A Preview of Super Bowl 50: Denver Broncos vs Carolina Panthers

Yajur Sriraman, Contributor

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How they got here:
Broncos: From the start of the season, there was no doubt that the Broncos were AFC contenders. A few questions still remained. Would the defense that looks so dominant on paper translate to results on the field? And the bigger question remained, “Would Peyton Manning be able to stave off ‘Father Time’ and put together another complete season? Mixed results followed.
The Broncos burst out to a 7-game winning streak to start the season behind strong play from their defense. They then lost 4 of their next 7 games, and the question marks were coming back. However, their overtime victory over the New England Patriots in Week 12 erased all those doubts. This game would also give them a home-field advantage in the AFC Championship. After a two-game win streak to finish the season at 12-4, the Broncos won home-field in the AFC playoffs by virtue of the tiebreaker (their win over the Patriots).
After sitting out Wild Card weekend, the Broncos gutted out a win against Pittsburgh. Their defense was downright beastly against one of the most deadly offenses in the NFL. While limiting the talented Steelers offense to only 16 points, their offense showed signs of life. Peyton Manning led a balanced attack that put up 23 points on the Steelers defense. With the victory, the Broncos advanced to the AFC Championship.
The AFC Championship revealed the best of the Broncos, and the offense came to play. Peyton Manning played error-free football, throwing for 176 yards and 2 touchdowns without any interceptions.
However, it was the defense that stole the show yet again. They completely manhandled the New England running backs, forcing them to 1 yard per carry (!). They forced 6 sacks on Tom Brady and countless more hits. They had two interceptions, and forced Brady to complete less than 50% of his passes.
Overall, the Broncos finally lived up to expectations in the AFC Championship and are carrying that momentum into the Super Bowl, what is likely Peyton Manning’s final NFL game.
Panthers:
After All-Pro wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin went down with a torn ACL in the offseason. The Panthers were left for the dead. Their defense would be pretty good, but their offense would be “absolutely horrible” according to an anonymous scout. Well, that’s why we play the games folks. Cam Newton had an MVP year leading the Carolina Panthers to a stalwart 15-1 record and home field advantage in the NFC playoffs.
Like the Broncos they had a first-round bye into the divisional round where a familiar foe awaited them. The Seattle Seahawks. The team that ended Carolina’s season last year. The Panthers jumped out to a 31-point lead at halftime. Everyone thought the game was over, but one weakness for the Panthers showed up. They took their foot off the gas pedal when they had a big lead. Seattle stormed back to score 24 consecutive points, but their comeback ultimately fell short after some timely defensive plays from the Panthers.
They knew they would have to finish the game better in their NFC Championship matchup with the Arizona Cardinals. Everyone was talking all week about the number 1-ranked offense in the league, and how Arizona’s defense-offense double threat would wreak havoc on the Panthers.
…So much for that…
In a historic shellacking, the Panthers won 49-15, leaving no doubt on the field as to who should represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. The Panthers defense held the number-1 offense to 15 points, while totaling 76 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, and a whopping 4 interceptions in one game (1 interception was returned for a touchdown). The 7 turnovers committed by the Cardinals were the most in an NFC playoff game. The offense was perhaps even more impressive, putting up 42 points (7 more points were scored on a defensive touchdown). Cam Newton threw for 335 yards and 2 touchdowns, and ran for another 2. The aerial attack and ground game were both working in the Panthers favor, and they look like the team to beat heading into the Super Bowl.
Position by Position:
Quarterback: Old vs new. Manning vs Newton. While Manning is the more experienced quarterback, don’t count against Cam Newton, who is as of now the best player in the league. His dual-threat presence keeps defenses up all night, and he has the ability to take over any game, even if it’s against the Broncos. Manning did look good against the Patriots, but it’s clear who the advantage goes to.
Advantage: Panthers
Running back: The Panthers had the most balanced running attack in the league, with Jonathan Stewart leading the charge, Mike Tolbert to bully the defense in short-yardage situations, and rookie Cameron Artis-Payne to stretch the defense. For the Broncos, it was a dual-back threat with all-around back CJ Anderson, and speedster Ronnie Hillman. The Broncos duo looked pretty good against the Patriots, combining for over 100 yards, but the Panthers combined for almost 150 against the Cardinals. Give me their ground game on any given day.
Advantage: Panthers
Wide Receiver: The Broncos receivers are not only the betters corps in this game, but one of the best in the league. Led by Pro-Bowlers Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas, it’s going to be hard for the Panthers secondary to contain. Their depth is another factor. Behind those two stars, they have several other key guys such as Josh Norwood,  Andre Caldwell, and Cody Latimer who can make big catches with their speed and agility. Without Kelvin Benjamin, the Panthers managed beautifully this season. Young speedsters Corey Brown and Ted Ginn Jr. have emerged as the top threats, while Jerrico Cotchery and Devin Funchess provide a physical presence in the red zone with their blocking and receiving ability. While the Panthers receivers are good, the Broncos receivers are great, and when they are firing on all cylinders, they are impossible to stop.
Advantage: Broncos
Tight End:
The Broncos’ Owen Daniels came up clutch with two touchdown catches against the Pats. They will try to utilize big threats Vernon Davis and Virgil Green more, to compliment their frightening receiving corps. Although, the Panthers have Greg Olsen. Enough said… Olsen was the best tight end in all of football, and he’s going to be a tough matchup for any defensive back on the Broncos.
Advantage: Panthers
Offensive Line:
Both teams have really good lines. It is Carolina’s that stands out more. With All-Pro center Ryan Kalil, and All-Pro guard Trai Turner manning the middle. Mike Remmers and Michael Oher have dealt with edge rushers very well this season. I would give the Panthers an advantage on this one.
Advantage: Panthers
Defensive End:
If you took everyone in your extended family and stacked all your neighbors on an offensive line to go along with some NFL players, Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson would still run over them. The two of them have been insane this season for the Broncos, and caused major problems for the Patriots last game. The Panthers would argue that Charles Johnson and Kony Ealy can match up with those two, but they don’t have the same presence, physicality, and force that these two provide on the edge.
Advantage: Broncos
Defensive Tackle: It’s tempting to pick Denver’s Sylvester Williams here. In their 3-4 defense, he single-handedly stuffs every running back that comes his way. But, we cannot forget the amazing seasons Kawaan Short and Star Lotulelei have had for the Panthers. Short has already had 4 sacks in just these past two games. Expect him to keep constant pressure on the Denver offensive line.
Advantage: Panthers
Linebackers:
This is by far the hardest decision. The Broncos have the number 1 linebacking crew, and the Panthers are number 2 in the league. Period. These teams are loaded at the position. The Panthers added talented rookie Shaq Thompson out of Washington, to go along with the All-Pro dynamic duo of Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. The bad news is that the veteran Davis broke his arm against the Cardinals, but he is expected to be ready for the Super Bowl. However, that arm is a cause for concern and will be monitored throughout the game. Denver on the other hand…Von Miller had himself A GAME on Sunday. 5 tackles, 1.5 TFL (Tackle for loss), 2.5 sacks, and an interception. With Miller and Demarcus Ware rushing the pass, and Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall right behind them to blister your running back into pieces, this is one of the most feared linebacking crews of all time. I’ll give the number 1 linebackers the slight advantage, in part due to Thomas Davis’s arm.
Slight advantage: Broncos
Safety:
The Panthers trio of safeties in Roman Harper, Kurt Coleman, and Tre Boston had three interceptions on Sunday. Yet, that is not enough to get the advantage here. TJ Ward, Darian Stewart, and Bradley Roby have been spectacular in Denver. Combining for 8 pass breakups and an interception this weekend. Their coverage, tackling skills, ball-hawking abilities, and football IQ give them a clear advantage over the kids from Charlotte.
Advantage: Broncos
Cornerback: Josh Norman was the best cornerback in football. The Panthers have him on their side (likely to lock up Demaryius Thomas for the whole game). The other side is a major cause for concern. Injuries to Charles Tillman and Bene Bewikere have forced Cortland Finnegan and Robert McClain into the cornerback role, where they have been decent, but not great.
Meanwhile, the Broncos have been wiping out passes all season with their star cornerback duo of Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. who combined to allow only 1 catch against the Patriots.
Advantage: Broncos
Special Teams:
Punters? Even. Kickers? Even. Why am I giving Carolina the advantage? Tedd Ginn Jr. The return man for the Panthers has been lights-out this year, and his 50-yard return set up the Panthers opening touchdown drive. He has the ability to change the game on his returns, and is the sole reason the Panthers get the advantage here.
Advantage: Panthers
Position by position advantage: Panthers 6, Broncos 5
Final score prediction
Carolina’s offense vs Denver’s defense will be the storyline here. But Carolina’s defense and Denver’s offense are no pushovers. This game is going to be a heavy dose of defense with just enough offense and heroics from Cam Newton to seal the first Panthers Super Bowl win in franchise history.
Prediction: Panthers 24, Broncos 21

 

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