The Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers will meet Feb. 7 in Super Bowl 50 after winning their conference title games Sunday.
While Denver had to hang on until the final seconds to preserve a 20-18 victory over the New England Patriots, the Panthers jumped ahead 17-0 against the Arizona Cardinals and cruised to a 49-15 victory.
This matchup is old school vs. new school on many levels. Denver is playing in its record-tying eighth Super Bowl, while Carolina is in the big game for just the second time. It also could be future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning's swan song, while his counterpart, Cam Newton, is just starting to hit his prime.
Let's take a look at a few predictions for the game as well as the latest odds.
Manning Will Throw at Least One Touchdown
This headline would have seemed crazy just a season ago, but despite being one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, Manning is not the player he once was. He started just nine regular-season games in 2015, throwing nine touchdowns and 17 interceptions.
He returned in the second half of Week 17 and started the team's divisional-round playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. He failed to throw a touchdown in either game, relying heavily on his defense and run game. He finally found paydirt through the air Sunday against the Patriots and finished 17-of-32 for 176 yards and two touchdowns.
|Peyton Manning Stats Since Returning from Injury|
|Jan. 3||San Diego Chargers||W, 27-20||5-9||69||0||0|
|Jan. 17||Pittsburgh Steelers||W, 23-16||21-37||222||0||0|
|Jan. 24||New England Patriots||W, 20-18||17-32||176||2||0|
It wasn't overly impressive, but it was a good sign for Denver. Jerry Brewer of the Washington Post put Manning's performance into perspective:
Jerry Brewer @JerryBrewer
I'm shocked that I'm shocked Peyton Manning has 2 touchdown passes already.1/24/2016, 8:59:30 PM
Carolina has one of the best defenses in the NFL—and arguably the best cornerback in Josh Norman—but sometimes superstars just find a way. If anyone can dig deep and defy the odds, it's Manning. Not many expected much from him against New England, but he had his best game since a Week 3 win over the Detroit Lions.
One touchdown doesn't mean his team will win, and the 39-year-old may not be the MVP he was in the past. But one thing is certain: He still knows how to pass.
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Cam Newton Will Be Super Bowl MVP
Newton, who became the first NFL quarterback to throw for at least 30 touchdowns and rush for at least eight in a regular season, is all but a guarantee to win the NFL's MVP award this season. If he continues his hot play, he'll take home the same award for Super Bowl 50.
After finishing the second half of the regular season on a torrid pace with 21 touchdowns and one interception, he threw for another score without an interception in a 31-24 victory over the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round.
Despite throwing an interception against the Cardinals, he tossed two more touchdowns to go along with 335 yards through the air and another 47 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. His performance impressed many, including Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports:
Bruce Feldman @BruceFeldmanCFB
Cam Newton is doing to the NFL exactly what he did to the entire SEC and college football in 2010.1/25/2016, 2:02:49 AM
The Broncos have a superior defense, but Newton showed he can perform against a talented defense when he ran for two touchdowns against a Cardinals unit that had allowed only one to opposing quarterbacks all season. If you need more evidence, Arizona yielded 30 fewer points per game in the regular season than Newton and the Panthers scored Sunday.
Per Jonathan Jones of the Charlotte Observer, the 26-year-old said he is having fun playing the game he loves.
He's about to have the most fun of his career.
Your Super Bowl 50 Winner Is...
For Newton to be the MVP, Carolina will have to win the game.
But they say defense wins championships, and Denver has the No. 1 defense in the league in terms of points and passing yards allowed per game and ranks No. 3 in rushing yards allowed per game. Albert Breer of NFL Network praised the Broncos after they shut down Brady and the Patriots:
Albert Breer @AlbertBreer
Awesome scene seeing the mutual respect between Belichick and Manning. But this one, without question, was about the Denver defense.1/24/2016, 11:37:12 PM
However, Denver hasn't played a quarterback and offense like Newton and the Panthers. They racked up an NFL-high 500 points during the regular season, and another 80 in two playoff games. Denver has scored just 90 in its past four games combined.
The Panthers opened as 3.5-point favorites, per Odds Shark, and while that might seem low, it shows respect for Manning and his defense. The Broncos will not go down easy, and Seth Davis of CBS Sports said Manning vs. Newton will be worth watching:
Seth Davis @SethDavisHoops
The Super Bowl doesn't need storylines but the fading Peyton Manning vs the rising Cam Newton will certainly do.1/25/2016, 2:39:24 AM
So, too, will the Carolina defense. Fans shouldn't forget Norman and Co. amid all the quarterback and offense talk. The Panthers defense allowed the third-fewest points in the NFC and could be the deciding factor in the game, especially if the Panthers jump out to an early lead.
Manning has relied on his strong defense, and while he's going to throw for at least one touchdown in the game, he's likely going to turn the ball over at least once as well. The Panthers' 39 takeaways were the most in the NFL this year, resulting in a league-best plus-20 turnover margin.
Manning won't let the game get away from him early, but the one-loss Panthers do too many things well. Carolina will wear down the Denver defense and pull away in the second half.
Prediction: Carolina wins, 27-14.