Sunday marked moving day for the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers, as they touched down in California for a week of preparation before Super Bowl 50. But there's no time to rest for these two squads, as Monday is media day for the two teams, putting them under the white-hot intensity of the national spotlight before the biggest game of their lives.
The lines coming out of Las Vegas haven't budged much as the game draws nearer. According to Odds Shark, the Panthers are 5.5-point favorites over the Broncos, a reflection of their superior regular season and the brilliant football they've played in this postseason, save for the second-half sleepwalk against the Seattle Seahawks.
The over-under is a modest 45 points as of Monday. Both teams sport brilliant defenses, with the Broncos holding an edge in that category thanks to stalwart players like linebacker Von Miller, safety T.J. Ward and cornerback Chris Harris Jr.
Carolina's crushing defense is only a tick less fearsome. Linebacker Luke Kuechly has returned two interceptions for touchdowns in these playoffs. For those keeping score at home, that's two more TDs than any Broncos receiver has in this postseason.
Considering that two strong defenses, one good offense (Panthers) and one mediocre offense (Broncos) are taking the field at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara on Feb. 7, it's interesting that 60 percent of bettors are taking the over.
There must be a good amount of faith in Cam Newton and Company to put up some points after racking up 80 so far in the playoffs. Jonathan Stewart and Newton combine for the league's best running game, while tight end Greg Olsen is always good for a handful of chain-moving receptions.
While wide receivers Ted Ginn Jr. and Philly Brown hardly strike fear into opponents, it's possible that they could still have a big game against Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib. Fox Sports' Matt Chatham explained why Ginn, who has 10 touchdowns on the year, has been so effective in Carolina:
In the true receiver group, Ginn's 10 touchdowns this season are about the same as the number he'd accumulated over the previous eight years in the league. Ginn was always considered an excellent returner, but his receiving history was a mixed bag. He was a speed and run-after-the-catch guy, but never a catch gobbler.
But that's why he's such a perfect fit for in Carolina. A typical day for him amounts to a few catches, one of which is usually a big, game-changing play. On Sunday, Ginn ran a reverse for a touchdown, which was emblematic of his elite return skills, the kind of play that keeps a defense honest and not just lagging off him to prevent shot plays.
Ginn, Brown and the rest of the pass-catching corp will have to get open quickly. As Miller and Demarcus Ware demonstrated against New England in the AFC Championship Game, they can get to the quarterback in a hurry.
Miller put on the performance of a lifetime in terrorizing Tom Brady, racking up 2.5 sacks, one interception and forcing him into bad throws on several other plays.
Miller is well aware that attacking Newton will be a tough challenge. “I don’t think there’s another quarterback that’s ever played the game the way he does, especially the way his personality is on the field,” Miller said, via the Charlotte Observer's Rick Bonnell. “I’m just a big fan of everything that he has going for him.”
To hit the over, the Broncos are likely going to have to put up a respectable point total as well (doubly so if they're going to win the game).
Manning's game-management skills also will be needed in the run game. He has a great feel for reading defensive fronts and frequently changes the direction of the run to hit the vulnerable bubble at the point of attack. This has played a key role in the Broncos' recent success running the ball; it will play a huge role in the Super Bowl 50 game plan against the Panthers' stellar defense. If Manning can consistently get the Broncos into the right call to enhance the chances of the running game, Denver can control the tempo of the game.
Manning has thrown for 398 yards and two touchdowns in the playoffs, with both of those scoring tosses going to tight end Owen Daniels.
If the Broncos are going to win this game, it will be because running backs C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman prove capable of shouldering the load. Anderson's rushed for 144 yards and a score in the postseason, but Hillman has struggled mightily, averaging just 2.0 yards per carry.
As the lightning to Anderson's thunder, Hillman can lift the Broncos offense out of mediocrity if he's on his game. He has the speed to break big plays in the running game and keep linebackers on their toes as a passing option.
It's not impossible for the Broncos to beat the Panthers without a big rushing performance—their defense is truly lethal—but it's the surest way to victory with Manning the big question mark for arguably the first time in his career.
Odds updated as of Monday, Feb. 1 at 2 p.m. ET.