That headline alone probably led to first a chortle, then uproarious laughter. Those impulses are hard to avoid at this point when you even try to think about the Carolina Panthers not winning Super Bowl 50.
An offense led by quarterback Cam Newton, the likely MVP, has outscored the opposition 55-7 in just the first half of their two playoff games so far. The same offense averaged a league high 31.2 points per game in 2015.
It’s a juggernaut unit supported by a sixth-ranked defense that regularly gifted Newton with quality starting field position throughout the season. The average Panthers drive started 69.5 yards away from the opposing end zone, according to ESPN.com’s Bill Barnwell, the second shortest field position for any team in 2015.
Toss in cornerback Josh Norman and his passer rating in coverage of only 59.7, per Pro Football Focus, and accomplishing anything on either side of the ball is starting to feel mighty difficult for the Denver Broncos, even with their league best defense.
But even though it seems like they’re overmatched in far too many areas, a win and upset is still possible if the Broncos execute in three specific areas.
1. A ferocious pass rush needs to stay, well, ferocious
Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware are scary enough to cause involuntary urination. They led a Broncos pass rush that hit New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady 20 times during the AFC Championship Game. And remember, defensive tackles Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson also play for the Broncos. They combined for another 13 regular-season sacks, a mammoth number from the interior of any defensive line.
The gameplan against New England was to get as much pressure as possible with a four-man rush to maximize coverage. That should carry over into Sunday, too, though succeeding against Newton is another matter due to both is size and mobility.
Working in Denver’s favor, however, is the Panthers’ simple lack of experience trying to block a high-caliber pass rush. Although their two tackles Mike Remmers and Michael Oher have far exceeded expectations, they’re still serviceable at best. And including the posteason they’ve faced just two top-10 passing-rushing defenses. Remmers could be particularly vulnerable after he allowed six sacks this season.
2. Emmanuel Sanders needs to exploit matchups against weaker Panthers cornerbacks
The Panthers generally don’t have Norman shadow a receiver, so there will be times throughout this game when Broncos wide receiver and speed threat Emmanuel Sanders finds himself across from the shutdown corner.
But with his physical style it makes more sense for Norman to apply his shutdown efforts to Demaryius Thomas, who wins with physicality and his 6’3″, 229-pound frame. So Sanders will escape Norman’s grasp because of both that, and his usage in the slot. Sanders spent just over 20 percent of his snaps this season in the slot, where Norman isn’t used.
I mention all of this because due to injuries Panthers cornerbacks not named Josh Norman leave much to be desired. Robert McClain has allowed two touchdowns and 143 yards during the playoffs so far, per PFF. And while Cortland Finnegan has been adaquate as Carolina’s slot corner on a small sample size after being signed in late November, in 2014 he allowed a passer rating in coverage of 102.1.
Sanders needs to exploit those matchups with his vertical speed and ability to make contested catches deep.
3. Broncos running backs need to take advantage of injured Thomas Davis
Thomas Davis is going to play. That much seems clear after the Panthers middle linebacker practiced Wednesday and Thursday. He’ll surely be listed when the injury statuses come out Friday, but barring some freak accident the 32-year-old with four straight 100-plus tackle seasons will be on the field Sunday.
But will he be the real Thomas Davis? No, probably not, because even if you have superhuman healing powers (and he clearly does), functioning normally just 13 days after having a plate inserted into your broken arm just doesn’t happen. A critical piece of the Panthers’ run defense that held opponents to only 3.9 yards per carry in 2015 will be playing at something less than full health.
For Manning to have any hope of pushing the ball downfield, he’ll need run support. And he’ll need more than the 3.4 yards per carry Broncos running backs have averaged throughout the playoffs. He could get it with Davis potentially limited .