We’re less than week away from the 50th Super Bowl between the AFC Champion Denver Broncos (14-4) and the NFC Champion Carolina Panthers (17-1). The Broncos will be looking for their third World Championship in eight appearances, and this could very well be the last game in the magnificent career of Peyton Manning. The Panthers will be looking for their first World Championship in two appearances, and Cam Newton could pull off the trifecta in one season: Regular Season MVP, Super Bowl MVP, Super Bowl Champion; something that hasn’t been accomplished since Kurt Warner did it in Super Bowl XXXIV (1999). How do these teams stack up against each other, and who should raise the Lombardi Trophy on Sunday night?
Quarterback- Peyton Manning (DEN) vs. Cam Newton (CAR)
In my opinion this is the easiest of all of the matchups to choose from. Personnel-wise, Denver and Carolina are pretty even teams except for the men under center. Cam Newton will (and should) be named NFL MVP for his development as a pocket passer (35 passing TDs) and his devastating attack on the ground (10 rushing TDs). Peyton Manning has just suffered through his worst professional season (9 TDs, 17 INTs, injuries, HGH allegations) and has literally been carried to this game by his defense. One advantage he has is his experience and his brain, but that likely won’t be enough against Carolina’s swarming defense. Newton will be able to run if Denver blitzes. If Carolina brings heat, Peyton will be a sitting duck, and if he gets hit, he’ll get hit hard. This could be the end of an era and the beginning of another.
Receivers- Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, Jordan Norwood (DEN) vs. Ted Ginn Jr., Corey Brown, Jerricho Cotchery (CAR)
To be fair to the Panthers, they have been without their best receiver since training camp (Kelvin Benjamin- 73 receptions and 9 TDs in 2014). However, even if Benjamin was healthy, it would be hard to pick against Demaryius Thomas (105 receptions, 1,304 yards) and Emmanuel Sanders (76 receptions, 1,135 yards). Those numbers are exceptional on their own until you consider the sub-par QB play they were saddled with this season. Carolina still has Ted Ginn Jr. (44 catches, 739 yards) who is a solid wideout and a valuable punt returner (27 returns, 377 yards), and veteran Jerricho Cotchery (39 catches, 485 yards) had a decent season, but the Broncos’ receiving core is a clear advantage.
Tight Ends: Owen Daniels, Vernon Davis (DEN) vs. Greg Olsen, Ed Dickson (CAR)
Owen Daniels has been a very reliable weapons for both Manning and Brock Osweiler (46 catches, 517 yards) and scored both of Denver’s touchdowns against New England in the AFC Championship, and Vernon Davis is a viable option and is dangerous in the open field when he manages to catch the ball; he does have his share of drops. But Carolina has the best TE on either side in Greg Olsen (77 catches, 1,104 yards, 7 TDs), who has become Cam Newton’s security blanket. Olsen is a solid route-runner and has outstanding body control and hands, and he’ll be a handful for Denver’s linebackers over the middle of the field.
Running Backs- C.J. Anderson, Ronnie Hillman (DEN) vs. Jonathan Stewart, Mike Tolbert (CAR)
Tolbert is a fullback who gets some touches, so realistically I should list Cam Newton as a running back as well (636 rushing yards). Stewart is Carolina’s feature back and fell just short of 1,000 yards (989, 6 TDs), and between he and Newton the Panthers have a ground attack that must be respected. Because the running game was so critical due to the inconsistent QB play, the Broncos have relied heavily on Anderson (720 yards, 5 TDs) and Hillman (863 yards, 7 TDs). The production is closer than it looks, and Denver was very middle of the pack in rushing offense this season (107.4 YPG, 17th), but if the Broncos are going to win this game, Anderson and Hillman will need to have a big day on the ground.
Offensive Line- Michael Oher, Andrew Norwell, Ryan Kalil, Trai Turner, Mike Remmers (CAR) vs. Ty Sambrailo, Evan Mathis, Matt Paradis, Louis Vasquez, Ryan Harris (DEN)
The Panthers and Broncos both rely heavily on their offensive lines, but for different reasons. Carolina’s line has been playing extraordinarily well, helping to lead the league in rushing TDs (19). Despite having the 24th ranked passing attack in the NFL, the Panthers have been averaging over 30 points per game. Granted, having a mobile quarterback helps, which is a luxury that the Broncos do not have. Denver’s line has been able to (for the most part) keep Manning vertical long enough to make plays, and they have consistently opened holes to allow Denver’s backs to be successful. When it comes down to Sunday, I think the Panthers’ line will keep Denver’s pass rush in check, and Carolina will have an easier time getting to Manning. It’s tough to hit a moving target (Newton), but Carolina should give him plenty of time to be effective in the pocket.
Defensive Line- Charles Johnson, Kawann Short, Star Lotulelei, Jared Allen vs. Malik Jackson, Sylvester Williams, Vance Walker (DEN)
Both teams can get after the QB and get pressure off the edges. Denver plays a lot of 3-4 with Malik Jackson, Sylvester Williams, and Vance Walker as the down lineman, with four linebackers in coverage. The Panthers play mostly 4-3 with Charles Johnson and Jared Allen as the defensive ends, and Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei inside. The Broncos get plenty of pressure, leading the NFL with 52 sacks, and that pressure should be paramount in this game. The best way to beat Carolina will be to force Newton into quick throws under duress, but to keep him contained in the pocket. Don’t look for Denver to blitz a lot, as it will give Newton plenty of room to run if they fail to bring him down. For Carolina, their main focus should be to stuff the Broncos’ running game. They’ll likely send blitzes now and then, but will spend most of the day dropping into coverage- especially in the flat as Manning’s compromised arm strength is magnified. Based on pure disruption, I think Denver’s defensive line is a little bit better. I’m sure Tom Brady wouldn’t disagree.
Linebackers- DeMarcus Ware, Brandon Marshall, Danny Trevathan, Von Miller (DEN) vs. Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, A.J. Klein (CAR)
There really isn’t a wrong answer here, and I’m tempted to say that it’s a wash. I would, except Luke Kuechly might be the very best linebacker in the NFL. The Broncos LBs bring pressure and are terrific in coverage, and the Panthers don’t know what they’re going to get out of Thomas Davis (broken arm in the NFC title game), but Kuechly will make the difference no matter what the Broncos do on offense. Through the first 12 games of the regular season, the Boston College standout owned a run-stop percentage of 17.6- the best in the league among linebackers playing at least 100 snaps. If you throw it in his direction, do so at your own risk. He recorded four interceptions in the regular season, and allowed the second-lowest passer rating in the league for a linebacker. Oh, and for good measure, he had a pick-six in the Divisional Round against Russell Wilson, and one in the NFC Championship against Carson Palmer. Peyton already had two pick-sixes in his Super Bowl career…could he throw his third on Sunday?
Secondary- Chris Harris Jr., T.J. Ward, Darian Stewart, Aqib Talib (DEN) vs. Charles Tillman, Kurt Coleman, Roman Harper, Josh Norman (CAR)
Denver’s defensive line and linebackers get a majority of the attention for anchoring the best defense in the league. Make no mistake, those accolades are well-deserved. But some of that (a lot of that) has to do with the skin-tight coverage in the secondary which allows the D lineman to get to the quarterback. Harris Jr. (2 INTs) and Talib (3 INTs) are the ballhawks who take away more #1s than Roger Goodell, and Ward brings the pain (and penalties) in the middle to the field. It’s a skilled, physical group, which is a key reason why Denver led the NFL in opponents passing yards per game, allowing just 199.6 yards. In today’s game, an era where someone like Brandon Weeden is capable of throwing for 300+ yards, that’s as good as it gets. The Panthers have terrific cover guys in Josh Norman (4 INTs, 3 forced fumbles) and Charles Tillman (2 INTs, 2 forced fumbles), but Tillman was placed on season-ending IR a few weeks ago which could be an issue for Carolina, and I think Denver’s secondary could give Newton problems.
Special Teams- Brandon McManus-PK, Britton Colquitt-P, Trindon Holliday-PR (DEN) vs. Graham Gano-PK, Brad Nortman-P, Ted Ginn Jr.- PR (CAR)
McManus has had a solid season for Denver, and with Peyton Manning’s decline, he was busy. Despite a few hiccups he still booted 30 out of 35 FGs with a long of 57 yards, and kicked five FGs in the Divisional Round to help dispatch Pittsburgh. He had an awful miss late in the season against Cincinnati (it wasn’t even close), and it’ll be interesting to see what happens if the game rests on his shoulders. Punter Britton Colquitt averaged 43.6 yards per punt with a long of 62, and rarely shanks a punt. Emmanuel Sanders has been filling in as a return man, with 103 return yards in 17 attempts. Panther’s kicker Graham Gano has eerily similar stats to McManus, connecting on 30 of 36 attempts with a long of 52 yards. Punter Brad Nortman averaged 45.4 yards per punt with a long of 65, and Ted Ginn Jr., as I noted earlier, has 277 return yards on 27 attempts this season. Carolina’s special teamers have slightly better stats but it’s more or less a push. Field position will be a crucial factor in this game, and the punters should be up to the task.
Coaching- Gary Kubiak (DEN) vs. Ron Rivera (CAR)
Both men are making their Super Bowl debuts as head coaches, so neither coach has the leg up on the other. Rivera is a defensive coach and Kubiak is an offensive guru which should be interesting to see how these two teams attack each other, but this game will come down to the players and how well they play; not the coaches.
This is going to be a low-scoring, field position game. Both teams have great pass rushes and secondaries that can cover, making it tough on both offenses. Having said that, I expect Newton to be able to do more against Denver’s defense (especially if they blitz and over-pursue) than I expect Manning to do against Carolina’s defense. Look for Carolina to take away the run and force Manning to beat them, which I don’t think he’ll be able to do consistently. If Carolina jumps to an early lead, Denver won’t be able to keep up.
Prediction: Carolina 26, Denver 16.