Five things to watch
1. LATE-GAME HEROICS
Did you know that four of the last five Super Bowls essentially came down to the last play? After years of dull blowouts, the Super Bowl has been genuinely intriguing the last few years. If it is close, it will be interesting to see if the Broncos’ experience — they lost this game two years ago — wins out over a Panthers team that features many players who have never been here before.
2. DENVER’S RUNNING GAME
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Denver quarterback Peyton Manning hasn’t been himself this season, and today, he’ll be facing a ferocious pass rush and a defense that led the league in interceptions. Needless to say, the Broncos would really help themselves out by establishing their 17th-ranked running game. Just one problem; the Panthers boast the league’s sixth-best run defense.
3. THE THIEVES
Carolina’s secondary has taken to calling themselves “the thieves,” and with good reason. Cornerback Josh Norman is one of the league’s best, while safety Kurt Coleman tied for third in the league with seven interceptions. The Panthers’ secondary will be tested by Broncos receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, but they should be well-positioned to handle them unless Manning turns back the clock and starts running all the pick routes and quick passing plays Denver used to set the single-season NFL record for points in 2013.
4. DENVER’S PASS RUSH
If the Broncos get an early lead, that could spell trouble for the Panthers. Denver’s pass defense is elite, thanks to a pair of lockdown corners and a quartet of edge rushers — DeMarcus Ware, Von Miller, Shane Ray and Shaq Barrett — that can wreak havoc. Carolina is predominantly a rushing team, so don’t expect it to stray to far from its ground-based attack, but the Broncos have a chance to rattle Newton if they can force him to throw a ton.
5. THE TURNOVER BATTLE
Teams who win the turnover battle win the Super Bowl. Those who have done so are 36-4 in its 49-year history. If this game plays out like the regular season, that’s great news for the Panthers, who led the league in turnover margin with plus-20. Meanwhile, the Broncos finished 20th at minus-four.
Face to face
Broncos QB Peyton Manning vs. Panthers ILB Luke Kuechly
Manning has taken a pounding over the years, and the accuracy on his deep balls has waned enough that he does most of his damage on short-to-intermediate passes. Unfortunately for him, the Panthers are equipped to take these passes away, thanks to a quick, instinctive group of linebackers led by Kuechly and fellow veteran Thomas Davis. Manning will need to do a good job of looking them off and keeping them off balance, lest they sit on his short hot routes.
Broncos WR Emmanuel Sanders vs. Panthers CB Josh Norman
These are two of the league’s best at their positions. Sanders wins with quickness and precision route running; Norman wins with confidence, competitiveness and instincts. Keep an eye on this matchup throughout the game; both players have engaged in a war of words this week.
Broncos C Matt Paradis vs. Panthers DT Kawann Short
Paradis, a sixth-round pick in 2014, was a practice-squad player a year ago. Now he finds himself matched up on the biggest stage against one of the baddest interior defensive linemen in football. Paradis can be overpowered at the point of attack, which plays to the advantage of Short, who has used his quickness and power to pile up 11 sacks this season. If Short is disruptive in the interior, the Broncos’ offense could have a hard time getting anything going via the run or pass.
Panthers QB Cam Newton vs. Broncos LB Danny Trevathan
Newton has emerged as the breakout star of 2015, accounting for 45 touchdowns during the regular season and becoming a legitimate MVP candidate. Part of Newton’a brilliance can be attributed to his ability to gash teams on the ground, where he can use his freakish combination of size (6-6, 250) and mobility to terrorize teams. It will be up to Trevathan and another linebacker, Brandon Marshall, to hold their ground and be disciplined on their run fits, while also using sound tackling when spying Newton on passing plays.
Panthers TE Greg Olsen vs. Broncos SS T.J. Ward
The Panthers’ No. 1 target is Olsen, who caught 77 passes for 1,104 yards and seven touchdowns this season. He and his quarterback have great chemistry, as Olsen often serves as Newton’s security blanket. The Broncos have struggled against tight ends this season, so it could be up to Ward to keep Olsen in check. Removing Olsen from the equation would go a long way toward shaking Newton’s seemingly unflappable confidence.
Teams never seem to deal well with distractions during Super Bowl week, and there’s little doubt that Denver practice-squad safety Ryan Murphy’s involvement with a San Jose prostitution sting was just that. Murphy was ultimately sent home, and teammates and coaches had to answer questions about it. However, the good news for Broncos is that the Patriots dealt with the Deflategate situation in the run-up to last year’s Super Bowl, and they still found a way to win.
Three reasons why...
...The Broncos will win
1. They have an elite defense. Few teams can apply pressure on the quarterback like Denver, which boasts perhaps the league’s best assistant coach in Wade Phillips. If the Broncos can find a way to score early — special teams, perhaps? — and Manning can turn back the clock some, they’ve got a chance to put some serious pressure on the Panthers.
2. The Broncos might have a little bit of a “nobody believes in us” thing going on. The Panthers are six-point favorites, according to Bovada, and three of the last four Super Bowl champions have been underdogs.
3. Manning is one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the game, and in some ways, his legacy will be on the line here. With a loss, he’ll drop to 1-3 in Super Bowls. Manning does have the best big-game history, but with this possibly being his last game, it would be fitting for him to pull one more rabbit out of his hat.
...The Panthers will win
1. On paper, they’re the best team in football. Teams don’t go 17-1 for no reason, and they boast a strong offense and a strong defense. That means they’re equipped to win many different types of football games, high scoring or low scoring.
2. The Panthers forced turnovers and protected the football at a rate better than any other NFL team this season. The trend has continued in the playoffs and has shown no signs of stopping.
3. Manning isn’t what he used to be. And with Denver’s running game grading out at about average to below-average, it’s difficult to imagine them finding much room to work against one of the league’s best defenses.