By HOGAN LEPORE
The big game is upon us. The 50th anniversary of the NFL’s Super Bowl is Sunday, in San Francisco. The two teams looking to take home the Lombardi trophy are the Carolina Panthers, representing the NFC, and the Denver Broncos, representing the AFC. Both organizations share the same aspiration, win the Super Bowl. However, along with similarities, each have many differences.
The most common formula, known around the league by every executive, for winning the Lombardi Trophy is having a steady run game and an elite defense. These two teams share those characteristics, which just happens to be the biggest reason they are both in San Francisco. Denver was led by their defense all season, leading the league in yards per game (283.1) and in passing yards per game (199.6). Historically, their defense was one of the best to ever do it, despite their moderate strength of schedule.
The Broncos have not had all-time great, soon-to-be Hall of Famer Peyton Manning under center all season and Denver has had a unique road to the big game. Denver started hot out of the gate at 7-0. During this win-streak, Manning was playing particularly bad, only throwing seven touchdowns and 11 interceptions, with a passer rating of 75.7. The Broncos went on to win five of their last nine games with Manning being benched in Week 10, then sitting out with a foot injury until Week 17.
During the Broncos’ final stretch of the season, backup quarterback Brock Osweiler filled in for Manning and did quite well for a man replacing a legend. In fact, in just his second career start, the Arizona State alum managed to beat Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in a snowy, overtime victory thanks to a 49-yard touchdown run by C.J. Anderson.
After a great run, Osweiler relinquished his starting spot to Manning after Manning recovered from his injury. Later, Manning beat Brady in the AFC Championship game to return to the Super Bowl for another shot at the Lombardi trophy.
The Panthers, led by linebacker Luke Kuechly and quarterback Cam Newton, started the season on a hot streak and finished on that very same streak. Carolina did not lose a game until Week 16 against the Atlanta Falcons, which would prove to be the Panthers’ lone loss of the season.
Carolina had a season where their offense, defense and special teams clicked in almost every game, which has helped lead to their success, but it is also a formula of a great team playing a lackluster schedule. According to CBS Sports, the Carolina Panthers had the sixth easiest schedule in the NFL this season. Not trying to knock what the Panthers accomplished, but that ranking does factor into their winning habits.
The Panthers did lean on their offense to get them out jams more often than not. Numerous times this season Carolina would jump out to a big lead, only to see the opposition climb back within seven points. A few references would be contests against the Colts, Packers and Giants.
Although this statistic can depict Carolina’s defense as a liability, their defense is anything but. The Panther defense is an asset, even the word “asset” in an understatement. Their front seven is full of early round talents like Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, Kawann Short, Shaq Thompson, Star Lotulelei and Kony Ealy.
So with a little background information, the Super Bowl will be a matchup between the defensive minded Broncos and the offensive minded Panthers.
Three key matchups for the Super Bowl are 1) the Broncos’ run game against the Panthers’ front,
2) Broncos’ man coverage against Cam Newton and 3) Panthers’ receivers against Denver’s secondary.
To start off, let’s talk about the Broncos’ ground game. If Denver can sustain a run game they will have a great shot at a championship. The main reason they defeated the Patriots is because of their ability to run the football. Although Denver did not devastate New England with their running game, they were able to run the ball effectively when they needed to, racking up 99 yards on the ground. They must establish a running game early. It will be tough sledding again against a tough front seven of Carolina, as stated earlier, but it is monumental in their success in Super Bowl 50.
Another key matchup in this highly anticipated contest will be Denver’s man coverage. Not only against Carolina’s wideouts but also against Cam Newton. Newton usually finds a way to exploit defenses who dangerously choose to play man coverage with no one spying the potential MVP.
Really, the whole matchup is the Denver defense containing Newton. You could also put pressuring the Panthers’ quarterback in this category as well. If the Broncos wish to contain Newton, they must get pressure up the middle with Derek Wolfe, Sylvester Williams and Malik Jackson. The reason they want pressure right up the middle is because pressure through the “A” and “B” gaps prevents Newton from climbing the pocket and scrambling.
The last key matchup in the Super Bowl is the Panthers’ receivers, as they try to separate from Denver’s secondary. Carolina’s young receiving corps has been a bit of a surprise. After rookie standout Kelvin Benjamin went down in training camp, many thought the Panthers had the least amount of depth at the wide receiver position in the entire NFL. As a very young group, most did not expect much out of the inexperienced group of route runners, however the group excelled.
Ted Ginn Jr. has resurrected his career in Carolina and is an integral part of this explosive offense. Devin Funchess, a second round rookie out of Michigan, has also stepped up quite well in the absence of Benjamin. It is extremely important for these pass catchers to get open against this remarkable Broncos’ secondary.
These three matchups will most likely decide who will be hoisting the Lombardi trophy by the end of the night, so train yourself to watch these important matchups on Sunday night. Predictions are never certain, obviously, however they are interesting to view. Experts of ESPN, Jeff Legwold and David Newton weighed in on the game.
Legwold believes the Denver Broncos will be NFL Champions due to the fact that this might be Manning’s “last rodeo,” and Denver has enough talent and muse to pull out a victory. Broncos 24, Panthers 21 (According to ESPN.com).
On the other hand, David Newton decided to go with Cam. David Newton believes Cam Newton and the rest of that Carolina football team has the “it” factor and it is their time to win a football championship. Panthers 24, Broncos 14 (According to ESPN.com).
My prediction is that the Denver Broncos’ have enough on defense to stop Newton and the Panthers, thus winning the Super Bowl. Bringing Peyton Manning his second championship and DeMarcus Ware’s well-deserved first. Broncos 27, Panthers 20.