. "We understand who he is, but we're going to continue doing what we do and be disciplined and sound and consistent."
However, Manning and his receivers are facing a Carolina team that has done a solid job against the pass this season. The Panthers have the 13th-best defense in the NFL and they hold the same ranking against the pass. Carolina is also seventh in the league with 24 sacks, although it may prove difficult to get to Manning, who has only been sacked 10 times this year.
"They have a lot of sacks," Manning said earlier this week. "Most of those sacks have come just by rushing four, which tells you they can get pressure with just rushing four. But they have all the blitzes as well. I think we've got a real challenge up front, running the ball and pass-protecting against their front seven. Hopefully we will step up to that challenge."
While, Manning has reestablished himself as one of the NFL's best QBs, Carolina signal-caller Cam Newton has been going backwards during his sophomore season. Like Manning, Newton was a No. 1 overall pick and the Auburn product burst onto the NFL scene in 2011 with a 4,000-yard season that helped him win the AP Offensive Player of the Year Award.
Halfway through this season, Newton has 1,902 yards to go with just six TDs and eight interceptions. As a rookie, Newton had 21 TDs and 17 INTs.
Newton heaped praise on Manning this week and is eager to prove he can hang in there against a football legend.
"He's transcended to a god of the game, so to speak," Newton said. "He's obviously a Hall of Fame quarterback. What he has done for this game and the records he has set are extraordinary. It's going to be exciting to watch, but I'm not wishing him any luck for this game."
Newton's mobility could help him avoid a relentless pass rush that features Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil, but he'll still have his work cut out against a Denver team that is ranked 10th against the pass this season.
With Manning firing on all cylinders it appears Fox is poised to have a pleasant return to Charlotte on Sunday. That said, the Panthers' D should be able to make things difficult for the Broncos' passing game at the start before Manning inevitably throws for over 250 yards and at least two TDs.
Although Newton is coming off one of his more efficient games of the season last week against Washington, but his struggles will likely return this Sunday against a team with a much better pass rush.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Broncos 24, Panthers 17