Well NFL fans, the time has finally arrived. After several months of crazy games, injuries and controversial referee calls, only two teams are left standing.
Together, the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos will duel it out for the right to be called winners of one of the grandest NFL games to date, Super Bowl 50.
It’s only fitting that a game of this magnitude would pit a crazy matchup, especially after arguably the craziest season in recent memory. And in the end, that’s exactly what fans will be treated to.
For the Broncos, who wound up with the league’s top seed via tiebreakers, there’s quite a lot of star power. Headlined by Von Miller, the defense garnered the #1 ranking in the NFL. The unit forced 27 turnovers this season, allowed under 20 points in 10 of their eighteen games including both postseason contests, garnered 52 sacks, and scored five defensive touchdowns. The combination of Miller and future Hall of Famer Demarcus Ware is a constant threat to wreak havoc upon opposing offenses, while the defensive backfield of Aqib Talib, Chris Harris and TJ Ward might be the best in the NFL.
On offense, the team has high-level receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, a pair of solid running backs in last year’s breakout rusher CJ Anderson and Ronnie Hillman, and some solid role players.
Oh, and there’s also that Peyton Manning guy. One of the game’s greatest ever players, quarterback Peyton Manning will take the field for what might be the final time. Peyton Manning is unanimously regarded as one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. Unquestionably one of the greatest minds to ever play the game, Manning was long considered a true surgeon who set various records throughout his NFL journey. He broke the single-season touchdown record in 2004, which was rewritten in 2007 by Tom Brady, only to take the record back in 2013. He now owns 46 regular season records, as well as 13 postseason records, highlighted by the records for most touchdown passes and regular season wins. A win tonight will give him 200 for his career, the most ever for a quarterback. For a legendary quarterback who came back from a late career injury to set more records, it would only be fitting for him to leave the league in storybook fashion. Surely, he’ll get it done, right?
The not so good:
Not so fast. While he may have had a great career, Manning is clearly in the twilight of his career. He no longer seems to display the ability to play that he once did, or even a fraction of it. Just two years removed from a record-setting MVP season, Manning had a downright awful season until an injury sidelined him against the rival Kansas City Chiefs in Week 10.
Prior to that game, Manning had only one 300-yard game (against the mediocre Detroit Lions defense,) an interception in every game, and a league-high 13 interceptions to just nine touchdowns in eight games.
In that Week 10 game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Manning played without a doubt his worst game ever. In fact, his statline (5/20, 35 yards, 4 interceptions) might go down as the worst in recent NFL history.
Also, there’s the woes of the injured offensive line, which has caused some trouble for Manning and his running backs, as well as the constant drops by Thomas and Sanders. The team got to this point by playing exceptional defense, and they’ll need an all-out great effort to top their opponent in the big game.
The good: There’s only one team standing in the Broncos way. Unfortunately for them, it was the team with the best record in the NFL the Carolina Panthers. There’s a lot to be said about a team that went 15-1 in the regular season, with the only loss coming on the road to a division rival by a touchdown, in the second-last game of the season.
The team has a great defense, highlighted by star linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, along with rising star cornerback Josh Norman and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kawann Short. The unit is very opportunistic, forcing 39 turnovers and serving as one of the best in the NFL.
Offensively, the team is captained by league MVP Cam Newton, whose 4,500+ yards of total offense and 45 total touchdowns was pivotal for the success of a team who had lost its only reliable receiver in the preseason, and many had believed would be amongst the worst in the league.
On many occasions, the team held huge leads over teams that were considered elite offensive threats. The Panthers held a 37-14 lead over the vaunted Green Bay Packers, held the once formidable Colts to six points through three quarters, and shut down the two-time defending NFC Champion Seahawks en route to a 31-0 second-quarter lead in the playoffs. The Arizona Cardinals were surging heading into the NFC Championship, before the Panthers thoroughly annihilated them by a 49-15 margin.
The not so good:
While the Panthers were dominant for most of the season, they did have a suspect schedule. Their AFC divisional opponents were from the AFC South, which featured a Houston Texans team that had a subpar offense (barring Deandre Hopkins,) an injury-plagued Indianapolis Colts squad, the 3-13 Tennessee Titans and the 5-11 Jacksonville Jaguars. Their own division was also subpar, with only one other team reaching .500, and the NFC division they faced, the NFC East, was widely regarded to be the worst in the NFL, alongside the AFC South. Simply put, their schedule was easy, and that’s why many people are wondering whether they can get it done against the Broncos. Granted, they dominated against Green Bay in the regular season, won at Seattle, and dominated the Seahawks and Cardinals in the postseason. However, there are still questions lingering about their ability to succeed against a great defense as elite as the Broncos.
Another question for the team is their offense. Yes, they had some great overall numbers this season. The o-line is pretty good, Jonathan Stewart stayed relatively healthy this season, and Greg Olsen is amongst the best tight ends in the NFL. However, their receiving core is depleted, as was expected after #1 receiver Kelvin Benjamin sustained a season-ending knee injury back in training camp. New #1 receiver Ted Ginn had a career year and is a great deep threat, but he’s dropped a lot of passes. Jerricho Cotchery and Devin Funchess had their moments, but aren’t reliable. If Ginn drops passes in this game, Olsen gets blanketed and the Broncos can hold off the Panthers’ running game, it could spell trouble for Carolina.
Oh, and then there’s the whole blowing leads thing. On various occasions, the Panthers held huge leads that they blew down the stretch. They were up 23-6 on the Colts early in the year, and wound up blowing the fourth-quarter lead, needing overtime to win. They led 35-7 against the Giants, and blew the lead in the final minutes, before winning on a game-winning field goal. They were also up 37-14 on the Green Bay Packers, and wound up winning by just eight points. Then, in the playoffs against the Seattle Seahawks, the Panthers saw a 31-0 lead dissipate for the most part, as they won by a single score.
Is this a case of the Panthers playing too conservative down the stretch in games with big leads, or are they too cocky in reality? Or, do they just get figured out by opposing offenses and defenses down the stretch? Whatever it is, they cannot afford to hold back in this game.
Honestly, most people want a great game. Peyton Manning deserves to be in one last great game, and seeing how this is the 50th edition of the Super Bowl, it would only be fitting if it wound up being that way.
However, I don’t see it happening.
Sure, the Broncos had the league’s top defense, and #1 defenses that have made it to the big game have gone 9-2 in their Super Bowl appearances. However, seeing how the Broncos have been manhandled in six of their eight previous Super Bowl trips, including the infamous 43-8 loss at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks two years ago, it’s hard to believe history favors the Broncos.
Then, there’s the factor of the two offenses. The Broncos may have a great offense, but they’re playing one of the league’s best and most unique offenses. The Broncos have a vaunted pass rush and elite defensive backfield. That spells bad news for passing teams, a la the New England Patriots.
However, the Panthers offense is rush-based, with deep throws to receivers and mid-range passes to Greg Olsen being the key to their success. If the Broncos play defensively the way they did against New England, the Panthers may actually wind up thriving offensively!
Oh, and how about Denver’s offense versus the Panthers defense? The Broncos have the league’s best defense on paper, but the Panthers squadron is not far behind. Luke Kuechly is a beast, Thomas Davis is an inspirational star due to being a dominant player despite three ACL injuries, and Josh Norman is one of the league’s best cornerbacks. The team led the league in turnovers forced, and made Russell Wilson and Carson Palmer, a pair of MVP candidates, look like scrubs in the playoffs.
If the Panthers defense can do what they did against vaunted offenses like Seattle and Arizona, imagine what they will do to Peyton Manning and company! The Broncos offense has been relatively mediocre all year, due to Manning’s decline, the injured offensive line, and dropped passes. They’ve been average against bad defenses, and are going up against a defense that’s tougher than any they’ve faced all season. That’s the Kansas City Chiefs, who throttled the Broncos in Denver in Week 10, en route to a 37-3 blowout victory, despite having a worse offense than Carolina has.
Honestly, I wish it is a great game. It would be awesome to see the greatest regular season quarterback of all time go out with a win. However, I don’t believe that will happen. The defenses are a wash, and the Panthers have the edge on offense and special teams. I won’t be surprised if the Broncos keep it close, or if they frazzle the Carolina offense. However, their offense is far from great, and even if Carolina’s offense somehow struggles, their defense will still make plays.
For the sake of wishful thinking, I’ll put forth a modest score. If it winds up being more lopsided, I won’t be surprised at all.
Prediction: Broncos 17, Panthers 34.
Super Bowl MVP possibilities: Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly, followed by many others.
I hope I’m wrong, but I doubt it.