Even if your team isn't playing in the Super Bowl, it's hard to be disappointed by the matchup between the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos. The two talented squads could create one of the more intriguing battles in years, although this also makes the game difficult to predict.
Not only were both teams the No. 1 seed in their respective conferences, but the game pits the No. 1 scoring offense in the NFL against a defense that allowed the fewest yards in 2015. Both sides have legitimate arguments for why they will win, but here is a look at an early prediction for what to expect on Feb. 7.
Super Bowl Odds (per Odds Shark)
Spread: Panthers (-4.5)
Money Line: Panthers (-210), Broncos (+180)
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While Peyton Manning is a surefire Hall of Fame quarterback, the strength of the Broncos is the defense. The unit is especially terrifying with its ability to rush the passer, leading the NFL with 52 sacks in the regular season.
Tom Brady had no chance in the AFC Championship Game, as Von Miller and the Denver defense finished with four sacks and an incredible number of hits, per Marc Sessler of NFL.com:
Marc Sessler @MarcSesslerNFL
Tom Brady took more hits in this game (20) than any QB in any game all year -- regular season or playoffs.2016-1-24 23:35:51
This type of swarming defense has forced opposing passers to get rid of the ball in a hurry, making them more likely to turn the ball over than complete passes. The problem is that this unit hasn't seen a quarterback quite like Cam Newton this season. In reality, there isn't anyone quite like him.
The phrase dual-threat quarterback is often used for athletic players, but Newton exemplifies the description with his ability to beat opponents with his arm or his legs. He finished the regular season with 3,837 passing yards and a solid 99.4 passer rating while also rushing for 636 yards to lead all quarterbacks. He was one rushing touchdown away from the NFL lead, including running backs.
Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib had high praise for the quarterback when asked how unique Newton is, per Jeff Legwold of ESPN.com:
Man, super unique. I never seen nobody who was that size who looks like a typical NFL quarterback who can sit in the pocket and then you can run ... you probably play any position in the NFL that wanted. He's definitely a unique player. Like I said, he's probably the most dangerous quarterback in the NFL right now.
What this means is even a top pass rush will struggle to contain the quarterback. If the players are overaggressive, Newton can simply leave the pocket and run. He finished with 76 rushing yards and a touchdown against the Houston Texans' talented defensive line. The Green Bay Packers—who were also in the top 10 in sacks this year—allowed the quarterback to run for 57 yards and a touchdown.
With Denver playing so much man coverage, fewer eyes will be on the quarterback, and Newton will be able to extend a lot of drives with his legs.
The defensive front could actually make a bigger impact on the other side of the ball. The Broncos offense is at its best when Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson are able to run successfully, setting up the play action for Manning down the field. The problem is Carolina ranked fourth in the NFL in rushing yards allowed thanks to interior linemen Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei as well as linebacker Luke Kuechly.
Carolina has allowed some big plays in the secondary in recent weeks, but the ability to shut down the run will keep the Broncos offense limited. The cornerbacks will also remain aggressive to force Manning to throw over the top, something he might not be able to do at this stage of his career.
Denver still has obvious talent to keep the Panthers offense in check as well as put points on the scoreboard. This should be a close game with a few plays deciding the outcome. However, those small differences mentioned could be enough to help the younger Panthers take advantage with the first Super Bowl title in franchise history.
Prediction: Panthers 24, Broncos 20
Follow Rob Goldberg on Twitter for year-round sports analysis.