Super Bowl 50: Previewing This Year's Title Game
The 2016 NFL playoffs were exciting from the Wild Card Round throughout the conference championship games. The drama and excitement from start to finish cannot be overstated, as seven of the 10 games were decided by just one score. It all culminates in a terrific Super Bowl 50 showdown between the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos.
The Broncos will represent the AFC after pulling out a thrilling 20-18 victory against the New England Patriots on Sunday. The Denver defense stifled the Patriots offense throughout the game, capping off a tremendous 18-game stretch for the unit. It will be tasked with one more major challenge in the Panthers' unique offensive attack.
Coming from the NFC side is Carolina. Its 49-15 victory on Sunday was an utter destruction of a great Arizona Cardinals team. This was one of the most impressive victories of the season. At 17-1, the Panthers have dominated from the outset of the 2015 campaign until now.
Super Bowl 50 will take place on Sunday, February 7, at 6:25 p.m. ET. Until then, we'll have all the coverage you'll need to get ready for the big game. This preview will properly prepare you for the next 13 days.
The Broncos were the first team to punch their Super Bowl 50 ticket, as they defeated New England in the waning seconds of regulation. With just 12 seconds on the game clock, the Patriots scored a touchdown to pull within two points of the Broncos. But the stingy Denver defense held tight, as cornerback Bradley Roby intercepted Tom Brady on the two-point conversion attempt to end the Patriots' comeback bid.
The story of the Broncos' season really revolves around their tremendous defense. Their defensive front is one of the best in recent memory, featuring excellent depth and individual talent. Thanks to pass-rushers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, Brady never had a chance to get comfortable Sunday.
According to Marc Sessler of NFL Network, the Broncos hit Brady 20 times, which was the most of any quarterback all season long. The effect was clear: Brady had to dump numerous passes into the dirt because he had no chance of making a play before getting driven into the ground.
This dominance is nothing new. According to Football Outsiders, Denver’s defense was not only first in adjusted value, but it also destroyed its competition in variance. Only one team in the last six years had a better weighted defense: the 2013 Seattle Seahawks.
As great as the Broncos front seven is, the secondary is similarly talented. Even with a limited Chris Harris Jr. at cornerback, this is an impactful group of playmakers. Roby is among the most underrated cornerbacks in the NFL, and he came up with several clutch plays against the Patriots.
On offense, the Broncos struggled to put up points. Without the help of an early Brady interception, the Broncos manufactured just 13 points on long drives. They created just three drives of more than 40 yards in the entire game.
That’s not good enough to beat the Panthers, barring several turnovers forced by the defense. As inspirational as Peyton Manning's return to the lineup is, he hasn't been the spark to create an above-average offense. He completed just 17 of 32 passes for 176 yards and two touchdowns in the conference championship game.
The Broncos running game provided a small boost, but most of the 99 yards came on one play. C.J. Anderson had a 30-yard gain to jump-start the offense early, but that led to 69 yards on 29 carries for the rest of the game. That's unlikely to improve against the Panthers' stout defense.
Manning will be starting in his fourth Super Bowl. The 39-year-old future Hall of Famer is surely hoping his second Super Bowl appearance with the team will go better than his first. In Super Bowl XLVIII, the Seahawks destroyed Manning's Broncos, 43-8.
Things are different now for Manning and Denver. The days of an explosive Broncos offense with him at the helm are long gone. This is now a defensive team that needs just enough from its quarterback.
It's unwise to count out Manning having one more excellent game from before potentially walking away into the sunset.
Saying that out loud might sound funny if we're looking at what Manning has gone through during the 2015 campaign. He had just nine touchdowns and 17 interceptions in the regular season. He has been less turnover-prone in the playoffs, however, as he has yet to throw one.
His return from plantar fasciitis and the struggles of Brock Osweiler led to Manning starting once again, and so far, so good. The Broncos may need a throwback performance from Manning to complete their Super Bowl journey with a victory, though.
Manning hasn't given any indication of whether the Super Bowl will be his final game, according to ESPN.com's Ian O'Connor. Since it appears likely, let’s hope Manning can turn back the clock one more time to give fans another classic to enjoy.
The NFC representative in Super Bowl 50 is Carolina. After finishing the regular season 15-1, the Panthers have been dominant for large stretches in each of their two playoff victories thus far, scoring a total of 80 points against Seattle and Arizona.
Carolina is as well-rounded as any team in the league this season. Backed by an excellent and versatile defense, the Panthers brought back some old-school football principles with their commitment to a power-run offense.
Of course, the Panthers have the ultimate wild card in quarterback Cam Newton. Not only does Newton seem likely to win league MVP, but he also has been the NFL's best quarterback throughout the 2015 regular season and the 2016 playoffs.
He's not a traditional quarterback like his Super Bowl nemesis, but that doesn't mean he's any less talented or dangerous. In fact, he's even more difficult to defend because he forces defenses to account for his presence as a runner and a passer.
While Newton will face the NFL's best defense, he's helped by the NFL's second-best defensive unit. According to Football Outsiders, the Panthers are behind only the Broncos' impressive defense when it comes to weighted variance in performance. Because of their unique personnel, it's difficult to challenge them without being creative.
Carolina has elite athletes all over its defensive front seven. Defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short are impactful against both the run and pass. They set the tone with their disruption ability.
Behind them is the best linebacker core in the NFL. With Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson, the Panthers are able to cover a ton of space quickly. Kuechly and Davis are notably talented as run defenders as well, and these two-way players are hard to find.
The Panthers are as talented and difficult to challenge on both sides of the ball as anyone. Denver absolutely needs to maximize the time until the Super Bowl to come up with a viable strategy to attack them.
While Newton is certain to bring out strong emotions from all sides, he is a generational player. He has been utterly unstoppable in 2015, reducing his mistakes greatly and almost always executing in spite of difficult matchups. His development into the NFL's most dangerous and best overall quarterback has led to this moment for him and his team.
Against Arizona, Newton completed 19 of 28 passes for a whopping 335 yards and two touchdowns. He ran for another 47 yards and two more scores. At 6'5" and 245 pounds, he is nimble yet as powerful as a freight train.
In Newton's last 10 games, he threw for 24 touchdowns and rushed for seven more. During that same span, he tossed just two interceptions. His efficiency is at an all-time high, and defenses have to hope he's off to stop him.
The Super Bowl can be a catapult for what will eventually be Newton's legacy. He's just 26 years old, but winning a championship now and hitting his prime early could set him up for a potential Hall of Fame career. That’s a long way from being determined, but his level of play this season hints that he could build that type of resume in the next seven or more years.
A Super Bowl victory could help sway public opinion on Newton, too. While the vocal minority may be creating a majority of the noise, the lack of respect for the Panthers signal-caller has become is alarming. Amazingly, some people don't like Newton for simply sharing his enjoyment of the game with young fans.
Nevertheless, Newton is set to face his greatest professional challenge yet. We may see another epic performance on the game's greatest stage.
Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware vs. Michael Oher and Mike Remmers
While the Broncos are deep with quality front-seven pass-rushers, the two who make the unit dominant are Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. They made Tom Brady look like a shell of himself as they continually dominated the Patriots blockers. If Newton is going to have a chance at producing in the Super Bowl, the Panthers must keep him somewhat clean.
Offensive tackles Michael Oher and Mike Remmers were better than expected in 2015. Part of the reason is the design of Carolina's offense. Also, defenses don't always rush hard off the edge to help contain Newton. Nevertheless, this is a more functional pairing than what the Patriots were working with.
If Miller and Ware end up in the Panthers backfield as much as they did against New England during the conference championship game, the Broncos offense won't be under nearly as much pressure to score as it potentially could.
Emmanuel Sanders vs. the Carolina Secondary
One big key for the Broncos offense to succeed is the play of Emmanuel Sanders. While Demaryius Thomas may get more publicity and have a better reputation, Sanders is dangerous and vital for this unit. He led the Broncos in receptions and yards against New England, including an incredible 34-yard reception in the first quarter.
Sanders gets moved all around the formation, but he will likely see Panthers cornerback Josh Norman for at least some of the Super Bowl. Norman has been one of the NFL's top shutdown cornerbacks over the last two seasons, logging six interceptions and erasing top-tier receivers regularly.
The Panthers help Norman in their Cover 2 defensive scheme with safety help over the top, and they’ll need to continue that trend this game, as Sanders is explosive enough to take the top off any defense. Since the Broncos don't have a consistent rushing attack, Carolina must take away their most consistent producer, Sanders.
Ted Ginn Jr. vs. Bradley Roby
The Broncos secondary has seen more individually talented receivers than Carolina has, but the Panthers continue to make their unheralded group work. Receiver Ted Ginn Jr. will face fellow former Ohio State Buckeye, Broncos cornerback Bradley Roby, in a critical matchup.
Both players are lightning fast and able to make a game-changing play at any second. While Ginn struggles with drops, he was able to snag 10 touchdown grabs during the 2015 regular season. He is a dangerous weapon for the Panthers and must not be allowed to get behind the safety.
Roby is a great cornerback in his own right. He doesn't get much publicity, but he's as athletic as any corner in the NFL and has the ability to play outside or the slot. Newton must be wary of his pre-snap location every play.
Greg Olsen vs. T.J. Ward
At 30 years old, tight end Greg Olsen put together his best season as a pro in 2015. He led the Panthers with 77 receptions and 1,104 yards and added seven touchdowns. Despite being the obvious top receiver for the team, he continues to shred defenses weekly.
Olsen will have to be a huge factor for the Panthers. Denver has a bevy of defenders to throw at him but is vulnerable to a great tight end. While Rob Gronkowski is a top-three overall player in the NFL and better than Olsen, his eight receptions for 144 yards and a touchdown during the AFC title game may have given Carolina a roadmap to success against Denver's top-tier defense.
The most likely candidate to cover Olsen for stretches is strong safety T.J. Ward. Carolina should work to get Ward on Olsen as much as possible. If Ward can respond with great coverage or even a turnover, the Panthers may be forced to work through other receivers. That would be a major positive for the Broncos.
The Panthers lost two defenders in Sunday’s battle with Arizona. Safety Roman Harper and linebacker Thomas Davis each left the game in the first half and did not return. Harper suffered an eye injury, while Davis broke his right arm.
Harper is expected to be fine, but backup Tre Boston filled in nicely in his absence. The bigger injury is to Davis.
After the game, Davis said he intends to play in Super Bowl 50 despite the broken arm (h/t NFL.com): "I believe in our training staff. I'll do everything in my power to be ready to go. I wouldn't miss the Super Bowl for the world. We've worked too hard to get to this point."
The Denver Broncos also lost two defenders to injury Sunday. Safeties Darian Stewart and T.J. Ward left the game in the second half of their victory, but both are optimistic.
According to Vic Lombardi of Altitude Sports Network, Stewart sprained his MCL but expects to participate in Super Bowl 50. Andrew Mason of DenverBroncos.com reported that Ward had an ankle sprain but also expects to be full go by the big game.
The other notable situation to watch is cornerback Chris Harris Jr. Harris entered the game with a severe shoulder injury but played the entire game and held his own. A full week off should help his recovery.
Odds and Ends
- Peyton Manning is the first starting quarterback to go to four Super Bowls with four different head coaches, according to Jeff Rabjohns of Peegs.com. Those four coaches are Tony Dungy, Jim Caldwell, John Fox and now Gary Kubiak.
- According to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network, Manning earned a $2 million bonus for winning and playing 70 percent of the Broncos' offensive snaps in the conference championship game. The bump in pay is icing on the cake of a big team victory. He can receive another $2 million for winning the Super Bowl.
- Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is now 2-7 against the Broncos in Denver. His two victories came against Danny Kanell in 2003 and Tim Tebow in 2011.
- Although the two players are never on the field at the same time, it is fun to talk about quarterback records. Peyton Manning is now 3-2 overall against Tom Brady in the playoffs, including three straight wins in conference championship games. Brady is haunted by Peyton and Eli Manning, who have defeated Brady in their last five matchups between them.
- Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is one of four quarterbacks to run and pass for multiple touchdowns in the same postseason game, according to ESPN Stats & Info. The other three were Otto Graham in 1954 and 1955, Jay Cutler in 2010 and Colin Kaepernick in 2012.
- Newton is one win away from accomplishing a unique feat, per ESPN.com's John Hayes. No quarterback has won the Heisman Trophy, national championship, NFL MVP and Super Bowl. Although he hasn't been named MVP yet, he must be considered the favorite. That leaves just the Super Bowl to deal with.
- Bleacher Report's Ryan Chell pointed out that Super Bowl 50 will feature six former Baltimore Ravens. On the Panthers side, there's tackle Michael Oher, tight end Ed Dickson and kicker Graham Gano. For the Broncos, head coach Gary Kubiak, safety Darian Stewart and tight end Owen Daniels are on the team.
- No college football program was more represented than Ohio State on Sunday. Former Buckeyes defensive backs Bradley Roby and Kurt Coleman totaled three interceptions. Former Ohio State receivers Ted Ginn Jr. and Philly Brown each had one receiving touchdown. Carolina offensive guard Andrew Norwell was also a key cog for the Panthers.
- Super Bowl 50 will look to up the ante from previous halftime shows by featuring two of the world’s biggest artists. British rock band Coldplay will be joined by Beyonce in her second Super Bowl appearance in the last four years. They hope to break the previous record of halftime viewers, which Katy Perry set in 2015.
All stats used are from Sports-Reference.com.
Ian Wharton is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.