But with the NFL season entering the stretch run, neither team has much to show for it.
Russell Wilson has struggled to mesh with the Broncos (3-7) entering Sunday’s game at Carolina after being acquired in an offseason trade with the Seattle Seahawks. Likewise, 2018 No. 1 draft pick Baker Mayfield has been a flop with the Panthers (3-8) since coming over from the Cleveland Browns, prompting interim head coach Steve Wilks to bench him this week for Sam Darnold.
“It's a crazy business,” Darnold said of getting his first start of the season after being sidelined for most of the year with a high ankle sprain. "But we’re focused on the task at hand right now.”
Mayfield was 1-5 as the team's starter and Wilks is not only looking for a spark on offense, but also another chance to evaluate Darnold before he becomes an unrestricted free agent next spring. Darnold was 4-7 as Carolina's starting QB last year.
“The skill set is there,” Wilks said of Darnold. “I wanted to give him that opportunity to see what he could go out and do."
The Broncos will be keeping Wilson, for sure.
Denver is last in the league in scoring and tied with Las Vegas for last place in the AFC West after losing six games by six points or less, including a 22-16 overtime defeat to the Raiders last week.
Wilson said the Broncos still have a “relentless buy in" from players and he remains optimistic the team can turn things around this season.
“The part that we keep hanging our hat on is that we have been in every single one of these games and we feel like we should have won every single one of them," Wilson said. “As disappointing as that is, we are where we are. We have to respond and get better.”
The Broncos have a new running back rotation with the release of Melvin Gordon after his fifth fumble of the season last week that contributed to a loss to the Raiders.
Although Gordon wasn’t popular with the fan base after fumbling 12 times in 2 1/2 seasons in Denver, his waiver Monday impacted the locker room.
“Yeah, everybody was sad,” wide receiver Courtland Sutton said.
Murray ran for 49 yards on 17 carries last week against Las Vegas and has scored a rushing touchdown in three of the last four games.
North Carolina native Kendall Hinton is excelling in a bigger role with the Broncos and on Sunday the third-year wide receiver gets to play in his home state.
“A lot of people haven’t been able to see me play,” said the Wake Forest graduate, “so it’ll be exciting to do what I love in front of the people I love.”
The Demon Deacons played at the Panthers stadium in 2017, but Hinton was hurt and didn’t play.
“This will be the first time I step on the (Panthers’) field,” said Hinton, who was back on the Broncos’ practice squad in 2020 when the Broncos visited Charlotte two weeks after he was Denver’s emergency quarterback in his NFL debut.
BACK TO THE RUN
The Panthers averaged 146.2 yards per game on the ground in their previous four games under Wilks before the Ravens slammed the door on D’Onta Foreman and company this past week, limiting Carolina to 36 yards on 17 carries.
But don’t expect the Panthers to go away from the run anytime soon, especially with Darnold just getting his feet wet.
“We have to be better at the run game and I kind of put that on me,” Foreman said. “I feel like when we run the ball well, we are able to stay on the field. When we don’t run the ball well, we get off the field earlier than we want to."
STEP UP STARS
Wilks challenged his “star players” to step up and make plays and help change the culture of losing.
“One of the messages that I talked about this morning in the team meeting (is) our star players got to play like stars," Wilks said. "They need to step up. So across the board, on both sides of the ball, they need to play. And if you’re a first or second-round draft pick, you’re that for a reason. If we brought you in as a free agent, you’re a star player. Go play.”
A loss Sunday would clinch a fifth straight losing season for Carolina.
Denver has scored just 34 points in the third quarter, by far the lowest in the league. No other team has scored fewer than 57.
“Our third quarters are a big part of why we are where we are,” Wilson said. “It has slowed us down tremendously and that is something I am really focused on.”
AP Sports Writer Arnie Stapleton in Denver contributed to this report.
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Steve Reed, The Associated Press