Turnovers, both made and force, have been key for both the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers as they head to their Super Bowl 50 meeting on Sunday. And turnovers played major roles in why both teams won their respective conference championships. Given the importance of takeaways and giveaways to both teams this season, it’s impossible to think the turnover battle won’t be a factor in Sunday’s game.
No team has been better at generating turnovers on defense this year than the Panthers and no team has been as good at capitalizing on them, either. The Panthers have 24 regular-season interceptions and 15 takeaway fumbles, compared to 10 interceptions thrown and nine fumbles lost, giving them a league-best plus-20 turnover differential. Those 39 total takeaways have also netted the Panthers a total of 148 points, while their 19 turnovers have produced just 32 points for their opponents, a difference of 116 points in Carolina’s favor. That’s 40 more points than the second-ranked Kansas City Chiefs scored off of their 29 takeaways in 2015.
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Those ball-hawking ways were no fluke, and they continued into the postseason. The Panthers picked off Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson twice in the Divisional round and then forced seven turnovers in the Conference championship against the Arizona Cardinals—four Carson Palmer interceptions, two Palmer fumbles and a Patrick Peterson punt return fumble. Two resulted in points—a Devin Funchess touchdown following Kurt Coleman’s interception of Palmer and then Luke Kuechly with a pick-six.
While Denver’s defense has been one of the best all season in preventing points scored and limiting yardage, its turnover numbers are not close to Carolina’s, with just 27 on the year—14 interceptions and 13 takeaway fumbles. Denver has also turned the ball over more, with 23 interceptions thrown and eight fumbles lost, giving them a turnover differential of minus-four. And they haven’t capitalized on turnovers like the Panthers have, with their 27 turnovers earned leading to 78 points scored, while their 31 giveaways have netted their opponents 100 points this year.
The biggest culprit when turning the ball over has been quarterback Peyton Manning, who ended the season with the second-most regular-season interceptions thrown in the league—17—while appearing in just 10 regular season games and starting nine. He threw only nine touchdowns on his 331 pass attempts, giving him a touchdown percentage at a mere 2.7 percent (it was 6.5 percent in 2014). The good news is that Manning hasn’t turned the ball over in the postseason once, while his defense has generated two interceptions and two forced fumbles, with one recovery. The bad news, though, is that the Panthers’ defense is ahead and will be lying in wait to pick off the inevitable wounded ducks that Manning is prone to throwing in recent years.
That’s not to say that Manning will, without a doubt, throw numerous interceptions, leading to a Carolina win. But given the history—the Panthers’ prodigious ability to take the ball away (and score in the drive that follows) and Manning’s interception-laden 2015—and it’s hard to not consider this a potential make-or-break factor in Sunday’s game. One thing worth noting, though, is that while Manning threw at least one interception in every game from Weeks 1 through 10, the Broncos didn’t lose a game until Week 9. And while Manning did throw two interceptions in that game, he also threw two touchdowns and the Broncos only fell to the Indianapolis Colts by three points.
It was the following week, however, in which an injured Manning threw four interceptions and no scores against the Chiefs in an eventual 29-13 loss that saw him benched and then off the field for six games, so his partially torn plantar fascia—and shaken confidence—could heal.
It’s possible that Manning is putting together a no-turnover playoff performance that will ultimately end with a Broncos Super Bowl victory. But the Panthers have built a defensive identity on takeaways this season and their offense has scored off of those turnovers in ways other teams have not. And it wasn’t all that long ago when Manning was throwing more picks than touchdowns, and against defenses not as turnover-savvy as Carolina’s.
It’s also possible that Carolina’s ability to protect the football could break down when taking on Denver’s aggressive defense, forcing Cam Newton and his teammates to make mistakes they didn’t during the regular season. But both teams’ histories of turnovers this season make the takeaway battle—and who wins it—in play to be the deciding factor in the outcome of Super Bowl 50.