by Rob Joyce
You may have heard that an important football game is coming this Sunday. Super Bowl 50 features the top seeds in the AFC and NFC in the Broncos and Panthers, but their respective paths to Santa Clara are vastly different.
Carolina rolled through the regular season, flirting with perfection before finishing 15-1, then hammered the Seahawks and Cardinals in their two playoff games. Cam Newton is the likely MVP of the league and their defense is dominating. Denver, meanwhile, had Peyton Manning struggle mightily before sitting out with an injury. Brock Osweiler came in his place until his ineffectiveness forced Manning back into action, and the defense has carried an average offense to the Super Bowl.
It seems as though it’s one last gasp for the Broncos as they try for a third Lombardi Trophy, look to avenge their 43-8 beatdown loss to the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII and send Manning off on a high note. The Panthers, meanwhile, are in search of their first championship, and look to begin what could be a string of serious Super Bowl runs in the coming years.
Here are the three biggest questions each team has to answer heading into Sunday:
1) Can the offensive line keep Manning upright?
All the chatter following the Broncos’ 20-18 AFC title game victory over the Patriots was how the Denver defense battered Tom Brady, and that was indeed the case. However, Manning didn’t get off scot-free in that game, being sacked three times and knocked down plenty more. The offensive line has been make-shift all season because of injuries, and now they have arguably their toughest task of the year in the Panthers’ front seven. Even with Thomas Davis limited (if he plays at all) with a broken arm, Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short lead the defensive line, while All-Pro linebacker Luke Keuchly is the defensive anchor. They could have a field day lighting up Manning if the line fails to protect him.
2) Can they establish the run?
Even if Manning gets rid of the ball quickly, he’ll be throwing into maybe the best secondary in football, led by breakout star Josh Norman. And if you’ve seen Manning throw at all this year, well, he hasn’t looked quite like his former self to say the least. That means the ground game will have to get it going against the fourth-ranked run defense in the NFL. While CJ Anderson wasn’t the stud many expected him to be this pre-season, he and Ronnie Hillman have become a formidable 1-2 punch in the backfield. And their magic numbers are 30 and 105: Denver is 8-0 when they run the ball 30 or more times, and 9-0 when they run for at least 105 yards. If Manning has to throw 45 times Sunday, things could be awfully bleak.
3) Can the defense stop the run?
If Carolina’s secondary isn’t the best in football, then Denver’s is. Even though the Panthers have defied the odds all year and had an effective passing game with the likes of Ted Ginn and Jerrico Cotchery at wideout, the run is their mainstay. Jonathan Stewart has had a rebound year, while Cam Newton’s prowess as a runner is well-established. Keep Newton in the pocket and make him throw through a secondary that led the league by allowing fewer than 200 yards per game through the air.
1) How many explosive plays will they get in the pass game?
Carolina was able to make lemonade out of lemons this year without Kelvin Benjamin because of one thing – yards after catch. They led the league in YAC, usually turning medium gains to long ones. Ted Ginn, Jr. (10 touchdowns this year) only catches about half the passes thrown his way, but when he does hold onto the ball he’s as electric as anyone in the league. Rookie Devin Funchess is coming into his own, and tight end Greg Olsen isn’t on Rob Gronkowski’s level, he’s top-five at his position. They will have to have at least two or three big plays through the air to stretch out the defense and get the run game going.
2) Don’t let Denver hang around.
The Panthers this year have had multiple instances of letting big fourth quarter leads nearly slip away, including turning a 31-0 halftime lead against Seattle become only a 31-24 win in the Divisional Round. Some of those demons could have been exorcised last week, when Carolina kept the pedal to the metal in a 49-15 thrashing of the Cardinals (poor Carson Palmer), and that will have to repeat itself if Carolina gets an early lead Sunday.
Denver is a classic “hang-around” team. Take their Divisional Round game for example: they looked inept for three quarters, completely incapable of moving the ball against a mediocre Steelers’ defense. But they got a key turnover on defense, stayed within one score, and scored 14 straight points in the second half before winning by a touchdown. If you get a chance to bury the Broncos, do it early.
3) Can Cam Newton be Superman one final time?
Not since Kurt Warner in 2000 has the league’s MVP won a Super Bowl the same season. Newton hasn’t been won the award yet, but it’s a mere formality at this point. Now he has perhaps his toughest test defensively. He torched the Seahawks and Cardinals – two of the best defenses in football – but Denver’s secondary is better than both this year. And neither has Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware coming off the edges. Newton has to keep to the game-plan and continue to not turn the ball over. If he takes a few hits, becomes rattled and throws a pick or two, that’s enough for Denver to take advantage. But Newton doesn’t need 300 yards or 35 points to win. Zero turnovers and 24 points will likely be more than enough to secure Newton and the Panthers’ first-ever Super Bowl.