Sunday is a special day for the NFL in Charlotte, but not because John Fox is coming back to Carolina to coach the Denver Broncos.
We've seen Fox coach before -- nine years worth of him. He will be working the gum, listening to the the headset, slapping some hands, making a few smart and a few very conservative decisions and saying "It is what it is" in his postgame press conference. No big deal.
But Peyton Manning in Charlotte? Now that's something different. Even though Manning has been in the league since 1998, he has only played in Charlotte once. That was in 2007, when Manning led the Indianapolis Colts to a 31-7 rout of a Carolina team coached by Fox and quarterbacked by Vinny Testaverde and David Carr (i.e., the bad old days).
Manning also lost a game to the Panthers in 2003, when Carolina won on the road at Indianapolis in overtime during the Panthers' Super Bowl season under Fox.
Manning is one of those guys all NFL fans should feel slightly richer for having seen in person. So if you've got a ticket for Sunday, consider yourself lucky no matter the outcome. There's no guarantee Manning, 36, will ever play football in Charlotte again -- in fact, it's more likely that he won't.
** It's worth remembering that the Panthers once tried hard to trade for Manning. In 1998, before the draft, the Panthers offered Indianapolis and former Carolina general manager Bill Polian (then running the Colts) a slew of assets for the No.1 pick Indianapolis held. Those assets included quarterback Kerry Collins (a Polian favorite -- he had taken him in 1995 while at Carolina), wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad and some high draft picks.
The Colts thought about it, but ultimately said no. Then they took Manning.
Oh, what might have been. Collins was allowed to quit the team only a few months later by Panther coach Dom Capers and Manning became the only man ever to be a four-time NFL MVP.
** If the Panthers plan to spring this upset, they better have a lead built up once the fourth quarter rolls around. Manning has thrown nine touchdown passes and zero interceptions this year in the fourth quarter, leading Denver to a 103-23 point advantage in the last 15 minutes. That's easily tops in the NFL (Carolina has been outscored 65-36 in the fourth period).
** Two really good young linebackers are in this game -- Denver's Von Miller and Carolina's Luke Kuechly. Miller makes more splashy plays -- he is tied for the NFL lead in tackles for loss -- but Kuechly has already established himself as one of the surest tacklers in the league.
** The Broncos aren't unbeatable, as their 5-3 record will attest. Carolina has been in every game but one this season, but the Panthers are 2-6 because they are 0-5 in games decided by seven points or less.
I don't think the Broncos will utterly dominate the Panthers, but it's hard to take Cam Newton over Manning in the fourth quarter at this point in their respective careers. My prediction: Denver 27, Carolina 21.