One Final Ride for the Sheriff?
Super Bowl 50: Carolina Panthers vs. Denver Broncos — Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, CA (February 7, 2016)
The Carolina Panthers are this year’s Cinderella story…except the part where they dominated almost every one of their opponents from buzzer to buzzer and won the NFC. At the beginning of this season, did anyone think the Panthers would cruise to a 15–1 record and play in the Super Bowl a year after a 2014 campaign which saw them narrowly escape the dumpster fire that was the NFC South and finish 7–9–1 on the season? Put your hands down; you’re all lying.
But admittedly, 2014 was a weird season for Carolina. They won the absolutely terrible NFC South, became the second sub-.500 team in NFL history to make the playoffs, and beat the injury-ridden Arizona Cardinals in the first round of the playoffs, only to get manhandled by the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round. In short, 2015 was poised to be a much different season for the Panthers. They were expected to win the NFC South for the third straight year, but fall to a much better NFC power, like the Seahawks or Green Bay Packers.
But the Panthers bolted out of the starting gate, rattling off 14 straight wins to begin the season in dominating fashion. Cam Newton led his offense with both his arm and his feet, throwing for 3837 yards and running for 636 yards on the season (per ESPN.com). A fierce running attack led by Jonathan Stewart, Mike Tolbert, and Cameron Artis-Payne kept opposing defenses guessing on what the Panthers would do on the next play. The Panthers’ dual-threat offense led the league in scoring offense (31.3 points per game) and rushing offense (224.3 yards per game) (stats courtesy of ESPN.com).
But the 2015 Panthers’ story can not be told in full without mentioning the team’s top-10 defense, which led the league in turnover margin (+20). A stifling front 7 led by Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis held opposing rushing attacks to a meager 88.4 yards per game and forced opposing offenses to beat the Panthers through the air (stats courtesy of ESPN.com). But many teams failed to get anything going there either; Josh Norman and the Panthers’ secondary smothered receivers and made sure the back of the Carolina defense was a ‘no-fly zone’.
After a Week 16 loss in Atlanta which saw Falcons wide-receiver Julio Jones carve up the Panthers’ secondary, Carolina returned to top form, easily dispatching the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 38–10 in Week 17 to secure the NFC’s #1 seed and a first-round bye. The Panthers then began a revenge tour in the playoffs; against the Seahawks in the divisional round, Carolina stormed out to a 31–0 lead after two interceptions by Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and two touchdown runs by Carolina running back Jonathan Stewart and withstood a 24-point Seattle comeback to advance to the NFC Championship game versus the Arizona Cardinals.
Against the Cardinals, the Panthers started off hot and refused to let off on the gas. Carolina bolted out to a 17–0 lead after the first quarter, and the Panthers defense made Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer look downright terrible in a 49–15 thrashing of Arizona to gift the Carolinas their first Super Bowl berth since the 2003–04 season, when they lost to Tom Brady and the Patriots on a last-second field goal by Adam Vinateri.
The Denver Broncos, on the other hand, are a different story entirely. Remember the last time the Broncos went to the Super Bowl? If you haven’t stripped it from your memory, color me surprised; in Super Bowl XLVIII (the title game following the 2013 season, for those of you who are bad with Roman numerals), the Seattle Seahawks ran train on the Broncos defense, cruising to an ugly-looking (well, from the Denver sideline, anyway) 43–8 victory.
But the 2015 Broncos are nothing like the team that imploded under the lights of MetLife Stadium two years ago. For one, new Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak has positioned his squad as a defensive juggernaut built to stop the best that the NFL has to offer, a sharp departure from the offensive powerhouse of 2013 coached by John Fox and led by Peyton Manning.
Speaking of Manning, he began this season in a bit of a fugue; in the Broncos’ first nine games, he threw for 9 touchdowns and 17 interceptions (per espn.com). As a result, Denver’s defense was forced to pick up the slack from a suddenly-mediocre offense and managed to hold the line, picking up seven wins in those 9 Peyton Manning starts. In the Week 10 game versus the Chiefs, Manning was benched in favor of Brock Osweiler during the third quarter after throwing four interceptions on the day and re-aggravating his foot injury. Osweiler finished out the season for the Broncos, leading fans to question whether this was the end of Manning era in Denver.
However, the quarterback commonly known as “the Sheriff” refused to go down quietly. In his Week 17 start versus the Chargers, he helped the Broncos secure the AFC’s #1 seed and a first-round bye in the playoffs. In the divisional round game versus the Pittsburgh Steelers, he posted 222 passing yards and, with ten minutes left in the game, engineered a seven-minute drive down the field, culminating in a 1-yard CJ Anderson touchdown run that ended up sealing the Broncos’ come-from-behind-win and setting up a showdown in Denver between Manning and his nemesis, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, in the AFC Championship Game (stats courtesy of espn.com).
In the 17th matchup between the two Hall of Fame quarterbacks, Manning threw for 176 yards and two touchdowns and the Broncos defense prevented a last-second Patriots two-point conversion attempt and onside kick to hold on to a 20–18 victory over New England and advance to Denver’s second Super Bowl in three years.
Matchups to Watch
Peyton Manning vs. the Panthers secondary: Can a seemingly-rejuvenated Peyton Manning beat a stout Panthers secondary (and beat Josh Norman)?
Cam Newton vs. the Broncos front 7: Can the Broncos’ #1-ranked defense contain Cam Newton and his ability to make and extend plays outside the pocket?
The Panthers vs. the stage: This Panthers team is young and has only a few games of playoff experience under its belt. How will it handle being on the biggest stage in American professional sports?
Keys to Victory
Both teams are coming into this game off emotional victories: the Panthers, hot after their dominating victory over Arizona; and the Broncos, riding the wave of their close win over New England. But after a few weeks of rest, Carolina and Denver will come into Levi’s Stadium focused and hungry for a victory.
The Panthers’ linebacker corps might be without Thomas Davis, who broke his arm in the win over the Cardinals last week. Luke Kuechly and Shaq Thompson will have to step up to help out Davis’s replacement on the weak side of the Carolina defense and keep Peyton Manning from “slicing-and-dicing” the Panthers with short- and mid-range throws. Cam Newton needs to do what he has been doing: bait defenses with his running ability, then air it out to his receivers for big gains. If Carolina wants to win its first Super Bowl, it needs to hold firm against Manning, keep CJ Anderson from breaking out big gains, and force turnovers — just like they have done all season.
For the Broncos, Peyton Manning needs to play like this is his final game (seeing as it may very well be). Denver’s front 7 has the muscle to stop the Panthers’ running attack, but as we saw in Carolina’s Week 16 game versus Atlanta, Cam Newton can also be a vicious threat in the air. The Broncos’ secondary needs to be prepared to carry the bulk of the defensive load on February 7th and put the team on its back if Denver wants to secure its first Super Bowl since John Elway crushed the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII (after the 1998–99 season).
Broncos 27 — Panthers 24, with “the Sheriff” riding off into the sunset with a second Super Bowl ring and Super Bowl MVP trophy.