Super Bowl 50 Predictions: Bleacher Report's Expert Consensus Projections
This is why we do what we do.
This is why players play, coaches coach and fans cheer. This is why television networks pay billions, advertisers pay millions and fans pay thousands.
The Super Bowl is why Bleacher Report's experts spend all year making consensus projections, and we sure aren't going to stop now we've finally reached the top.
It's Super Bowl 50, the grand finale of the NFL season and the golden anniversary of the AFL-NFL era of professional football. Our experts never slack, but the pressure to give you the most accurate projections couldn't possibly be higher.
Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos are trying to capitalize on an unbelievable four-season 50-14 run—but they're crashing up against Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers, who are riding a 17-1 wave.
Our experts voted on the biggest mismatch and top performance at each position, our Super sleeper, flop and MVP, and now you get the most informed sneak preview possible of how football's biggest game will unfold.
Expert Consensus Projection: Panthers defensive line/defensive tackles vs. Broncos offensive line—three votes
Analyst Gary Davenport explained the majority vote:
It's the most pivotal matchup of Super Bowl 50. Sadly, it's also one that doesn't favor the AFC champions even a little bit.
Dating all the way back to Super Bowl XLVIII (in the olden days, when Roman numerals were still used and dinosaurs roamed the planet), we've seen what happens when Peyton Manning is harried. "Omaha!" turns into "Oh my God!" and bad things happen to the Denver Broncos.
In 2015, Manning threw more interceptions than he has in any year since 2010—in under half as many attempts as that season. Some blamed the ravages of time. They should blame a Denver front that struggled in protecting him.
Now that front squares off against a Carolina pass rush that's both deep and talented. Kawann Short. Jared Allen. Charles Johnson. All three have double-digit sack seasons on their NFL resumes.
The Broncos are going to have to dig deep—or Manning is going to get buried.
Two writers went a little broader—or narrower, if you prefer, isolating Manning against the entire rest of the Panthers defense. Two others, Lead Writer Mike Tanier and Analyst Sean Tomlinson, narrowed it down to the matchup of All-Pro Broncos pass-rusher Von Miller and much improved, though hardly elite, left tackle Michael Oher.
Others receiving votes: Panthers defense vs. Peyton Manning, Von Miller vs. Michael Oher—two votes, Broncos offensive line vs. Panthers defensive line
Top QB Performance
Expert Consensus Projection: Cam Newton—seven votes
It's all but unanimous: Newton is going to have a better game than Manning.
Given a choice of just the two, it's almost impossible to see how the league's MVP favorite could go out and play worse than a guy who tied Ryan Mallett as the lowest-rated quarterback of the 2015 regular season.
One of our experts, Analyst Gary Davenport, still went with the 14-time Pro Bowler Manning. Davenport is often the lone holdout in all-but-unanimous votes because he loves to play the contrarian, but perhaps he sees vulnerability in a Panthers back seven that's missing two starters and will have one member, Thomas Davis, playing with a broken arm.
Others receiving votes: Peyton Manning
Top RB Performance
Expert Consensus Projection: Jonathan Stewart—six votes
Jonathan Stewart entered the playoffs as one of the few top-producing tailbacks of 2016 to make the postseason, and after the early exit of Adrian Peterson, Stewart's 989 yards have made him the rushing king of the playoffs.
C.J. Anderson, however, has matched or beat his regular-season high in carries in each of the Broncos' last three games. He's also averaged 79.7 yards per game, well up from his regular-season average of 48.0. He seems to make at least one game-breaking play every outing, which is one reason why Analysts Gary Davenport and Ty Schalter both picked him to have the better game. Denver's league-best per-carry rushing defense is another.
Stewart, however, has averaged 88 yards per game over the same stretch and tallied three touchdowns to Anderson's two. He's been the better back all year, he's no less hot than Anderson and he's likely to get more fourth-quarter carries.
Others receiving votes: C.J. Anderson—two votes
Top WR Performance
Expert Consensus Projection: Emmanuel Sanders—five votes
There's no debate about which team has the more talented wide receivers. Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas are two of the best in the business, and even with all the upheaval at quarterback, they still finished 14th and seventh in receiving yards respectively.
With All-Pro corner Josh Norman likely to make life difficult for Thomas, that leaves plenty of room for Sanders to do damage against the banged-up Carolina secondary.
Of course, it all comes back to that quarterback position; three of our voters think Newton will do so much better than Manning that they tabbed one of two different Panthers receivers.
Others receiving votes: Ted Ginn Jr.—two votes, Jerricho Cotchery
Top TE Performance
Expert Consensus Projection: Greg Olsen—seven votes
Greg Olsen has spent the entire season as the Panthers' only truly dangerous pass-catcher, yet the extra attention from defenses didn't stop him from finishing just 72 yards short of Rob Gronkowski for the league's yardage lead among tight ends.
Owen Daniels is a talented athlete, and he's been productive in spots—especially in the AFC Championship Game, when he caught two touchdowns to carry the Broncos past the New England Patriots. Analyst Brad Gagnon tabbed Daniels to repeat the feat against the Panthers, but he was the only one.
Every other one of our experts went with Olsen and his far superior production (not to mention far hotter quarterback) despite facing the strong Broncos secondary.
Others receiving votes: Owen Daniels
Best Defensive Performance
Expert Consensus Projection: Luke Kuechly—four votes
It's an embarrassment of riches: There are eight Pro Bowlers to choose from for best defensive performance. There'd be no shame in voting for any of them, but four of our experts couldn't say no to the intense game face of Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.
The Associated Press named Kuechly first-team All-Pro again this year. Incredibly, it's his third consecutive time after just four years in the league. He followed that up with pick-sixes in each of the Panthers' two playoff games so far, not just captaining with words but leading with his performance.
All-Pro corner Josh Norman got two votes. Broncos pass-rusher Von Miller got another. So too did Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short. Our experts could probably go around the table again and vote eight more guys before coming up with a name that couldn't plausibly have a game-changing performance, but Kuechly stands out among them all.
Others receiving votes: Josh Norman—two votes, Von Miller, Kawann Short
Expert Consensus Projection: Mike Shula—two votes
We nearly had an eight-way tie. Given just two teams to look at, our experts had to go very deep (even with coaches eligible) to find sleepers. Deep they did, diving into depth charts on both sides of the ball.
The only player or coach on either team that got more than one vote was Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula.
Shula might be the least appreciated coordinator in the NFL. Plenty of teams have drafted talented quarterback prospects high atop the draft and gotten nothing out of them. Turning a multidimensional player such as Newton into an MVP contender isn't just a matter of guidance and coaching—though it's that too. It's also a matter of designing an offense that maximizes his strengths.
Through multiple looks, packages and option plays, Shula incorporates Newton's superlative running ability without diminishing his effectiveness from the pocket. If Shula can do to the Broncos what he did to the similarly stout Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks defenses earlier in the playoffs, the Panthers will win in a walk.
Others receiving votes: Cameron Artis-Payne, Corey "Philly" Brown, Jerricho Cotchery, Cody Latimer, Star Lotulelei, Mike Tolbert
Expert Consensus Projection: Peyton Manning—four votes
Look, there's no debate about who'll be most responsible for making the most people sad at Super Bowl 50: Coldplay.
But even though two of our experts, including yours truly, went with the obvious choice, somehow four others voted for Peyton Manning.
What else is there to be said about Manning at this point? He's unquestionably one of the best, if not the best, ever to play the game. He's also played like refried beans this season, and there's no getting around that.
The only three games in which he hasn't thrown an interception have been the last three games he's played—and especially after his last Super Bowl performance, it's hard to shake the notion that he's due to come undone.
Others receiving votes: Coldplay—two votes, Gary Kubiak, Cam Newton
Expert Consensus Projection: Cam Newton—six votes
He's all but certainly going to win the NFL's MVP award for his performances in the regular season. Somehow, he's been even better in the playoffs. He's the hottest player in the NFL—arguably the best—and he and his Panthers seem primed to overwhelm even the excellent Broncos defense.
Of course, Super Bowls have a way of highlighting overlooked players. Two years ago, Seahawks linebacker Malcolm Smith nabbed the award over a team full of stars. Brett Favre's only Super Bowl win, XXXI, didn't result in an MVP award because returner Desmond Howard stole the show.
If someone such as Danny Trevathan or Ed Dickson wins the award, it wouldn't be entirely surprising—but it would be entirely unpredictable.
Newton is the driving force of the offense that's been tearing through the best defenses in the NFL, and he's our panel's overwhelming choice to be the MVP of this game.
Others receiving votes: Luke Kuechly, Von Miller