Before the biggest stars from the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos face off against one another in Super Bowl 50, they'll go head-to-head with the media during Super Bowl Opening Night on Monday.
In what is a departure from the old tradition of putting players through media day, the NFL created Opening Night, which will air at 8 p.m. ET on NFL Network. Fans won't be able to take part in the event, but they'll be able to take a seat inside San Jose's SAP Center and enjoy the festivities in person.
Among the storylines to be discussed will undoubtedly be Peyton Manning's future. The Broncos quarterback hasn't declared whether he'll retire, but it's clear his time as a player is nearing an end.
Fans planning to watch Opening Night to get an answer will likely be disappointed. Manning almost certainly won't make any announcement before the Super Bowl. It would only add another layer of unnecessary drama for his team.
Similarly, Panthers QB Cam Newton probably won't provide any explosive copy should he be pressed further on his comments from earlier in the month, per Black & Blue Review:
Cam Newton: "I'm an African-American QB that might scare some people because my skill set isn't like anybody else."— Black & Blue Review (@BlackBlueReview) January 27, 2016
The most interesting aspect of Opening Night may come from the defenses. Carolina and Denver own two of the best defenses in the NFL, and their stars aren't shy about talking up how good they are.
Panthers cornerback Josh Norman proved his trash-talking bona fides during his verbal sparring match with New York Giants wideout Odell Beckham Jr. He's bound to provide one or two gems that will be replayed over and over again in the next few days.
Opening Night should be an entertaining prelude to this weekend's game. Looking ahead to the important stuff, here's all the viewing information you'll need for Super Bowl 50, along with three predictions for the game.
When: Sunday, Feb. 7 at 6:30 p.m. ET
Where: Levi's Stadium, Santa Clara, California
Live Stream: CBSSports.com
Super Bowl Predictions
Peyton Manning's Flaws Will Be Exposed
After throwing 17 interceptions in nine games, Manning has been much more careful with the ball since replacing Brock Osweiler in Week 17. That said, Manning can't claim a lot of credit for helping Denver win a conference championship.
The legendary quarterback ranks 10th in this year's postseason in yards per game (199) and yards per completion (5.77), while his completion percentage (55.1 percent) places him ahead of only Brian Hoyer among starting QBs.
Manning didn't prove to be a hindrance against either the Pittsburgh Steelers or New England Patriots, but those teams ranked 15th and 13th, respectively, in pass defense DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average), per Football Outsiders.
The Panthers, on the other hand, are second behind only the Broncos. They present one of the toughest tests Manning has faced all season. If he reverts back to his regular-season self, Denver could be toast, per ESPN Stats & Info:
Peyton Manning threw an INT on 5.1% of his pass att. this season, a career high & highest among qualified QBs. Panthers led NFL with 24 INT.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 29, 2016
Denver's chances don't hinge on Manning alone, but the Broncos might need better performances from running backs C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman in addition to another great defensive outing in order to prevail Sunday.
Broncos Won't Be Able to Constantly Harass Cam Newton in the Pocket
The Broncos pass rush dominated the Patriots offensive line to such an extent that New England fired its O-line coach a day after the AFC title game. Pro Football Focus illustrated how successfully Denver pressured Tom Brady:
Tom Brady was under pressure 35.1% of the time this season. On Sunday the Broncos pressured him on 45.9% of his drop backs.— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) January 26, 2016
#Broncos D blitzed Brady 10 times on Sunday. Brady went 1-for-9 for 8 yards, and a passer rating of 39.6.— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) January 26, 2016
Repeating the task will be difficult with Newton lining up under center in the Super Bowl—the reasons for which should be fairly evident.
Even in his prime, Brady was never the most fleet of foot. Now, seeing him scramble for 11 yards is enough to send the social media world into a frenzy:
Cam Newton was sacked 33 times during the regular season, 12th-highest in the league, which some Broncos fans might view optimistically as working in Denver's favor. FoxSports.com's Matt Chatham explained, however, why the AFC champions can't bring the house quite as much as they did against the Patriots:
Against that kind of quarterback, pocket control is infinitely more important than sack totals. The risk of an aggressive up-field attempt at a sack that may garner a marginal loss is outweighed by the probability of Newton stepping up past rushers, escaping the pocket, and delivering a scramble or pass worth exponentially more yardage than the sack. [...]
Another concern layer to pass rushing against Newton and the Panthers that's dramatically different than rushing against the team that the Broncos got past to get here is Carolina runs the football as their lead option. Pass rush is far from the first reasonable consideration. Because of this, edge rushers have to be aware of getting too far up field and unintentionally creating bigger running lanes.
"There isn't one like him," said Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips of Newton, per USA Today's Lindsay H. Jones. "You go from Ben Roethlisberger to Tom Brady thinking it won't get any tougher and then you're going against Cam Newton. He's so versatile that he gives you so many problems that a regular dropback quarterback doesn't. He is a top-notch dropback quarterback, but he can run with it better than the rest of them."
The quality of Denver's secondary is such that Newton can still struggle even with time in the pocket, and as Chatham argued, running too many blitzes could prove to be counterproductive against such an athletic quarterback.
Still, the Broncos had a distinct advantage against the Patriots as a result of their ability to rattle Brady in the pocket. They won't in all likelihood be able to count on a similar edge against the Panthers.
Somebody Will Have a Malcolm Butler Moment
As much as Newton, Manning, Von Miller, Josh Norman and Greg Olsen, among others, are dominating the spotlight, the Super Bowl is likely to be less about them and more about one player stepping up at the right time.
The lasting memory from Super Bowl XLIX isn't Brady's 328 yards and four touchdowns, Bobby Wagner's 12 tackles and an interception, or Marshawn Lynch's 102 rushing yards and a TD—though he's a dominant part of the narrative. Malcolm Butler delivered one of the most memorable Super Bowl plays ever when he intercepted Russell Wilson's pass for Ricardo Lockette at the goal line:
Something similar may be on the cards for Super Bowl 50 considering so many of the Panthers' and Broncos' strengths overlap. Both defenses can smother the top skill position players on the other side of the ball.
Anderson's success on the ground could swing the game for Denver, or a huge game for Owen Daniels could overshadow the work of Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. On the other side, Corey Brown or Devin Funchess could make the game-breaking play for Carolina that turns the Super Bowl on its head. Kony Ealy might have a breakthrough filling in for Jared Allen at defensive end.
Despite the supreme talent on display for both teams, don't be surprised if an unheralded star is given the Disneyland treatment following Super Bowl 50.