By Mark Schiff
The Broncos may be just two years removed from their last Super Bowl appearance, but this is a whole different team than the one that crashed and burned against the Seahawks in New Jersey. Rather than try to outscore teams with an overpowering offense, Denver is now built around its defense, a unit that finished the regular season No. 1 in yards allowed, pass defense and sacks.
And, in another role-reversal, they’ll be facing a Carolina Panthers team whose greatest strength is their quarterback, presumptive MVP Cam Newton. One of the league’s most electrifying players, Newton is a dual threat both running and passing the ball, and his remarkable season has elevated the play of those around him, a group of players that most experts wrote off in the preseason as either too young and inexperienced or too old and washed up.
So although this Super Bowl, like the one just 24 months ago, will feature a battle between the NFL’s two top seeds, it’s a whole different ball game this time around.
Carolina Season Record: 17-1
Aided by a soft slate of divisional opponents, Panthers finished an NFL-best 15-1 this season and their two playoff games have both been lopsided. Although Seattle was able to claw back late in the game, the Seahawks were outscored 31-0 in the opening half of Carolina’s divisional round game. And last week against the high-flying Arizona Cardinals, the Panthers were able to force seven turnovers en route to a surprisingly easy 49-15 win.
Carolina on Offense:
Everything the Panthers do on offense runs through Cam Newton. That might sound like a given since he takes the snaps, but their ground game also relies on Cam, who finished with 10 rushing touchdowns in the regular season. Newton forces teams to respect him as a rusher, which then opens up the passing game.
Carolina’s offense in general is predicated upon their ground game. The veteran running back Jonathan Stewart had a stellar season alongside Fozzy Whittaker, and with Pro Bowler Mike Tolbert, Carolina is one of the few teams that regularly employs a fullback in their scheme. It all adds up to a team that lead the league in rushing attempts and finished second in rushing yards, while scoring a league-high 500 points in the regular season.
Carolina on Defense:
The scary part is, Carolina is almost as good on defense as offense. Luke Kuechly is possibly the best linebacker in football, a versatile player who is both smart and instinctive. Thomas Davis is nearly his equal, although an arm injury suffered in the NFC Championship makes his role heading into the Super Bowl uncertain. And cornerback Josh Norman was a first-team All-Pro this season, with his athleticism and aggressive technique driving opposing receivers literally out of their minds. Add in Carolina’s formidable pass-rush, which has eight sacks in the post-season, and the Panthers might have the NFL’s second-best defense behind Denver.
Opposing Players to Watch: TE Greg Olsen and DE Jared Allen
Carolina’s pass game is anchored by tight end Greg Olsen, who emerged as Newton’s favorite target, especially in the red zone. Olsen tallied over 1,100 yards to go with seven touchdowns, and his sure hands and ability to bounce back after a big hit have made him a serious weapon in their passing game.
Broncos fans will remember Jared Allen for his four seasons with the Chiefs, when he was a one-man wrecking crew off the end. Allen was traded to the Vikings and played for the Bears last season before being traded to Carolina on Sept. 28. Allen isn’t the player he used to be, but he has always played with passion and he’s sure to be fired up for his first Super Bowl appearance, making him a dangerous piece of Carolina’s defensive rotation.
There’s a simple reason why the Las Vegas books currently have the Panthers favored by six points: Their defense is stifling and their offense is led by the league’s best player. Carolina deserves to be the favorites.
As did the Green Bay Packers, who were 11-point favorites before losing to the Broncos in Super Bowl XXXII. Of all the Super Bowls Denver has played in, this one feels most similar to that year, with their veteran quarterback Peyton Manning looking to (possibly) end his career on top. And since predicting the future is a fool’s game anyway, here goes: As they have all season, Denver stages a late comeback to defeat the Panthers 27-24 in the first Super Bowl ever to go to overtime.
We’ll find out on Feb. 7 when Super Bowl 50 kicks off from Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California.
Mark Schiff is a freelance writer and music journalist for AXS.com. In 2013, his coverage of the Seattle Seahawks ended in heartbreak when they defeated the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. Now covering his beloved hometown team, his knowledge and passion for pro football has resulted in multiple fantasy football championships. Find him on Twitter at @mihilites.