Panthers coach Ron Rivera was able to soak in Sunday's win against Washington until Monday afternoon, when a reporter asked him about facing Peyton Manning this week.
“Well, I wanted to enjoy this a little longer,” Rivera said, laughing.
Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott turned the page on the Panthers' victory even sooner.
“I already told my wife, 'I’ll see you Saturday before we go to the team hotel. You can thank Peyton Manning for that,'“ McDermott said.
Welcome to Denver week.
Fresh off their first win since Sept. 16, the Panthers (2-6) began preparations Monday for the game many Carolina fans have had circled for months – a visit from Manning and former Panthers coach John Fox, who led Denver to a playoff win last year and has the Broncos (5-3) in first place in the AFC West.
Fox coached the Panthers for nine seasons, taking them to two NFC Championship games and their only Super Bowl appearance. But Fox failed to post consecutive winning seasons – none of the four coaches in team history has done so – and went through the 2010 season as a lame duck after the Panthers dumped high-salaried players.
The Panthers went an NFL-worst 2-14 – the only time a Fox-coached team finished worse than 7-9 – and he and his staff were gone the day after the season ended. A little more than a week later, Broncos chief football executive John Elway hired Fox, the winningest coach in Panthers' history with a 78-74 mark, including playoff games.
Fox, 57, has eight former Carolina assistants on his Broncos staff, including all three coordinators – Jack Del Rio (defense), Mike McCoy (offense) and Jeff Rodgers (special teams).
Rivera, who succeeded Fox, tried to downplay the Fox storyline.
“I know coach Fox. I have a little bit of background with him,” Rivera said. “But the nice thing about that though is that he and I don't have to go out and line up on the field.
“This week is about the players playing against each other. It'll be our offense against their defense, (our) defense against (their) offense and our special teams playing against one another. Just from my point of view, the less we say about that the better. I really think this is about the players.”
Many on the Panthers' roster played for Fox, who still has a house in Quail Hollow.
“It's going to be an emotional game. I was with coach Fox for a long time and I know what kind of guy he is,” linebacker Thomas Davis said. “And they have a few other coaches on that staff that we have a lot of respect for. And they have a guy at quarterback in Peyton Manning that's been playing extremely well. So we definitely know we've got to be ready for them.”
Since Carolina fell to Atlanta 30-28 in Week 4, the Panthers' defense has been one of the league's best, ranking fourth in total defense (292.3 yards a game) and pass defense (189.0) and fifth in points allowed (17.8).
The stretch has coincided with the loss of a pair of veteran starters – cornerback Chris Gamble and linebacker Jon Beason, who tried to play through injuries the first month. The Panthers shifted rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly from the weakside to the middle and replaced Gamble with Captain Munnerlyn. They have used the same defensive lineup four weeks in a row.
Rivera said that continuity has been key to the improvement.
“Three or four weeks ago, I think we settled in,” Rivera said. “We've had to put a couple of guys on IR. We're no longer wondering if they're going to play. We've started the same group three weeks in a row, maybe four. That's been big.
“We've found our identity.”
The Panthers held Redskins rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III in check in Sunday's 21-13 win. Griffin's longest completion covered 25 yards, his longest run covered 9 yards, and he finished with his lowest quarterback rating (74.2).
Now the Panthers face Manning, the NFL's highest-rated passer who has thrown for 2,404 yards and 20 touchdowns in his first year with Denver after missing last season after a series of neck surgeries.
“Listen, this is one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, and that’s the challenge,” McDermott said. “But it’s going to be our team versus their team, not just Carolina versus Peyton Manning. But we have immense amount of respect for what he’s done, as well as what he’s done this year coming back from the injury. And we’re going to have our hands full.”
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