CHARLOTTE, N.C. - After watching DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart combine for 301 yards rushing and four touchdowns in Carolina Panthers' last game, Denver coach Mike Shanahan was determined to slow down one of the running backs in the league's top tandem.
Trouble is, putting eight men on the line of scrimmage leaves the dangerous Steve Smith in single coverage.
An increasingly balanced team that can pound the ball between the tackles and dazzle with the deep ball to the speedy Smith, the Panthers (11-3) have become a nightmare for opposing coaches as they march toward their first playoff berth in three seasons.
Sunday's 30-10 rout of Denver marked the Panthers' fifth straight game with at least 28 points and showed off their numerous options on offense.
When the Panthers saw the Broncos lining up with four defensive linemen and four linebackers on the first series, offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson quickly decided to use a hurry-up offense and throw deep to Smith.
Missing star cornerback Champ Bailey to a groin injury, Smith picked on Denver rookie fill-in Josh Bell. Smith caught three passes for 66 yards on the first drive, ending with a 15-yard touchdown catch.
That forced the Broncos to eventually go back to a traditional defense. Then Williams' 56-yard touchdown run early in the second half put it out of reach.
"They went to a 4-4, so they actually made a substitution for a linebacker," Panthers coach John Fox said Monday. "Sometimes that can be an adjustment as far as where you direct things. I thought our players and coaches did a great job. ... Part of that was we shifted into formations they hadn't seen before, and not huddling."
The Williams-Stewart combination (1,980 yards rushing and 23 touchdowns) has been a boon for Smith, who spent the past three seasons as Carolina's first, second and sometimes third option on offense.
Smith had nine catches for 165 yards and a TD against the Broncos, and is averaging 138.8 yards receiving in the past four games. Even though he was suspended for the first two weeks for punching teammate Ken Lucas in training camp, Smith's 1,240 yards receiving ranked third in the league through Sunday's games.
So what do opposing teams do? Double-team Smith and risk big games from Williams and Stewart, like their monster performance against Tampa Bay. Stack the line with eight defenders and Smith may feast on one-on-one and zone coverage, like he did against the Broncos.
"Stewart and Williams, they both did a great job last week and we didn't have to throw the ball," receiver Muhsin Muhammad said. "But this week there was a lot of man-to-man coverage, a lot of single safety, a lot of opportunities in the passing game."
Fox said the Panthers quickly exploited Denver's defensive scheme because their passing game has recovered from a midseason slump. Oakland also dared Carolina to pass last month, and the Panthers won 17-6 despite Jake Delhomme completing only seven of 27 passes with four interceptions.
Since then, Delhomme has just three picks in five games.
"There are a lot of working parts in the passing game. That's why I like to do it so much," the run-oriented Fox joked. "You've got to protect, you've got to get open and you've got to put it in the hoop, complete the pass."
Delhomme threw for 253 yards on Sunday as the Panthers finished 8-0 at home and set up an interesting scenario with two games left.
While the Panthers will clinch the top seed in the NFC and home-field advantage until the Super Bowl with a victory at the New York Giants (11-3) Sunday night, they still haven't locked up a playoff berth.
If the Panthers lose to the Giants and a week later at New Orleans, they'll miss the playoffs if Dallas, Tampa Bay and Atlanta all finish 2-0. That would leave all four teams 11-5 and the Panthers would lose the tiebreaker.
"The games do get better. That's the NFL," Delhomme said. "That's part of it. That's what you want. You live to play in these situations."
So does Carolina's defense. Safety Chris Harris said there was not one defensive play on the highlight film the team was shown of last week's 38-23 win over Tampa Bay, and the secondary was determined to stop being the weak link.
It didn't look good early, as quarterback Jay Cutler led the Broncos to 10 points on their first two drives. But Denver didn't score again, coming up empty on its final nine possessions.
The Panthers sacked Cutler three times, intercepted him once and forced a key fumble by Selvin Young at the end of the first half.
A deep defense, two powerful running backs and one of the league's best receivers. The combination has left the Panthers a win away from forcing the road to the Super Bowl to go through Charlotte.
"It's awesome to be a part of it," Muhammad said. "It's awesome to watch it all come together."