When the best of the best meet to determine which No. 1 seed receives the Lombardi Trophy, picking a favorite becomes a nearly impossible chore.
Wait, scratch that. According to Odds Shark, the Carolina Panthers are six-point favorites to best the Denver Broncos. The line opened at 3.5 and has risen all week, pointing to heavy action in the NFC champions' favor.
The Broncos were also underdogs last weekend despite hosting the New England Patriots, and their bullying defense should stop the spread from expanding any more. While repeating their AFC Championship Game performance would produce a thriller, many onlookers instead fear seeing a replica of Super Bowl XLVIII, when the physical Seattle Seahawks manhandled the overmatched Broncos.
The truth probably lies somewhere in between.
Super Bowl Info
When: Sunday, Feb. 7
Time: 6:30 p.m. ET
Where: Levi's Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif.
*Spread: Panthers -6
*Odds via Odds Shark as of Sunday, Jan. 31
By most measures, the Panthers are simply a better team than the Broncos. A casual observer need look no further than the records, as Carolina has lost one game to Denver's four.
That simple approach, however, actually underscores the gap. After demolishing the Arizona Cardinals, who entered the playoffs with the second-best record and point differential, the Panthers boast a plus-233 scoring margin.
Denver, which has attained 11 of its 14 victories by seven or fewer points, carries a plus-68 point differential. Even after two playoff triumphs, it has outscored opponents by fewer points than the New York Jets.
Carolina followed a similar win-close formula early in the season, but it has since proved far more dangerous. Following the 49-15 annihilation of Arizona, it sports a 32 percent Defensive Adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA), per Football Outsiders' Aaron Schatz. Denver wields a 20.1 percent clip, which rates No. 8 in the NFL.
Schatz examined Carolina's rise from a misleading undefeated club to a perennial powerhouse:
The same Panthers team that had just one win by 14 or more points in its first eight games has six wins by 14 or more points in its last ten games, including four different wins by 28 or more points. Including the playoffs, there were only eight games this season with single-game DVOA over 100%. Carolina has three of those games, all of them in the second half of the season...
If it's any consolation to Denver, Vegas is on a Super Bowl slump. Per Odds Shark's Mike Pickett, the underdog has won each of the past four clashes. Since Peyton Manning led the favored Indianapolis Colts to a 29-17 win over the Chicago Bears nine years ago, only the Green Bay Packers have covered as favorites.
Of course, the "nobody believes in us" narrative will surface from the jilted underdogs. The Patriots looked like a strong bet to make their second straight Super Bowl, but the league's top-rated defense instead pulverized Tom Brady all game.
After pulling off the upset, Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. lambasted the media for making logical yet inaccurate predictions, per DenverBroncos.com's Andrew Mason:
We felt like we were totally disrespected by everybody in the media. I don't think I heard one telecast about us winning. And as good a defense as we've been playing all year, that was the focal point: that Tom Brady was going to shred us apart. So we took total disrespect [from] that. Total disrespect. So we wanted to prove a point to everybody.
He can beat the same drum for another week. In all fairness, the Broncos already hold seven victories over playoff participants. With a defense dominating every facet of the game, their penchant for winning close games could be considered a bankable skill rather than a harbinger of upcoming regression.
Yet it's also worth noting that everything needed to go according to plan for Denver to win a contest that was a two-point conversion away from overtime. It now has to decimate a superior Carolina offensive line while also worrying about Cam Newton's running prowess.
Including the postseason, the Panthers have registered 32.2 points per game. Keeping them below 20 is asking a lot, but it also may prove necessary given Denver's offense.
Carolina compiled a league-high 24 interceptions during the season before picking off Russell Wilson and Carson Palmer a combined six times in the playoffs. Despite missing six games, Peyton Manning's 17 interceptions nearly led the league.
During the season, the Panthers limited the opposition to 6.2 yards per pass attempt, tied with Denver for first. Manning, meanwhile, isn't exactly spraying darts downfield. Pro Football Focus highlighted the discrepancy in deep accuracy between the starting quarterbacks:
Cam Newton has the 3rd-highest accuracy percentage on deep passes (20+ YIA) this season at 48.8%. Peyton Manning ranks 33rd of 35 at 27.5%— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) January 28, 2016
With apologies to Denver's defense, Carolina is the rightful favorite. While one unit has carried the Broncos this far, the Panthers harbor elite talent on both sides of the field. The Panthers have had trouble maintaining large leads in the past, but the Broncos aren't built to overcome an early deficit. If they fall behind early, they're toast.