After 17 weeks of the regular season followed by three weeks of playoff action, Super Bowl 50 has been set with the NFC Champion Carolina Panthers taking on the AFC Champion Denver Broncos to determine which will stand atop the NFL mountain.
The Panthers reached this point with one of the most impressive seasons in recent memory. They won a franchise-record 15 games during the regular season, dominated the Seattle Seahawks early in the divisional round and picked apart the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship Game.
The Broncos have the best story in this year's Super Bowl, with Peyton Manning possibly riding into the sunset like John Elway with a title, but they are in this position because of their top-ranked defense that led the NFL in yards allowed and held Pittsburgh and New England to a combined 34 points in two playoff games.
OddsShark lists Carolina with the advantage in its early odds.
|Sunday, Feb. 7||Panthers (-4.5)|
Super Bowl 50 Prediction
The Broncos put on a defensive show against the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, holding Tom Brady to a season-low completion percentage (48.2) and just his second multi-interception game of the year.
One reason for Brady's ineptitude, per ESPN Stats & Info, is that he was hit nearly twice as much by Denver's defense as any other opponent in a single game this season:
Tom Brady was hit a season-high 23 times Sunday. He hadn't taken more than 12 hits in a game this season prior to Sunday.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 25, 2016
Spinning that ahead to the Super Bowl, pressure from the Broncos pass rush will certainly be valuable, but they are going against a different kind of quarterback in Cam Newton.
Brady is sly in the pocket, able to step aside or up to make plays when he's comfortable. Newton is going to stand in the pocket when plays are there, but he's just as happy to tuck the ball in order to pick up yardage.
How does a defense really go about stopping this? The NFL on Twitter showed why it's so hard:
Newton is the prototypical dual-threat quarterback, because he can do so much with his arm before thinking about running. He's also the most unstoppable weapon in the NFL this season based on touchdowns, per ESPN Stats & Info:
Cam Newton's 45 combined passing and rushing touchdowns were most in the NFL and more than 27 of the other 31 TEAMS pic.twitter.com/lVKKrsiX4s— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 20, 2016
Defenses can't just plan to attack the pocket with Newton, because once he slips past the first defender, he's going to be in the open field. Denver defensive coordinator Wade Phillips came up with a perfect plan against New England.
However, moving into the trenches, Carolina's offensive line is vastly superior to what Brady had protecting him. According to Khaled Elsayed of Pro Football Focus, the Patriots offensive line ranked 25th during the regular season, compared to second for the Panthers:
The tackles are the weak spot of this (Carolina's) line, but not so weak where it really matters for them (pass protection). The strength is obviously the interior, where Andrew Norwell (building on a successful rookie year), [Trai] Turner, and Ryan Kalil are amongst the best at their position. They’re a foundation for success on the line.
By the way, Carolina's defense is pretty good too. That group didn't lead the NFL in yards or points this season, but they were sixth in both of those categories and had a knack for stealing the ball from opponents.
|24 (Most in NFL)||15 (T-Most in NFL)||Plus-20 (Best in NFL)|
Usually a defense that relies on turnovers to succeed is prone to crumbling, but the Panthers are different because they have proven capable of stopping opponents in addition to forcing them into making mistakes.
This all paints a rosy picture of the Panthers, but the Broncos are a pretty talented group on their own. This year's Denver team is better equipped for the Super Bowl than the one Seattle blew out two years ago, because it doesn't need to rely solely on Manning.
Manning vs. Brady got all the headlines for the AFC Championship Game, but the dirty little secret few people will mention is Manning wasn't that good. He limited mistakes against the Patriots, yet this is still a quarterback who completed 53.1 percent of his passes and averaged 5.5 yards per attempt.
Instead, the Broncos must turn to their running game to find consistent success on offense. C.J. Anderson wasn't asked to do a lot against New England, but he did have 72 yards on 16 carries and is averaging 5.7 yards per carry over the last four games dating back to the regular season.
Running the ball allows Denver to dictate the pace, while the defense has to enforce its will against Newton. Von Miller, who missed the Super Bowl two years ago with a knee injury, was all over the field against New England.
The problem facing Denver in this game, aside from Newton, is Carolina looks like a better version of the Broncos.
The Panthers may not have the same ferocious defense as Denver, but they make simple plays look easy and are aggressive in smart ways. They have a more versatile offense, with Newton and Jonathan Stewart causing problems out of the backfield, and they have proven in the playoffs that they can score against anyone.
Unless Manning can find a way to make plays in the second half, which he really didn't do against the Patriots, it's going to be hard for Denver to keep pace with Carolina in the Super Bowl. As Newton said after the game, the Panthers aren't just along for the ride, per ESPN.com.
"Yeah, we are going to the Super Bowl. We are not going just to take pictures," he said. "We've been dreaming about this moment since Day 1. Our pen has a lot more ink left."
The Panthers have been the NFL's best team all season, continued to dominate in the playoffs and will ride their talent and momentum to the franchise's first championship.
Panthers 27, Broncos 17
Stats per ESPN.com unless otherwise noted.