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Broncos 36, Panthers 14: Three observations

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Three observations from the Broncos’ 36-14 dismantling of the Carolina Panthers here at Bank of America Stadium here Sunday:

1. THERE’S PRESSURE EVERYWHERE:

The zone-read option was never a problem for the Broncos. When Cam Newton and the Panthers went to it, they stood their ground patiently. When they abandoned it, the Broncos attacked, and it didn’t matter that Elvis Dumervil was watching from the sideline with a shoulder injury that he said “hurt pretty bad.”

Denver finished with seven sacks — the most for the Broncos since Oct. 12, 2003 — seven hits of Newton and 10 tackles for losses. But that doesn’t begin to tell the story of the Broncos’ work; which included sacks from six different players: Dumervil, Von Miller, Kevin Vickerson, Robert Ayers, Chris Harris and Mike Adams, who notched a safety to put Denver up 29-7.

It was pressure from Miller that set up what ended up being the knockout punch, a 40-yard Tony Carter interception return that squelched the Panthers’ last realistic chance to build momentum in time for a comeback. One play earlier, Peyton Manning had fumbled after being sacked by Carolina defensive end Charles Johnson, who had beaten Denver right tackle Orlando Franklin easily for the sack.

But Miller’s pressure on Newton altered a pass to Carolina receiver Brandon LaFell, and the Panthers gave momentum right back and never drew closer than 15 points from that point forward.

“We do our job by covering; they do their job by rushing. It goes hand-in-hand,” said Carter, who became the first Bronco since Steve Foley in 1984 to return a fumble and interception for a touchdown in the same season.

2. HOLLIDAY’S IN:

Two returns for touchdowns in two games means that punt returner/kickoff returner Trindon Holliday is back to his torrid preseason pace for Houston — and this could be just the beginning for the darting sprite who has spent the last two weeks making the Bengals and Panthers look plodding.

But then again, even Denver’s wide receivers look like plow horses next to Holliday, whose 9.98-second time for the 100-meter dash means that the description “world class” isn’t hyperbole, but rooted in fact, since it put him in position to make a bid at the Olympics.

“My guys did a great job blocking for me,” Holliday said. “I saw my guys blocking to the right, I saw my hole and I just hit it.”

Sure, Holliday continues to flirt with disaster; he has a habit of backtracking before accelerating upfield, nearly fumbled (but it was caused by the ground, so it was of no harm) and causally flipped the football just before crossing the goal line Sunday, meaning that his touchdown should have been ruled a touchback since the ball dribbled out of the end zone.

“I thought I had crossed the goal line,” Holliday said. “Coach told me, ‘Next time I cross the goal line, just bring him the football.’”

But he is the Broncos’ most electric returner since … since … dare we say Rick Upchurch? He certainly looks — and plays the part.

“After I break the first wave, it’s pretty much overwith,” Holliday said. “I’ve just got to find out where my guys are blocking and make it happen.”

3. SWAGGER.

There’s nothing wrong with a little harmless needling — like what Miller and Carter did Sunday in lampooning Cam Newton’s Superman celebrations after a sack and interception return for a touchdown, respectively.

Newton’s celebrations set himself up for such a response. But when you’re winning, you’re entitled to respond in kind. There’s nothing wrong with quiet self-confidence, but a little boastfulness is a healthy thing. At least now, with the Broncos rolling along with a four-game winning streak and a 136-51 scoring margin since halftime at San Diego, the Broncos have the game to back up such demonstrations — unlike the Panthers and Newton.

AND A FOURTH — WHAT HAPPENED TO THE PANTHERS I USED TO KNOW?

I joked with two Charlotte-area media types that when I worked for the team, it wasn’t like this; they went 13-4 at home during my two seasons with the club. Sure, I covered a natural disaster — the 33-13 divisional-playoff shellacking to Arizona in January 2009, when Jake Delhomme threw five interceptions and lost a fumble springs to mind — but nothing like the sustained period of mistake-prone, barely competent football that the Panthers have placed onto their ledger in recent years.

As the clock ran out Sunday, team owner Jerry Richardson was caught by CBS cameras in a lengthy discussion with president Danny Morrison, his self-appointed right-hand man who handles the daily operations of the Panthers. One can only speculate as to their conversation topic, but neither could have been pleased at how poor their team looked — especially at the hands of the coach they strung along and dumped in 2010. Fox’s staff is flooded with ex-Panthers assistants, and all are flourishing as the Panthers flail without their institutional knowledge and expertise.

Fox wasn’t going to show any superfluous mercy on his old team, not when the Broncos called a bomb up the right sideline to Demaryius Thomas on a third-down play with 3:46 remaining and a 15-point lead — although it must be said that it was a two-score game, and that kind of deep pass was tactically a low-risk play; if it’s intercepted, it’s as good as a punt.

This was his team’s day. It was his day, as evidenced by the game ball he was given by Broncos owner Pat Bowlen. And now, unburdened by the past, his team steams toward the loftiest of goals, while the Panthers are left fumbling at the foot of the standings. They are a team playing well below its talent level in a disappointing season that has turned downright depressing, made all the more so by a visible reminder of what was — and what might have been — standing on the other sideline.

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