Just about everyone thinks the Carolina Panthers will win Super Bowl 50. ESPN asked 70 staffers for their predictions and 53 of them chose the Panthers. Eight SI writers out of 10 picked Carolina too. The Panthers opened as 3.5 point favorites and so many people bet on them, that the line swelled to 6 at one point. Drew has them winning. FiveThirtyEight lays out how Peyton Manning is the worst QB to lead his team to a Super Bowl, and they say Carolina has a 59 percent chance to win. Hell, this black bear picked them even though bears and panthers are natural rivals (in the jungle). I think they’re all wrong, even the bear.
The chief argument against the Broncos is that their offense is sad and flawed. This is, sadly, true. Peyton Manning is still 84 years old and still nursing injuries everywhere. Gary Kubiak is committed to a run-based gameplan that hasn’t really done much of anything thus far in the playoffs. It’s not fun to watch.
But the great thing about the Broncos’ defense is that Peyton doesn’t need to be anywhere near his best for the team to win. He’s been butt all year, and they collected 12 regular season wins and two weird playoff wins. So, any way you spin it, Denver’s passing offense is an area of weakness, but they still have an impressive collection of talent to play with.
Even in his zombified state, Manning is good for about five perfect throws a game. He had Emmanuel Sanders on a beautiful and potentially game-killing touchdown against new England, but Sanders dropped his route. Manning isn’t going to come out and throw 25 deep balls or try to roast Josh Norman just for the hell of it, but, across the span of his career, there’s a far longer track record of him playing like an elite quarterback than a decrepit one. If he isn’t a complete disaster, which isn’t that high of a bar, Denver will be fine.
And that’s because of Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. Bill Barnwell made the case over at ESPN that Carolina’s offensive tendencies negate the edge-rushing advantage Denver’s two outside linebackers have. His point is that the Panthers run so much that Denver can’t afford to send their two whirling dervishes of death flying in towards Newton. They run a lot of stuff out of the shotgun, which, “paralyze[s] the front seven of opposing defenses.” Sure, but Denver has a number of luxuries that dull the Panthers’ advantages.
Because Cam Newton doesn’t have an array of great receivers to throw to, Denver can afford to single up Carolina’s receivers and get aggressive in the box. Miller doesn’t have to (and probably won’t) stick around and fly in off the edge every play. He can spy on Cam, cover Greg Olsen, or plug gaps. He’s versatile and Wade Phillips is a wizard, and he’ll find a way to use his best player. Carolina also tends to circle the wagons and get everyone inside blocking for Newton. Denver is the best in the league at stopping the run (they only allow 3.3 yards/carry) but they’re truly elite at rushing the passer. Newton is probably the hardest quarterback to sack in the NFL—how do you bring down a guy who’s stronger or faster than every linebacker?—but Denver has a series of guys to throw at him, and he hasn’t played a defense nearly this good this year.
The Panthers had the easiest schedule in football, and they only played against three top-ten defenses in 2015 (based on DVOA), one of whom was the Texans before they figured it out. The other two teams (Indianapolis and Seattle), very nearly beat the Panthers. In the Indianapolis game, Carolina blew a 17-point fourth quarter lead and let the Colts take it to overtime. They almost let Seattle storm all the way back from a 31-point hole earlier in the playoffs.
This doesn’t show that the Panthers have a fatal flaw with their clutch gene or anything like that, but with the way Denver’s defense tends to tighten as the game goes on, it could be a factor. We’re getting into the realm of heavy speculation here, but Denver’s airtight defense and dumb offense point to this game being an ugly rockfight, and they’re the team more suited to win that type of game.
Still, a lot has to break right for the Broncos to win. Cam can’t keep their rushers off balance and have time to find Greg Olsen 20 times. He also can’t scamper through Denver’s hapless middle linebackers for 15 yards whenever he feels so inclined. Josh Norman can’t completely erase Demaryius Thomas from the game. Jonathan Stewart can’t rip off any long touchdown runs. Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly have to be kept away from Manning or else he might turn into a pile of ash. They’re the favorites for a reason.
While the Broncos are imbalanced, I don’t think the gap between the teams is as big as it’s been made out to be. Peyton Manning, fresh off two weeks of rest, could very well be better than he’s been all year tomorrow. Even if that only shakes out to be an average game of NFL quarterbacking, it might not matter. That they’ve gotten this far with such a wonky team is impressive. They’re underdogs, but they are more talented than they’re perceived to be.
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