Defense wins championships.
It's a tired saying, but regardless of the outcome, Super Bowl 50 will be the latest evidence of the old adage.
As ESPN Stats & Info noted, the Broncos and Panthers were statistically the best defenses in the league all season:
ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo
The Broncos and Panthers rank 1st and 2nd, respectively, in defensive efficiency this season https://t.co/bjCjJnYGdj2016-1-25 15:30:05
So what happens when two defensive titans meet in a game of this magnitude? Well, if the Vegas odds are to be believed, it produces a close game with an edge to the Panthers. According to Odds Shark, Carolina is a 4.5-point favorite for the big game.
Here's a look at how the two compare statistically, along with a few key factors that could swing the game.
Cam Newton's Running Ability
Anyone who watched the Denver Broncos front seven dismantle the New England Patriots offensive line on Championship Sunday knows that the Broncos' pass rush is among the best in the league.
With Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware coming off the edge, the Broncos consistently had Tom Brady in a rush to make decisions. It was probably the biggest factor in the win.
As good as the Broncos have been at getting to the passer, expecting that kind of success against the Panthers might be unrealistic.
The Broncos had good reason to be in a straight pass-rushing mode every time they lined up on Sunday. The Patriots offense was extremely one-dimensional. The unit racked up 56 pass attempts while running the ball just 17 times.
That essentially turns Miller and Co.'s job into a straight-up race to the pocket.
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What the Panthers have going for them is one of the most unique quarterbacks in football in Cam Newton.
The Broncos' Aqib Talib commented on the challenge of stopping Newton.
“Super unique,” Talib said of Newton, per Lindsay H. Jones of USA Today. “You look like the typical NFL quarterback. You can sit in the pocket and throw it, and then you can run, run wide out. You probably could play any position in the NFL that you wanted to. He’s definitely a unique player.”
Thanks to Newton's ability as a runner, the Panthers are able to run the read-option with more efficiency than any team in the league.
By its nature, the read-option forces defensive ends to play slower, as they are the players getting read. If Miller wants to rush the pocket recklessly, he'll be left playing a guessing game between Newton and Jonathan Stewart, who hasn't had a bad postseason himself, leading the league with 189 playoff yards on the ground.
Newton hasn't exactly lit up the statbook in the postseason. He has 50 rushing yards on 21 attempts, but six of those runs have gone for first downs, which is a number only topped by Stewart and the Arizona Cardinals' David Johnson.
Even if the Panthers opt to stay away from the option and let Newton play the role of pocket passer, Carolina has a much better chance to combat Denver's front. According to Pro Football Focus, the Panthers have one of the best offensive lines in the league this year:
Pro Football Focus @PFF
Strength against strength between Carolina OLine and Denver pass rush. Panthers allowed third fewest sacks + hits in NFL (27) #SuperBowl502016-1-25 04:50:05
Running the ball won't be easy for the Panthers. As good as the rushing attack has been, Denver is allowing just 3.3 yards per carry on the season.
However, the Panthers offense's greatest strength is in its versatility. Newton and Stewart can run the ball when necessary, especially in short-yardage situations, but Carolina was also No. 9 in passing efficiency, according to Football Outsiders.
The Panthers' balance could be enough to slow down the Broncos front just enough to keep Denver from wreaking havoc, a la the AFC title game.
Denver's Tepid Offense
Over the last two weeks, it has felt like Denver's offense has straddled the line between competent and the brink of disaster.
Much of that centers around Peyton Manning.
Obviously, Manning is going to be the center of attention, but the narrative has gone one of two ways as it concerns the quarterback. Supporters of Manning have praised the quarterback for leading the Broncos to this spot since taking over for Brock Osweiler in the last regular-season game.
The other perspective is that he's still the same quarterback who threw 17 interceptions to nine touchdowns this season. The Broncos are winning in spite of their legendary signal-caller.
The truth is probably somewhere in between.
Here's a look at the stats from the three games Manning has made an appearance in after missing Weeks 11-16:
|Peyton Manning's Road to the Super Bowl|
If those stats belonged to say, Alex Smith, he'd be facing criticism that he's just a game manager. In fact, that's precisely the role Manning has played in these playoffs. Even Manning himself has acknowledged that his role in the Denver offense isn't what it used to be, according to Karen Guregian of the Boston Herald:
You try to do your part and contribute. When you’re not able to contribute because you can’t participate, you try to be patient and work yourself back into position to be available to participate and try to make a contribution. There’s different ways to do that. It’s been a different season. My role has been different. My contributions are different.
Manning playing the role of game manager would be all right if the Broncos' running game was having success. But that certainly wasn't the case against the Patriots. When Manning broke loose on a comical 12-yard run, it was the Broncos' longest of the day, per ESPN Stats & Info:
ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo
Peyton Manning's 12-yard scramble and Tom Brady's 11-yard scramble are the 2 longest rushes of the game2016-1-24 22:15:53
Denver finished with 30 carries for 99 yards. It was enough to sneak past the Patriots on a day where its dominant defense had its way with Brady and Co.
Again, the offense the Broncos shut down was no doubt powerful, but the Panthers offense is a different beast.
Unless Manning is able to recapture the magic of seasons gone by, it's hard to see this Broncos team outscoring an offense that seems to be fully functioning with a new breed of quarterback and a defense that's been up to the task all season.
Prediction: Panthers 31, Broncos 17