Super Bowl 50 is finally here, and this iconic showdown will feature two top-seeded teams: the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers. What should fans be looking for as these two teams battle it out at Levi’s Stadium?
Super Bowl 50 has finally arrived after weeks of buzz and hype leading up to the most heralded sports event of the year. This year’s Super Bowl, played at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, kicks off at 6:30 p.m. ET on February 7. And the epic showdown will feature the AFC and NFC top-seeded teams from the 2015 season — the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers.
Carolina enters the contest as 5.5-point favorites, according to Odds Shark. It’s not hard to see why. The Panthers finished the regular season with an amazing 15-1 record, the league’s top-ranked offense with 500 points scored and an NFL-leading 192 point differential.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton appears poised to be the league’s MVP after a stellar season and is complemented by head coach Ron Rivera’s stout defense — a unit that was sixth-best in the NFL over the regular season with just 308 points allowed.
But the Broncos defense finished the regular season even better. No team gave up fewer yards than Denver’s defense in 2015 (4,530), and the Broncos pass rush put together a textbook performance against quarterback Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game two weeks ago.
And then there is veteran Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning likely capping off his storybook career in this one last shot at NFL glory.
So what should fans of the game be looking for on this biggest of stages at Levi’s Stadium? Let’s take a look.
The Broncos finished the regular season with a 12-4 record, and it doesn’t seem like long ago when there was talk of whether or not Denver would even make the postseason.
Let alone earn a trip to Super Bowl 50.
Manning is clearly not the quarterback he once was. And Denver’s offense reflected this. Unlike previous Manning teams from not long ago, the Broncos finished in the bottom half of NFL rankings on the offensive side of the ball — No. 19 with just 355 points scored.
Inconsistency and injuries forced Manning to the sideline in favor of backup quarterback Brock Osweiler. Yet that phase didn’t last long as head coach Gary Kubiak installed Manning back under center for the final stretch run into the Super Bowl.
It worked. Not necessarily because Manning was the team’s X-factor. But rather because Manning was efficient enough not to hurt the Broncos’ chances. And Denver’s stout defense was able to do the rest of the work.
Such will need to be the case against Carolina. The Broncos defense — led by standout defenders like linebacker Von Miller and defensive end Malik Jackson — will need to clamp down on Newton and the dangerous, unpredictable Panthers offense.
Will this happen over the course of 60 minutes though? And how can Denver’s offense respond?
Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas has been in a slump for the majority of the postseason. And Denver’s running game — frequently used if not overly effective — will also be a critical component against a Panthers defense that gave up the fourth-fewest rushing yards in the league this season (1,415).
The Broncos can’t afford to let the game get out of hand. Keeping the score close may be the only way Denver has a shot to give Manning another ring.
Naturally, much of the focus will be on Newton. He has done more than enough to ensure candidacy in the MVP discussion this season. And those talents will be on full display during the Super Bowl.
The dual-threat quarterback’s favorite target has been tight end Greg Olson, who led the team in the regular season with 77 catches and 1,104 receiving yards. But wide receivers Ted Ginn Jr. and Devin Funchess have also been productive components and will warrant the attention from Denver’s stout defense and secondary.
But it’s not far-fetched to imagine a scenario like what transpired in the NFC Championship game between the Panthers and Arizona Cardinals. Arizona’s defense was strong this season too. But Carolina’s 49-15 victory to advance to the Super Bowl suggests the Panthers are perfectly capable of handling even the toughest of defenses.
Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula’s formations and scheme are unique to put things bluntly. And this approach has created more than enough confusion among opponents’ defenses this season.
Such will be on display during the Super Bowl as well, which leads to more challenges for the Broncos defense.
Yet one of the bigger factors in the league will be Newton’s legs. Carolina isn’t afraid to utilize designed runs for the 6’6″, 260-pound quarterback. And it’s likely fans will see plenty of this approach during the game itself.
On the flip side, Carolina’s defense is nearly just as effective as that of Denver. The Panthers forced more turnovers than any other team during the regular season (39) and also led the league in interceptions (24).
Needless to say, the Panthers defense will be more than happy to see an underthrown or inaccurate pass from Manning.
Denver has an edge on defense. But it’s not by much. The Broncos pass rush is about as formidable as it gets, and it’s this aspect upon which Kubiak and Co. will likely need to hinge their chances during the game.
But Carolina’s offense appears to be one of those “unstoppable forces” that will eventually break away as the course of the game moves on. To prevent this, Manning and the Broncos offense will be forced to keep their own defense off the field as much as possible.
And how much confidence should one have that Manning, a seemingly postseason-absent Thomas and a questionable running game will be able to do this over four quarters of play?
Again, keeping the score close will be the only way Denver stands much of a chance.
This was something the high-flying Cardinals were unable to two against the Panthers two weeks ago. And another veteran quarterback, Carson Palmer, was not capable of staging any sort of comeback.
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Would Manning be able to do the same if asked?
Likely not. The Panthers are favored for all the right reasons. And that prediction should be the one fans should go with. Carolina pulls away with the victory in Super Bowl 50.
Prediction: Panthers 27, Broncos 14
All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.