Super Bowl 50 Predictions: Bleacher Report's Expert Consensus Picks
And then there were two.
Back in September, 32 teams entered the 2015 season with dreams of playing in Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, California. Less than half had a realistic shot at making it there.
Two have accomplished their goal.
On Sunday, the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers will square off in the 50th incarnation of the biggest event in sports.
It's a game with the makings of a classic matchup. The high-octane offense of Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers against the NFL-best defense of the Denver Broncos. The old guard under center in Denver's Peyton Manning against the future in Newton.
Pick a subplot, any subplot. This is a Super Bowl with plenty of them.
One last time this season, the national lead writers, national columnists and NFL analysts here at Bleacher Report have gathered to give their take on how this week's slate will pan out.
A slate of one.
Super Bowl 50.
The esteemed writers here at Bleacher Report know as much as anyone about this wonderful game we all love. They've dedicated their professional lives to studying and writing about football.
And that means essentially giving your personal life to it too. As nine-to-five jobs go, this ain't one of them.
And yet, five of the eight writers who have offered up their selections each week here at B/R (including regular-season champion Matt Miller) whiffed on both games last week.
However, one single prescient prognosticator prevailed with a pair of peachy predictions.
NFL National Columnist Brad Gagnon, take a bow.
Gary Davenport: NFL Analyst 1-1 (6-4)
Mike Freeman: NFL National Lead Writer 1-1 (7-3)
Brad Gagnon: NFL National Columnist 2-0 (8-2)
Matt Miller: NFL National Lead Writer 0-2 (7-3)
Ty Schalter: NFL National Lead Writer 0-2 (5-5)
Brent Sobleski: NFL Analyst 0-2 (6-4)
Mike Tanier: NFL National Lead Writer 0-2 (7-3)
Sean Tomlinson: NFL Analyst 0-2 (6-4)
Consensus: 0-2 (7-3)
The AFC Champions: Denver Broncos (12-4)
At the outset of the 2015 season, the Denver Broncos were considered one of the favorites to represent the AFC in Super Bowl 50.
The Broncos held up their end of the deal. They just did so in a way that very few expected.
Two years ago, the Broncos rode a record-setting offense to an AFC title and a berth in Super Bowl XLVIII. Their reward? A 43-8 beatdown at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks.
This season, that offensive juggernaut was nowhere to be found. In fact, quarterback Peyton Manning had the worst year of his Hall of Fame career. Due in large part to an injured foot that cost him six games, Manning set a career low in passing yardage. And touchdown passes. And passer rating.
And yet, here the Broncos are...back in the Super Bowl.
And this time, they have the defense to thank.
Spearheaded by outside linebackers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware and the NFL's deepest and most talented secondary, the Broncos led the league in total defense (283.1 yards per game) and passing defense (199.6 yards per game). They were third in the league in run defense (83.6 yards per game) and fourth in scoring defense (18.5 points per game). No team in the NFL had more sacks in 2015 than the Broncos' 52.
As Ryan Kartje of the Orange County Register wrote, it's been a remarkable transformation:
The Broncos are back on the NFL’s biggest stage this week, with barely any resemblance to the explosive, offensive team that fell apart in 2014. Only six starters from Super Bowl XLVIII will start in the same role Sunday against the Carolina Panthers. ... Twenty-four months removed from trotting out an elite offense in New Jersey, the Broncos will take the field in Santa Clara with the second-lowest scoring offense to ever reach the league’s biggest game.
But its defense, thanks to Elway’s vision and aggressive moves in free agency, might be just as good as the Seattle unit Elway set out to emulate after Denver’s Super Bowl embarrassment.
... It was Elway’s riskier moves that have paid the biggest dividends in Denver’s defensive transformation. While conventional knowledge suggests that teams are better off building through the draft, Elway wasted no time raiding the 2014 free agent market for difference-makers on defense. In a single day, Elway shelled out $110 million in contracts to three defensive free agents—edge rusher DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib, and safety T.J. Ward. All three have been among the NFL’s best at their positions since.
Elway’s final master touch, however, came this offseason, when he hired an out-of-work Wade Phillips to helm the Denver defense. Phillips, with his typically dominant 3-4 defense installed, proceeded to create a monster.
Two years ago, it was the Seahawks and their Legion of Boom that throttled Manning's Broncos. This time around, the script has been flipped. It's Phillips and the Denver defense who enter Super Bowl 50 as the league's best.
Why the Broncos Will Win Super Bowl 50
If the Broncos are going to win Super Bowl 50, that defense is going to have to play every bit as well as it did in the AFC Championship Game win over the New England Patriots.
That's no small task, given that the Broncos will face the presumptive NFL MVP in Cam Newton in this game. But as ESPN.com's Jeff Legwold and David Newton pointed out, the Broncos have been besting great teams led by great quarterbacks all season long—thanks to that defense:
The Broncos have beaten Joe Flacco, Teddy Bridgewater, Matthew Stafford, Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler to go with two wins over Philip Rivers and two wins over Tom Brady, including in the AFC Championship Game.
They beat five teams that made this year's playoff field. The Panthers beat just three but none since Nov. 8. Also, the Panthers allowed one 100-yard rusher (Jamaal Charles in Week 2). The Broncos surrendered a league-low 3.3 yards per rushing attempt.
As Manning himself put it while speaking to Legwold, "Like I've said from the get-go, our defense has gotten us to this point. Let's make that very clear."
However, even if the Denver defense plays out of its mind, Manning is going to have to turn back the clock a bit. At least for one game.
If the Panthers defense has one glaring hole, it's at cornerback opposite All-Pro Josh Norman. Journeymen Robert McClain and Cortland Finnegan were not only absent in Carolina at the outset of this season, they spent part of 2015 out of the NFL altogether.
There was a time not too long ago when Manning would have sought out that weak link and carved it to pieces. He would've looked out, seen Finnegan, thought to himself, "I had no idea Cortland was still playing. Good for him," and then hit that receiver. Again. And again. And AGAIN.
Those cornerbacks' names would have gotten called a lot—for all the wrong reasons.
Manning is going to need at least a few big plays against that Carolina secondary. That and a clean night. No giving Newton and the Panthers a short field.
There's a sweet spot for the Broncos in the mid-20s. Where the defense plays well enough to keep them in it. Where the score stays low enough that Manning can outscore them if he can dial up just a bit of that old mojo. Where a pick-six or interception by a deep Denver pass defense could make all the difference in the world.
And the Broncos have shown an ability this year to continually keep games in that sweet spot, including twice against the defending Super Bowl champions.
It sounds almost cliche, especially compared to Denver's last Super Bowl team. But the blueprint for success for this incarnation is much closer to its opponents' two years back.
Play defense. Don't turn it over. Keep the score low. And win late.
(OK, so things didn't quite play out that way, but still...)
If Denver does that, and 27 points can win it, Manning gets his John Elway ending.
The NFC Champions: Carolina Panthers (15-1)
The Carolina Panthers entered this season to snickers. Sure, they were the reigning two-time NFC South champions, but last year the Panthers were 7-8-1 division champs.
No one is snickering anymore. Except maybe the Panthers.
Carolina has spent most of 2015 taking the NFL's lunch money. It slapped the two-time conference champion Seahawks silly for the first half of one playoff game. Then it absolutely mugged a 13-win Arizona Cardinals squad in the NFC title game to the tune of a record 49 points.
The team has a chance to become only the third Super Bowl champion to finish a season 18-1. Head coach Ron Rivera played for the 1985 Chicago Bears team that capped its one-loss season with the beating to end all beatings in Super Bowl XX, and Rivera told CNN's Jill Martin the Panthers are going to continue doing what they've done to get this far:
Do what you've done. Don't change. Some of my experiences in coaching, you get to certain situations like the playoffs. Sometimes you get a little bit of, I don't want to say panic, but a little bit of self doubt. You say, 'Did I do enough? Do I need to do more? Should I change this?
I told our coordinators this morning, we're going to do what we do. We're going to stick to what got us to where we are today. We'll emphasize that with the players and making sure we keep our personality.
And, of course, that resurgent season has been led by Cam Newton. The former No. 1 overall pick ran and threw and dabbed his way to a transcendent season in 2015. Forty-five total touchdowns, including 35 through the air. Career highs nearly across the board. And the respect of at least one Hall of Fame signal-caller, according to Peter King of the MMQB:
There cannot be a matchup of more different players at the quarterback position than we’re going to see in this Super Bowl. Peyton, obviously the classic quarterback type, and Cam, the tremendous athlete and strong-armed quarterback. I like him. I like how he plays. Great arm, great ability to make plays with his legs. I know he rubs some people the wrong way, but he’s got a love of the game, and you can tell he loves the spotlight and playing in the big games. I really like that about players—when they love to play in the spotlight, and thrive under the pressure. He does. It’s going to be a great game to watch.
Those compliments came courtesy of John Elway.
And it hasn't just been Newton and the offense. Carolina's defense has been just as explosive, with young All-Pro talent at every level. Defensive tackle Kawann Short, linebacker Luke Kuechly and Norman lead a unit that topped the National Football League in takeaways in 2015.
There's a reason, outside a late December afternoon, the Panthers haven't lost a game this year. They are young. They are well-coached. And they are very, very good.
Why the Panthers Will Win Super Bowl 50
Did I mention that the Panthers are really, really good?
No team in the National Football League scored more points than the Panthers' 31.2 points per game this season. The defense was sixth in points allowed. Carolina's plus-192 point differential on the season was best in the NFL.
And for three of four halves in the playoffs, they have been even better.
The NFL's most opportunistic defense harried the Cardinals for seven turnovers two weeks ago. That defense lost a key contributor when outside linebacker Thomas Davis broke his arm.
However, as Cindy Boren of the Washington Post reported, Davis (the first player in NFL history to play after tearing the same ACL three times) has no intention of missing his first Super Bowl:
I haven’t tried anything that I can’t do yet, but if I get to something, I’ll definitely let you know. Right now, I’m able to do everything.
It was a light day (Monday, his first practice since having plates and screws inserted in his arm) but I took every opportunity that I could to bump it against something and really see how it feels. All in all it was pretty good. I know it’s going to be different when you’re actually out there and things are live when we’re playing the game on Sunday, but at the same time for it to be my first opportunity to get back out there, I really felt good.
The Carolina front seven should be able to get a push against a Denver front that has struggled this season. If Short and ends Charles Johnson and Jared Allen get after Manning the way they did Carson Palmer...
Well, Manning threw 17 interceptions in 2015, his most since a 2010 season in which he had over twice the attempts.
And yes, the Broncos may well have the best defense in the NFL this year. But Newton has been making defenses look silly all season long.
He's a matchup nightmare. Play too soft defensively, and Newton, Jonathan Stewart and the league's second-ranked ground game will chew up yardage in chunks. Crowd the line, and Newton will beat you over the top with wideouts Corey Brown and Ted Ginn. Zone reads. Jet sweeps.
And speed. Lots and lots and lots of speed.
All without even mentioning Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen.
For the overwhelming majority of this season, the Carolina Panthers have asserted their will over opponents on both sides of the football.
If they do that Sunday night, Super Bowl 50 could be a rout.
CAROLINA PANTHERS (7-1)
Before we get to the pick, a disclaimer. I am the one voter here at Bleacher Report who took the Broncos. Blame the writer in me. Blame the fact that, as a writer, I've become so much more a fan of the game itself than of just my beloved Cleveland Browns.
The only way those last two words are getting in a Super Bowl article is through a ham-fisted segue like that. Sorry.
Peyton Manning won't confirm it, but the tea leaves seem to be pointing toward this being his swan song. The final football game of his illustrious career.
I want that to be a good game.
However, I also watched the NFC Championship Game, a game that I (and most of the experts here at Bleacher Report) predicted the Cardinals would win.
Yeah. About that. Oops.
My heart wants it to be Denver. Unfortunately, eyes reside in my head. And that's where this problem arises: I don't see the Broncos winning what may be the game's most pivotal matchup.
The Broncos O-line absolutely has to protect Manning in this game. Denver is going to need to hit on some downfield throws to stay in this game. The Panthers hit too many chunk plays. Denver's defense may reduce them, but they can't eliminate them.
And I have a hard time believing that front will keep Short and company from harassing Manning most of the evening.
That's bad news for Manning, according to ESPN.com's David Newton, who expects a Manning turnover to be the key:
The Panthers seem to have the "it" factor the Seahawks did two years ago, when they won the Super Bowl. The Panthers are built a lot like Seattle, with a strong running game designed around a dual-threat quarterback and strong defense. But what will decide this game will be turnovers. The Panthers forced seven in the NFC Championship Game and two in the divisional round. Luke Kuechly had an interception returned for a touchdown in each of those games. He's not a member of what the secondary calls "Thieves Avenue," but he should be.
Newton predicted a 10-point win for the Panthers.
My heart hopes he's wrong.
My head isn't sure it will be that close.
Panthers: Freeman, Gagnon, Miller, Schalter, Sobleski, Tanier, Tomlinson