A team with Ted Ginn Jr. as its No. 1 wide receiver and only tight end Greg Olsen and running back Jonathan Stewart as consistent playmakers still led the NFL in scoring and advanced to Super Bowl 50 because of the league's most diverse rushing offense and the unique qualities of likely NFL MVP Cam Newton.
The Carolina Panthers averaged 31.2 points per game and scored 54 offensive touchdowns—with Newton responsible for 45 of them—during the regular season. Over two postseason games, Carolina produced another 80 points.
A run game as deep as the ocean—combined with a quarterback rich in athletic talent and finally developed in playing the position—has helped create a borderline-unstoppable offense. Only defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and the Denver Broncos' top defense (in terms of yards allowed) stand between the Panthers and football immortality.
"They asked me if I had seen a quarterback like Cam Newton. There isn’t one like him," Phillips said, via Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer. "I haven’t seen one like him. None of us have. He’s a tremendous talent. He’s put it all together. I’m sure he’s going to be MVP of the league this year. It’s another big challenge for us."
Almost every week of this season, we've heard players and coaches talk about the challenge of facing Newton and the Panthers offense. It's the kind of cumulative exam no team or defense can ever be fully prepared for, especially with Newton headlining Carolina's creative and punishing run game.
“It is a really diverse running game,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said before Seattle's loss in Carolina during the NFC Divisional Round, per John Boyle of Seahawks.com. “It is the most that we’ll see in the NFL. There’s nobody that does more stuff, and it’s basically because the quarterback is such a dynamic part of it."
Newton ran 132 times during the regular season, the most in the NFL by a quarterback in 2015. In fact, he handled the most rushing attempts by a quarterback in a single season since 1972. Of his 132 rushes, 56 produced first downs (46 percent), plus another 10 resulted in touchdowns. Newton finished with 636 rushing yards.
Count Carolina's two postseason games, and Newton's 2015 season includes almost 700 rushing yards and 12 scores:
According to Pro Football Focus, only 29 of Newton's 132 runs were scrambles off passing plays. The Panthers otherwise called 103 designed runs with the quarterback, or over six plays per game. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula remains free to throw Newton and his 6'5", 245-pound frame at opposing defenses from all angles.
Carroll said, per Boyle:
They’re willing to run the quarterback inside, outside, lead plays, powers, all of the read stuff as well. … A lot of teams have some plays that they use, but nobody relies on the quarterback to run like they do. He’s got 10 touchdowns rushing this year, and those aren’t quarterback sneaks at the goal line. They’re from all over the place. It’s the most challenging.
The Seahawks, who finished the season ranked first in rush defense, allowed 144 rushing yards in Carolina's 31-24 win. Only twice did Seattle give up more than 130 rushing yards in a game in 2015, and both came via the Panthers.
Seattle wasn't the only defense unable to find answers for the Panthers' run game.
Carolina ran a league-high 526 times in 2015 while rushing for the most touchdowns (19) and second-most yards (2,282). The Panthers offense rushed for at least 100 yards in all 16 games, with only two games with under 30 attempts on the ground.
Overall, no team rushed more times on first and second down than the Panthers. Carolina also had the third-highest first-down percentage on third-down running plays (60.0).
All that running helped Newton produce his finest season as a passer. He threw for almost 4,000 yards and 35 touchdowns with just 10 interceptions and a passer rating of 99.4.
With defenses forced to key in on the run, Newton was dominant in the play-action passing game.
According to Pro Football Focus, Newton led the NFL in attempts (151), completions (94) and passing touchdowns (13) when using a run fake. His 1,236 passing yards off play action ranked second, while his passer rating of 105.7 was almost 10 points higher than his rating without a run fake. He also completed almost 4 percent more of his passes and averaged over a half-yard more per attempt with play action.
Carolina's plan isn't subtle, but it's brutally effective week in and week out—regardless of the opponent or stage.
“Those guys thrive off that run game, so the next thing you know they’re going to play action and take their shots," Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson said before the NFC Championship Game, per Craig Grialou of ArizonaSports.com. “We are going to have to stop the run first and foremost, because that is something that makes that offense go. That opens up everything else.”
The Cardinals knew how to contain the Panthers. The knowledge meant nothing once the two teams lined up for the NFC title game.
On first and second down, Carolina rushed 30 times for 130 yards and two touchdowns. Unable to handle the Panthers and their run game on early downs, the Cardinals did what any defense would do in the sticky situation: They committed more resources up front.
Newton proceeded to shred Arizona through the air. Per Pro Football Focus, Newton completed all seven of his play-action passes, good for 127 yards and an average per attempt of 18.1. No other quarterback (Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Carson Palmer) had more than 33 yards off play action during the conference championship games.
It certainly isn't all Newton. Stewart ripped off a 59-yard run from a traditional two-back set on the first play of Carolina's win over the Seahawks. He finished with two scores and 106 yards. Against the Cardinals, Carolina ran a misdirection play with Ginn, who sprinted into the end zone for a 22-yard score.
The Super Bowl-bound Panthers are a shining example of how a creatively designed and consistently executed offense can maximize talent and production. With the LeBron James of the NFL under center, Carolina has mastered a style of play no other team in professional football can replicate.
The Panthers run the ball with ruthless effectiveness, using different formations, looks and the various talents of Newton to hammer defenses. And when teams eventually cave up front, Carolina's ability to use the play-action passing game helps avoid any issues with perimeter talent consistently getting open.
Ginn, who had 11 career touchdowns over his first eight seasons, caught 10 from Newton in 2015—one of the most incredible statistics of the season.
The Broncos will know the blueprint for slowing the Panthers in Super Bowl 50. Executing it against Newton and the game's most productive offense will be much easier said than done, as so many others have found out during Carolina's 17-1 run in 2015.
Zach Kruse covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.