Of course, having arguably the league’s most dominant defense on his side made beating Father Time and Tom Brady much easier for the aging legend. Now, the only thing standing in between Manning and his second career Super Bowl ring is a date with the best team in the NFL this season, the Carolina Panthers.
Cam Newton and the Panthers looked like an unstoppable force Sunday during a 49-15 evisceration of the Arizona Cardinals. It was a formidable performance that likely put the Broncos and their fans on alert, even as they celebrated their own 20-18 win over New England.
With that in mind, here is a look at the essential information for Super Bowl 50, as well as a prediction for the showdown between the No. 1 seed in the AFC and the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
Super Bowl 50
Matchup: Carolina Panthers vs. Denver Broncos
Date: Sunday, Feb. 7
Time: 6:30 p.m. ET
Location: Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California
Tickets: Super Bowl 50 tickets may become available at ScoreBig.com
The matchup between the Broncos defense and Panthers offense immediately jumps out when looking ahead to the Super Bowl, especially because of how Denver contained Brady and Newton steamrolled the Cardinals on Sunday.
Brady managed to throw for 310 yards, 144 of which went to the machine-like Rob Gronkowski, but he also tossed two interceptions to only one touchdown and was sacked four times. More importantly, a New England team that averaged 29.1 points per game during the regular season managed a measly 18 Sunday.
Chris Towers of CBS Sports was particularly impressed with one aspect of the Denver defense:
This Broncos defensive line is unbelievable. This has been incredible.— Chris Towers (@CTowersCBS) January 24, 2016
Dan Durkin of CBS Chicago added even more context:
Broncos defensive line has dominated this game, but they’ve had their best success rushing three and dropping eight with combo coverages.— dan durkin (@djdurkin) January 24, 2016
Not only did that defensive line consistently create pressure without bringing additional blitzers, the front seven limited the Patriots to 44 rushing yards as a team on 17 carries. That’s good enough for a whopping 2.6 yards a rush, and Brady himself led the team with 13 yards on the ground.
No. 12 may be an all-time great, but Brady spearheading the rushing attack is not the recipe for victory.
Broncos running back C.J. Anderson understood the difference in the game, per Troy Renck of the Denver Post: “That's what our defense wanted. To finish. That's why we have best defense on the planet.”
So much of the pregame attention centered around the Manning and Brady showdown, but the outcome isn’t much of a surprise considering the Broncos defense ranked first in yards per game, first in passing yards per game, third in rushing yards per game and fourth in points allowed per game this season.
Sunday was a defensive clinic for Denver, but stopping the run will prove more difficult against the multi-pronged attack of the Panthers, especially after they scored 49 points against the Cardinals defense that was sixth in the league in rushing yards allowed in 2015.
Carolina was second in the league in rushing yards per game this season thanks largely to the combined efforts of Newton, Jonathan Stewart and a handful of complementary pieces, including Mike Tolbert and Cameron Artis-Payne. It is impossible to envision the Panthers tallying only 44 rushing yards during the Super Bowl, but the Broncos must find a way to slow down that ground attack without committing too many additional defenders to the box.
If Denver is forced to do that, Newton can demonstrate exactly why he is the MVP favorite with his strong arm and Ted Ginn Jr., Corey Brown and Greg Olsen streaking downfield.
The Broncos couldn’t slow down Gronkowski Sunday (in fairness, no team really can), and Olsen could prove to be the difference in the Super Bowl if the Carolina rushing attack creates some open seams by sucking the safeties toward the line of scrimmage.
On the other side, Manning will again have an opportunity against a secondary that has proven beatable at times. New England was 17th in the league in passing yards allowed per game, and Carolina was 11th. What’s more, cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Bene Benwikere are out for the season with injuries, which puts much of the onus on superstar corner Josh Norman.
Still, the Panthers picked Carson Palmer off four times Sunday and forced seven total turnovers, appearing nothing like a vulnerable group throughout the NFC Championship Game.
Manning looked excellent in the first half Sunday with two touchdown passes to tight end Owen Daniels, but he struggled down the stretch and only finished with 176 passing yards and those two scores on 17-of-32 throwing. Had the Denver defense not bailed out the Broncos offense that scored three points in the second half, Brady would likely be looking toward a second consecutive Lombardi Trophy.
The Broncos rushing attack was also mediocre Sunday with 99 yards on 30 carries, and that effort will not be enough against the Panthers front seven that held opponents to 88.4 rushing yards per game this season, which was fourth best in the league.
Superstar linebacker Luke Kuechly anchors a Carolina defense that will overwhelm the Broncos attack if Manning isn’t more consistent downfield.
The thought here is that the Panthers will stick with the rushing attack throughout the first half, which will force Denver to commit additional resources to the line of scrimmage down the stretch. That will free up Ted Ginn Jr. or Olsen for Newton, and the potential MVP will throw the same type of strike he has all season for a critical late score.
That will be problematic for the Broncos, especially because their offense will struggle to consistently move the ball against the Carolina front seven if Manning runs out of steam like he seemed to at times Sunday in the AFC title game.
The Denver defense will not be able to bail him out against Carolina’s versatile attack like it did against the one-dimensional Patriots, and Newton will lift the Super Bowl MVP award to cap off a magical season.
Prediction: Panthers 24, Broncos 17