Head coach Ron Rivera's team may not have gotten its due until the last week or two despite a 15-1 regular-season record, but there can be no denying how talented and explosive the Panthers are after two significant postseason victories.
The Panthers scored 31 first-half points and put away the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional playoffs, and while they had a problem in the second half of that game, the Panthers were never in danger of losing in a 31-24 decision.
They were even better against the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship Game as they rolled to a 49-15 blowout. Prior to the start of the playoffs, Seattle and Arizona appeared to be the two hottest teams in the league outside of the Panthers.
The power of the Panthers' two wins over high-quality opponents is one of the reasons the Super Bowl betting line has gone from an opening 3.5-point spread to its current number.
|Super Bowl 50|
|Denver Broncos vs. Carolina Panthers||Car. (-6)||45||Carolina; Over|
|Odds Shark; Silverman selection|
The Broncos simply don't have the kind of offensive firepower with Peyton Manning at quarterback to match Cam Newton and the Panthers. The Broncos fully realize that Manning, who was once a dominant gunslinger and one of the finest quarterbacks in the history of the NFL, is no longer that kind of player.
The numbers bear this out, as Manning played in just 10 regular-season games this year (starting nine of them) and compiled a 9-17 TD-to-interception ratio. Those numbers provide strong evidence of Manning's decline, but so does the wobble on his passes when trying to throw a 15- or 20-yard out pattern—or anything downfield.
The Broncos have had the best defense in the league this year, and they have held the No. 1 ranking consistently from the early part of the season. That defense was at its best in the AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots. They held Tom Brady in check and came up with a key interception on the two-point conversion in the final seconds that would have allowed New England to tie the score and send the game into overtime.
The Denver defense will have to come up with an even better game here, because the Broncos are not getting the Panthers on their home field. They are getting Carolina in Super Bowl 50 at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California, and not having home-field advantage hurts the Broncos.
Carolina may not have the top-ranked defense, but the Panthers ranked sixth in yards allowed and fourth against the run.
That last factor is vital because the Broncos want to establish a running game against Carolina. If head coach Gary Kubiak's team can run the ball, it takes pressure off of Manning and will keep the Carolina offense off the field. If the running game with C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman can make Luke Kuechly and Kawann Short do extra work, that will help Denver considerably.
While the passing game is no longer Manning's strength, the Panthers have been vulnerable through the air from time to time. They ranked 11th in passing yards allowed, and their secondary has had a few lapses. Cornerback Josh Norman is one of the best and most aggressive cover men in the league, but the rest of the secondary is suspect.
Additionally, the status of linebacker Thomas Davis is questionable. Davis had surgery on his arm last week, and while he wants to play, he may not be able to do so effectively. His absence or ineffectiveness would be a huge blow for the Panthers.
This is a difficult assignment for Manning, and it could result in a painful game for the Broncos. The Panthers are not quite the defensive juggernaut the Seattle Seahawks were two years ago in their Super Bowl XLVIII victory over the Broncos, but the Panthers have a hard-hitting and punishing defense.
Additionally, if the Broncos fall behind by double digits at any point, they will be forced to play catch-up, and that means putting the ball in the air and getting away from the ground game.
That could be disastrous because Kuechly and Norman can play the role of ball hawks as well as anyone.
Look for the Broncos to be prepared and play a tough, hard game. However, they don't have enough weapons to compete for the full 60 minutes, and the Panthers will pull away in the fourth quarter and earn the Vince Lombardi Trophy as a result of their 33-14 victory.