In 14 days, the Carolina Panthers will take on the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50. Here’s what you need to know.
Legacy redemption vs. legacy ignition
For the Broncos, 39-year-old Peyton Manning will become the oldest quarterback to start a Super Bowl and the sixth quarterback ever to start four Super Bowls. But he’s won just a single championship since coming into the league in 1998.
For the Panthers, 26-year-old Cam Newton will look to become only the third Heisman-winning quarterback to win a Super Bowl. When Manning was drafted first overall by the Colts, Newton was in fourth grade.
Newton will likely be named MVP the night before this game. Manning has won a record five. In the first-ever Super Bowl matchup between quarterbacks who were drafted first overall, an old man can cement his legacy or a young rising star can begin to establish his.
A great offense against a great defense
The Panthers led the NFL with 500 points in the regular season and scored 80 points in two playoff games. But the Broncos gave up a league-low 4.4 yards per play and were by most regular and advanced measures the best defense in football. The league’s top-rated D has given up just 34 points in two playoff teams against high-powered offenses (Pittsburgh and New England).
But also a great defense against a great defense
But don’t overlook the Carolina defense, which like Denver has four Pro Bowlers. Football Outsiders ranked the Panthers second to only the Broncos in terms of defensive DVOA (Defense-Adjusted Value over Average). Denver had the most sacks in the AFC, but Carolina had the most sacks in the NFC. They both ranked in the top six in terms of points and yards allowed and they ranked 1-2 in terms of yards-per-play allowed.
These were the only two teams in football that allowed fewer than 6.6 yards per pass attempt. They averaged just 6.2.
Oh, and Carolina led the NFL with 39 takeaways on defense (Denver ranked eighth with 27) and had seven takeaways in a blowout NFC title game victory over Arizona. Manning has yet to throw an interception these playoffs, but he had 17 of them in only 10 regular-season games (second to only Blake Bortles).
While the Broncos aren’t inept on offense, Manning doesn’t have a lot of arm strength and the running game comes and goes. Considering that Newton is the likely MVP and has just two interceptions in his last 10 games (while throwing five touchdown passes in three of those outings), it’s clear the Broncos offense is the only real potential soft spot in this game.
Both teams have had some issues in the defensive backfield. Pro Bowl Broncos cornerback Chris Harris has been hampered by a shoulder injury, causing the Broncos to adjust their coverages, but two weeks should do him good. Meanwhile, the Panthers are without two of their top three corners in Bene Benwikere and Charles Tillman, leaving Cortland Finnegan and Robert McClain — neither of whom were on the roster in November — to support All-Pro Josh Norman. Starting safety Roman Harper also went down Sunday for Carolina, but that defensive backfield had no issues with Arizona’s elite offense, and the Manning-led Broncos aren’t exactly a major threat through the air.
Neither secondary is in great shape, but neither receiving corps is daunting.
The ultimate matchup
Instead, this might be all about the Denver pass rush — which was lights-out against Tom Brady and the Patriots in the AFC title game and led the NFL with 52 regular-season sacks — against Newton, who burns blitzes but struggles against natural pressure.
Newton vs. the blitz: 61.1%, 8.3. YPA, 19 TD, 2 INT, 118.2 rating
Newton under pressure: 49.7%, 7.0 YPA, 5 TD, 6 INT, 66.9 rating
Let’s see what Wade Phillips can do against the game’s most dynamic player.
Thomas Davis watch?
There’s always one injury the sports world monitors closely during the two weeks between the conference title games and the Super Bowl, and if the Panthers are lucky that’ll be the one suffered by Pro Bowl linebacker Thomas Davis against Arizona. I say lucky because Davis was had a cast on his right arm during the second half of the NFC championship game, which means there’s a chance he’ll be ruled out pretty quickly.
That would be especially good news for Manning, as well as tight end Owen Daniels (who had two touchdowns against New England) and running back C.J. Anderson. Per Football Outsiders, the Panthers had the best defense in the NFL this season when covering tight ends and the seventh-best when covering running backs. That’ll be harder without Davis.
Numbers to know
- The Panthers are 21-2 since December of 2014, while the Broncos are a league-best 54-17 since signing Manning in 2012.
- The Panthers are looking to become the 20th franchise with a Super Bowl victory. If they lose, they’ll become the fifth team to go to multiple Super Bowls without a win.
- The Broncos are looking to become the ninth franchise with three or more Super Bowl victories. If they lose, they’ll have a record six Super Bowl losses. Nobody else has more than four.
- Gary Kubiak of the Broncos can become only the fourth head coach in NFL history to win a Super Bowl in his first season with a team.
- The 13-year age gap between Manning and Newton is the largest in Super Bowl history.
- The Broncos and Panthers have met only four times. In the latest meeting, Manning’s Broncos beat Newton’s Panthers 36-14 on the road in 2012.