By STEVE REED
AP Sports Writer
Carolina Panthers safety Xavier Woods breaks up a pass intended for Denver Broncos wide receiver Montrell Washington during the second half of an NFL football game between the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Jacob Kupferman)
Denver Broncos running back Marlon Mack is tackled by Carolina Panthers linebacker Frankie Luvu during the second half of an NFL football game between the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Rusty Jones)
Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold (14) celebrates after scoring during the second half of an NFL football game between the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Jacob Kupferman)
Carolina Panthers running back Chuba Hubbard run past Denver Broncos cornerback Pat Surtain II during the second half of an NFL football game between the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Jacob Kupferman)
Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold recovers a fumble for a touchdown during the second half of an NFL football game between the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Rusty Jones)
Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson passes under pressure during the first half of an NFL football game between the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Rusty Jones)
Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson plays during the first half of an NFL football game between the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Rusty Jones)
Denver Broncos running back Latavius Murray runs past Carolina Panthers safety Xavier Woods during the first half of an NFL football game between the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Jacob Kupferman)
Denver Broncos running back Latavius Murray runs during the first half of an NFL football game between the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Jacob Kupferman)
Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold passes during the first half of an NFL football game between the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Rusty Jones)
Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold passes during the first half of an NFL football game between the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Rusty Jones)
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Sam Darnold has been waiting more than 10 months for another chance to prove he can lead the Carolina Panthers.
It finally came on Sunday, and he made the most of it.
Darnold threw for a touchdown and recovered his own fumble for another score in his first game since Jan. 9, helping the Panthers beat the Denver Broncos 23-10 and keep their modest playoff hopes alive heading into a bye week. Carolina (4-8) is last in the woeful NFC South but only 1 1/2 games behind division-leading Tampa Bay.
Darnold completed 11 of 19 passes for 164 yards without a turnover in his first game since losing the starting job to Baker Mayfield in training camp and then suffering a high ankle sprain in the preseason. He's the third QB to start this season for the Panthers, joining Mayfield and P.J. Walker.
''Once I got my feet wet out there and threw my first completion I felt like it was smooth sailing, especially given the way we were running the football,'' Darnold said.
The Panthers finished with 185 yards on the ground, getting 113 on 24 carries from D'Onta Foreman - his fourth 100-yard rushing performance in the last six games. That allowed Carolina to use the play-action pass effectively, and Darnold hooked up four times with D.J. Moore for 103 yards, including a 5-yard touchdown.
Darnold, who regained the starting job after Mayfield was benched, refused to say he took any vindication from the victory.
''It truly isn't about me,'' Darnold said. ''There are so many guys that have a hand in this. ... I would be silly to sit up here and take all of the credit. It was truly a team effort.''
Panthers interim coach Steve Wilks said he liked Darnold's ability to manage the game and take check-down opportunities.
''I loved how he was able to get outside of the pocket and try to win with his feet and still have his eyes down the field to execute,'' Wilks said.
Carolina's defense limited Russell Wilson to 19 of 35 passing for 142 yards and sacked him three times, sending the Broncos (3-8) to their seventh loss in eight games. Pro Bowl defensive end Brian Burns had two sacks of Wilson, including a forced fumble, and he tipped a pass at the line of scrimmage to end another drive.
Denver came in with the worst scoring offense in the league and didn't find the end zone until a 1-yard TD pass by Wilson with 3:24 left in the game, a performance sure to turn up the heat even more on embattled first-year coach Nathaniel Hackett.
Denver's frustration was evident in the fourth quarter when Wilson and defensive lineman Mike Purcell exchanged words on the sideline.
''Mike and I are on the same page,'' Wilson said. ''He came off after they kicked a field goal and he was (upset). He was like, `We've got to go.' So me and him are on the same page. There's no animosity at all. We've got to win and have some grit to us and some mentality to us and win some football games.''
The Panthers led 10-3 when Darnold drove the Panthers to the Broncos' doorstep and scored an unusual touchdown midway through the third quarter.
After faking a handoff from the 2, Darnold made a move toward the end zone and was stripped of the ball. But the QB alertly picked up the ball and then rolled into the end zone untouched for a 17-3 lead.
''That is someone who is in tune to the situation and understands the rules of the game,'' Wilks said. ''He was quick to get on the ball and then realize no one touched him.''
The Panthers put the game away early in the fourth quarter when Darnold hit Moore in stride on a 52-yard bomb along the right sideline, setting up a 26-yard field goal by Eddy Pineiro to make it a three-possession game.
''We felt like we could really run by these guys,'' Wilks said. ''As good of a secondary as they have, sometimes they sit and squat on things. So it was good to see that.''
Hackett was asked about his job security but mostly sidestepped the question.
''We all have high expectations. We want to win every football game. We all have to get better across the board. And that starts with me,'' he said
The Broncos came into the game having scored a league-low 34 points in the third quarter and did not score Sunday. Hackett said the team scripted its third-quarter plays in hopes of remedying the issue.
''That didn't work well,'' Hackett said. ''We've got to find better ones.''
The Broncos and Panthers came in as the league's worst two teams at converting third downs and nothing changed there. Carolina was 2 of 12 on third down and Denver was 4 of 14.
Broncos: LB Dakota Allen injured his hamstring.
Panthers: S Xavier Woods left with a knee injury.
Broncos: At Baltimore on Sunday.
Panthers: After a bye, visit Seattle on Dec. 11.
Interview with TFC Winner
Las Vegas Raiders general manager Dave Ziegler expects several offers for quarterback Derek Carr in the months ahead. "There's going to be people interested," stated Ziegler while speaking to SiriusXM NFL Radio. "He's been a good football player in this league for quite some time." Whether Carr has been a quality signal-caller is debatable, especially after amassing 3,522 yards, 24 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions last season while completing just 60.8% of his throws. Nevertheless, his days in Vegas are unofficially over, at least as of now. However, Carr may benefit from a change of scenery, so his fantasy outlook hinges on where he'll be playing throughout the 2023-24 campaign.
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers ruled out San Francisco as a potential landing spot. "I'm not going to San Fran," Rodgers stated while speaking at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, and it comes after the signal-caller finished the year with 3,695 yards, 26 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions, a decline from the previous season. It's unknown what the future holds for the 39-year-old, although it's possible he could remain in Green Bay or call it quits altogether. Several teams are also interested in acquiring his services, so it will surely be an intriguing offseason in the months ahead.
Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon will have his aggravated menacing charge dropped on Friday morning. Mixon's attorney, Peter Schafer, stated, "it was a rush to judgment," although it's unknown why the charges are being dropped. The former Sooner allegedly pointed a gun at another person on January 21. While Mixon won't face criminal charges, a civil suit, among other things, is still a possibility, so he isn't out of the woods just yet. The 26-year-old ran for 814 yards off 210 carries while amassing 60 catches for 441 yards. He also totaled nine touchdowns, seven few than the 2021-22 campaign. There will likely be more on this story, so it's too early to tell how this will impact Mixon's fantasy stock.
The New Orleans Saints interviewed former Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator Joe Woods for their open defensive coordinator position on Thursday, according to sources. Woods was on head coach Dennis Allen's staff with the Las Vegas Raiders in 2014. The Saints will have big changes to their defensive staff in 2023 after co-defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen took the defensive coordinator job with the Atlanta Falcons and the team parted ways with co-defensive coordinator Kris Richard. Woods was the Browns' D coordinator the last three years but was fired after 2022. Cleveland ranked 14th in yards allowed and 20th in points allowed.
Dallas Cowboys quarterbacks coach Doug Nussmeier interviewed for the Baltimore Ravens' open offensive coordinator position on Wednesday, according to multiple sources. In his three years as Dallas' QBs coach, Dak Prescott set a team record for touchdown passes in a season (37), and he had five different starters, including Cooper Rush, who went 4-1 with Prescott injured in 2022. Along with offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, the Cowboys parted ways with Nussmeier after the season. He was the team's tight ends coach for two seasons before moving to QB coach. Nussmeier has also run offenses at the collegiate level at Florida, Michigan, Alabama, Washington and Fresno State. The Ravens parted ways with offensive coordinator Greg Roman after the 2022 campaign.
The New Orleans Saints have parted ways with co-defensive coordinator/secondary coach Kris Richard, according to sources. The Saints' other co-defensive coordinator, Ryan Nielsen, recently left the team to take the defensive coordinator job with the division-rival Atlanta Falcons, so New Orleans will have big changes to their defensive coaching staff in 2023. Richard had interviews for the defensive coordinator role with the Carolina Panthers and Miami Dolphins. Neither Nielsen nor Richard called the defensive plays in 2022, as head coach Dennis Allen took care of that. With the departures of both Nielsen and Richard, the Saints will not only be looking for a new defensive coordinator, but new defensive line and secondary coaches.
Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon is wanted on aggravated menacing charges. The 26-year-old is accused of pointing a gun at a woman in downtown Cincinnati. He allegedly threatened to shoot her. This is an extremely serious situation that could cost Mixon his job. The superstar back has already been in trouble before when he punched a woman in college. There should be more information on this story as it develops.
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota (knee) is unlikely to be with the organization next season. The 29-year-old left the team after getting benched and underwent surgery on his knee. The Falcons would save $12 million by cutting Mariota before June 1st. That being said, it seems increasingly likely the Falcons will move on from Mariota. The rebuilding Falcons will likely find another veteran to stick behind youngster Desmond Ridder. As for Mariota, he should be able to catch on as a backup elsewhere, but it's hard to believe he'll find a starting job to begin the 2023 season.
Los Angeles Chargers running back Joshua Kelley could see himself with a bigger role heading into next season. New offensive coordinator Kellen Moore mentioned he saw Kelley start to develop a role in 2022. He continued by saying he is hopefully to get two or three guys in the backfield they can rely on. It sounds like Kelley is the leading candidate for the backup duties behind Austin Ekeler. Possibly, Moore gets Kelley more involved on the ground, while Ekeler becomes mainly the receiving back. It remains to be seen what the Chargers do, but Kelley could be worth holding onto in dynasty formats right now.
Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Mecole Hardman (pelvis) is unlikely to suit up for the upcoming Super Bowl against the Philadelphia Eagles. Head coach Andy Reid said he doubts Hardman will be ready in time. The 24-year-old has battled injuries all season long, but did play in the AFC Championship Game. Sadly, he re-injured his pelvis during that game, so it seems unlikely he'll be ready in time for the big game. Hardman isn't a star player, but he does have big play ability. His absence would likely mean more usage for both Kadarius Toney and JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Detroit Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn is expected to get another interview for the Arizona Cardinals' head-coaching position, according to a league source. Glenn also had a second interview for the head-coaching job for the Indianapolis Colts on Thursday, so he's in play for the final two head-coaching opportunities in the NFL this cycle. He was responsible for resurrecting Detroit's defense last season in the second half of the year. In addition to Glenn, the Cardinals interviewed Mike Kafka, Lou Anarumo and Brian Callahan for the head-coaching gig this week. Arizona is looking to replace Kliff Kingsbury, who was fired after a disappointing 2022 campaign.
Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator Shane Steichen is scheduled to have his second interview for the Indianapolis Colts' head-coaching position on Saturday. It was reported on Thursday that the Colts could have a rare third round of coaching interviews, so they're clearly taking their time with a decision. Steichen has plenty of competition for the Colts head-coach job, as Aaron Glenn, Raheem Morris, Ejiro Evero, Don Martindale, Rich Bisaccia and Brian Callahan are also in the running. The Colts fired Frank Reich, who is now the Carolina Panthers head coach, after a rough start to the 2022 season. They replaced him with interim head coach Jeff Saturday, who went 1-7 down the stretch as a first-time head coach with zero previous coaching experience in the NFL.
New York Jets impending free-agent quarterback Mike White is likely to draw interest on the open market this offseason as a high-end backup. White had his moments in 2022 after taking over for the struggling Zach Wilson, but he's injury-prone and commits too many turnovers. He has started only seven games in his NFL game, but he's averaged 308 passing yards and completed 62.1 percent of his passes in six of those starts. Former Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur preferred White as the starter over Wilson, so there's a chance the Los Angeles Rams could be interested in signing White as the backup to Matthew Stafford. The Jets will keep Wilson around for now, but they're expected to make a big splash at the position via a trade or free agency.
The Atlanta Falcons are expected to re-sign impending unrestricted free-agent wide receivers Olamide Zaccheaus and KhaDarel Hodge this offseason. Zaccheaus was second on the team with 40 catches for 533 yards in 2022. "Just an extremely unselfish guy and the kind of guy you want in your program," wide receivers coach T.J. Yates said. Hodge had just 13 receptions for 202 yards but led the team with nine special teams tackles. Both wideouts entered the league as undrafted free agents and can probably be brought back on affordable deals. Zaccheaus struggled with rookie quarterback Desmond Ridder under center over the final four games, catching just eight passes on 17 targets for 55 yards. Neither Zaccheaus nor Hodge will open the 2023 season on the fantasy radar.
It sounds as though the Atlanta Falcons haven't given up on making Feleipe Franks a tight end. The former college quarterback was moved to the tight end position last year and showed flashes during training camp, but he didn't have any catches during the regular season and was only targeted twice. Franks is under contract for less than $1 million for 2023, so the Falcons can afford to be patient with his development. It's disappointing that the 25-year-old didn't do anything at all in the passing game, especially considering Kyle Pitts' season-ending knee injury. Franks played more than five offensive snaps in a game just once in 2022. He should have a bigger offensive role in 2023, but he won't be on the fantasy radar at all unless Pitts misses time with another injury.
The Athletic's Josh Kendall writes that the consensus is that nobody outside the Atlanta Falcons building knows whether the team is committed to quarterback Desmond Ridder for the long term because no one inside the building is talking. Ridder started the final four games of 2022 and went 73-for-115 for 708 yards, two touchdowns and a 112.9 passer rating on third downs. "I don't think it's smart business strategy ever to give away what your plan is," head coach Arthur Smith said. One private QB coach watching practices at UNLV this week expressed concerns about Ridder's throwing motion and how it will affect his accuracy and arm health down the road. Ridder's QB coach Jordan Palmer, however, notes how cerebral he is and says he's "set up for success." Atlanta has the No. 8 overall pick in this year's draft and enough salary cap space to add a high-profile QB, but they could also be content to let Ridder open the 2023 season as the starter under center.
Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid is particularly optimistic that wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster (knee) and Kadarius Toney (ankle, hamstring) will be able to play in the Super Bowl on Feb. 12 against the Philadelphia Eagles. "He's in a good place," Reid said about Smith-Schuster. Smith-Schuster and Toney have yet to practice this week, but they'll have another whole week to rest up before the big game. Smith-Schuster had just one catch for seven yards in the AFC Championship before getting hurt, while Toney had a nine-yard catch. We'll have a better read on their statuses for the Super Bowl next week, but with Mecole Hardman (pelvis) unlikely to play, it could mean more work for Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Skyy Moore and Justin Watson if Smith-Schuster and Toney are limited or out.
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (ankle) said he didn't aggravate his right high-ankle sprain in the AFC Championship win over the Cincinnati Bengals and just experienced general soreness from a physical game. "Other than that, I'm in a good spot," Mahomes said. He was somehow able to practice in full all of last week leading up to the game against Cincy and also put in a full practice on Wednesday. The 27-year-old certainly wasn't 100% last weekend, but he did enough to lead the Chiefs to a win by going 29-for-43 for 326 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Mahomes should be in better shape for the Super Bowl on Feb. 12 against the Philadelphia Eagles, but his mobility probably will continue to be hindered.
Dynasty | Kyle Shanahan said he doesn't envision "any scenario" where veteran Jimmy Garoppolo returns to the team for the 2023 season. Dynasty Analysis: He called Trey Lane and Brock Purdy both "starters" and is "content enough" with the situation. Without a series of catastrophic events, Garoppolo will depart and will likely find plenty of suitors. While not a high-end producer, he's a fine game manager and should have little difficult finding an under-center role to begin the 2023 regular season. He's listed as DLF's QB29.
Dynasty | There's no indication, either way, if the Falcons see sophomore Desmond Ridder as a potential starter in 2023 Dynasty Analysis: Apparently, no one "inside the building" is talking about Ridder or the opportunity to address the position via the draft. While some times prefer to put up smoke screens, others just go quiet as is the case with the Falcons. It's still early and with the Combine taking place later this month, there's a possibility more will emerge at that time. Ridder finished under-center in the team's final four games, producing a 63.5% completion percentage, throwing for 708 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. With added mobility, Ridder does possess an intriguing skillset and it's possible he could grow into the starting role with another year of experience but, at the same time, the team possesses the 8th-overall selection in the 2023 NFL Draft and should have options if deemed necessary. Ridder is found as DLF's QB27 and this ranking hangs in the balance as the offseason plays out. A highly drafted rookie or the acquisition of a top free agent would send Ridder's dynasty stock off a cliff.