After 50 years, the NFL's biggest game is bigger than ever. The Carolina Panthers - playing in their 2nd Super Bowl in the franchises short 19-year history - are taking the Denver Broncos, who is looking for their third title in franchise history.
Of course with every Super Bowl, storylines are in abundance. The Super Bowl is when you find out about the background story of the long-snapper or equipment manager. Over the 50 years, the Super Bowl has transformed from a championship football game to a pop culture spectacle. 189.9 million people are expected to watch Super Bowl 50 for a variety of reasons, but for the true football fans, let’s take a look to see which team will hoist the Lombardi trophy.
The Panthers are 5.5 point favorites, and rightfully so, only losing one game all season. The Panthers have 9 wins this season by at least two possessions. They are first in points per game (31.2) and 6th in total defense. The Panthers are a complete team with an old school style of football; running the ball and tough defense.
If you look at the numbers, it’s a shock that the Broncos are in the Super Bowl. Offensively, they're average at best, ranking in the middle of the pack in all major offensive rankings. Peyton Manning is having one of his worst seasons in his career and their rushing attack is ranked worse than the passing game.
Defensively, the Broncos are best in the league – 1st in total defense, 1st in pass defense, and 4th in rushing defense, and the reason why they are in the Super Bowl.
The biggest matchup will be the Panthers offensive line vs the Broncos defensive line. The Panthers offensive line is a big reason why the Panthers are in the Super Bowl, anchored by center Ryan Khalil. Khalil has the responsibility of calling out blocking assignments at the line but he is also important in the run scheme. With the Panthers zone read offense, offensive coordinator Mike Shula, son of Don Shula, includes classic run plays into the Panthers offense that has Khalil pulling out to block, something that is rare in today's era of football.
Sports Illustrated writer, Greg A. Bedard, explains how the Panthers uses run plays from past championship team and combine them with their own zone-read offense. The offenses he describes are:
Redskins Counter trey
Packers Buck Sweep
With a dynamic quarterback such as Cam Newton, it allows Shula to run these same historic plays, with in shotgun package, giving Cam the options to either keep it or hand it off. What this innovative offensive style does is keep defenses from being aggressive and staying honest, which gives Cam the option to torch them thru the air or on the ground.
Against the Broncos, who has arguably the best two pass rushers in the league will have to find a way to allow Von Miller and Demarcus Ware to play aggressive on their pursuit of Cam without missing the play. Cam doesn't generally rush to the outside, often looking for a crease in the middle to rush through but against the Cardinals in the NFC championship he scored off a an outside run, what Bedard described as a variation of the Redskins counter trey.
Miller and Ware had a field day in the AFC Championship against the Patriots, who could not stop the two All-Pro pass rushers from getting to Brady. The difference between Brady and Cam is, Cam won't sit back there for too long and this is where Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe come into the equation. Wolfe and Jackson are the two defensive ends in Wade Phillips 3-4 defense and will have to be effective in stopping the run i.e. Cam scrambling.
With Khalil being used in the run game, Wolfe and Jackson will have to disrupt the Panthers movement at the line, which has not been done all season. Even if you do disrupt the rushing attack, Cam can still sling the rock but this is where I think the Broncos can win the battle.
Without any big name receivers, the Panthers are 11th in passing offense. The Panthers biggest receiving threat was Greg Olsen, who marked a career high in receiving yards (1,104) and touchdown receptions (7). The Panthers will need their other receivers to step up if and when the Broncos decide to double Greg Olsen. With Olsen also being used in the running game, it will allow the Broncos to be aggressive in their pass coverage and blitzes.
Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. have played lights out all season, being the shutdown corners for Broncos' pass defense. Neither player will have to worry about covering a dominant receiver, unless either one is covering Olsen. Talib should be able to sit on his island with little help over the top, giving freedom to T.J. Ward and Darrien Stewart to roam and provide assistance in rush defense.
In this game, Cam will have to freelance more in order for the Panthers to not only move the chains but put point on the boards. The option offense will allow Cam to make things happen but I'm not sure if it can beat defensive coordinator like Wade Phillips. Cam has not seen a defense as dynamic as the Broncos 3-4 defense, only one comparable is the Seattle Seahawks – who was far from the Legion of Doom from 2013.
The Panthers defense should be able to create opportunities for Cam and the offense. Panthers have the best linebacker group with Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. Davis is the only player this season to have 100+ tackles, 5+ sacks, 4+ interceptions, and 4+ forced fumbles – unfortunately for the Panthers Davis broke his right arm in the NFC Championship. He is still expected to play but how effective he will be is a big question?
Luke Kuechly will play the chess battle with Peyton Manning and can possibly win it. Manning in his final season, has not been the cerebral assassin we have seen in year's past. For Kuechly this will be a chance to elevate his name into the discussion for league’s best middle linebacker.
Josh Norman will have an opportunity to add another name to his list of pro-bowl receiver he contained this season in Demariyus Thomas. Even though Peyton Manning has not been his usual self, Thomas still has 105 receptions with 1300 yards. Norman has elevated his name into the discussion of top cornerback in the league and shutdown performance against Thomas could put him in the top spot.
The Broncos offense will have to find ways to move the ball. Four players on the Panthers defense has at least four interceptions. Despite the low numbers, Manning still has to be accounted for he just need some assistance. CJ Anderson and Ronnie Hillman will have to set the tempo of the game for the Broncos – and keep Cam off the field. Head coach, Greg Kubiak, is no stranger to rushing attacks in the Super Bowl, being the offensive coordinator when Terrell Davis was named Super Bowl 32 MVP. Both Hillman and Anderson are centuries away from being effective as Davis but a steady attack will help Manning confuse the Panthers defense.
Here is my list of X-Factors:
Ted Ginn Jr. - Ginn will have to be the one that opens up the passing attack for the Panthers. Ginn has to force the Broncos secondary to play honest and keep those safeties away from the line of scrimmage.
Johnathan Stewart – If Stewart can be the bruiser back, it will open things for the passing game and allow Cam to make a few plays with the option attack.
Broncos’ offensive line – This will have to be the best game for the offensive line. If the o-line can give Manning some time, “The Sheriff” can possibly go out with a bang.
Danny Trevathan – Trevathan may be one of the most underrated players on the Broncos defense. Trevathan will need to have his best game ever and help contain Cam Newton in both the rushing and passing game.
Overall I expect a great Super Bowl. Even though both defenses are great, I see this game getting into the 30s with some late surges in the second half.