Following Sunday's dominating 49-15 NFC Championship Game win over the Arizona Cardinals, the Carolina Panthers will face the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50 on Feb. 7. This will be the Panthers' second Super Bowl appearance, as they lost 32-29 to the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII. Head coach Ron Rivera and his team will be looking to give Panthers owner Jerry Richardson his first Lombardi Trophy by beating Gary Kubiak's Broncos at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.
Denver and Carolina have each staked their rightful claim as champions of their respective conferences. Now it is time for the countless storylines surrounding the big game to unfold and to let the speculation begin as to why each of these two deserving teams will win on Super Sunday.
5 Reasons the Carolina Panthers Will Win Super Bowl 50
1. Carolina’s Ground-and-Pound Run Game
The Panthers’ offense can beat opposing defenses in multiple ways, but the one consistent aspect of this unit throughout the season has been a potent run game. Jonathan Stewart and Cam Newton have now combined for 1,864 yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground when you add the Panthers’ two playoff games to their regular season rushing totals.
Carolina’s multi-faceted rushing attack produced the second-most rushing yards in the NFL during the regular season (143 ypg) and tied for the league lead with 19 rushing touchdowns. Thanks in large part to a stout offensive line led by Pro Bowlers Ryan Kalil and Trai Turner, the Panthers wer the only team in the NFL to rush for more than 100 yards against every opponent they faced in the regular season.
That success has carried over into the postseason season as well, as the Panthers have run for 296 yards and five scores in two playoff games. Those numbers become even more impressive when you consider that they came against the Seahawks’ top-ranked run defense, and a Cardinal run defense that ranked sixth during the regular season. While the Denver Broncos also boast one of the best run defenses in the NFL, history strongly suggests that they will be in for a long day against Carolina’s signature run game in Super Bowl 50.
2. Cam Newton
The evolution of Newton this season has been remarkable. The dual-threat quarterback has beaten opposing defenses in every way possible throughout the year. He has helped win games with his arm, posting monster passing totals in the process. He also has led the Panthers to victory with huge efforts on the ground game. Often times a combination of both has been the recipe for his MVP-worthy season.
He has even learned when to lay back and play the role of game manager, a facet his game lacked prior to this season. Rather than going out, each and every game, with the mind set of putting up huge numbers, Newton has matured into a next-level signal-caller, catering his vast skill set to that of his opponent’s weaknesses. And he does it better than any other quarterback in the NFL.
There aren’t many weaknesses in the Denver’s defense, but you can count on Newton finding a few vulnerable spots to exploit. He is unlike any other quarterback the Broncos have faced all season. His unpredictable style of play coupled with his freakish athleticism will go a long way in keeping an excellent Broncos’ defense off balance on Super Sunday.
3. Panthers’ Defense Will Bring the Heat
Aside from having a talented group of players, much of the Panthers’ success on defense this season can be attributed to head coach Ron Rivera and coordinator Sean McDermott’s ability to out-scheme the opposition. Rivera and McDermott have been excellent this season when it comes to disguising coverages and blitzes, and the duo love to dial up the pressure. The Panthers’ defense is responsible for eight sacks so far in two playoff games. Carolina had 44 sacks during the regular season, good for sixth in the NFL.
The Denver Broncos have had various issues on offense throughout the season, but if you had to pinpoint one problem area that has been fairly consistent, it would have to be pass protection. The Broncos’ offensive line has given up four sacks so far in the postseason, which isn’t terrible, but they ranked 20th in the NFL with 39 sacks allowed during the regular season. That doesn’t even take into account the numerous quarterback hurries and hits given up. This line has been especially vulnerable against blitz-happy defenses for obvious reasons. The Panthers will be bringing the heat in an attempt to exploit that weakness. Chances are, they find success against the shaky Broncos’ front and a slow-footed Peyton Manning.
4. Turnover Machines
There is not a better group in the NFL at creating turnovers than the Panthers. Carolina finished the regular season at plus-20 in turnover margin. They had more interceptions (24) and fumble recoveries (15) than any other team in the NFL. And this trend has only continued in postseason. Carolina forced Russell Wilson into throwing two costly interceptions in the NFC Divisional Round. And then on Sunday in the NFC Championship Game, the Panthers collected seven takeaways against the Cardinals, six of those (4 INTs, 2 fumbles) coming courtesy of quarterback Carson Palmer.
It seems highly probable that the Panthers’ success in regard to turnovers will carry over into Super Bowl 50 as well. The Broncos’ offense has been extremely generous to opposing defenses all year. In total, the Broncos turned the ball over 31 times during the regular season. Only two other teams in the NFL had more.
While Manning has made a career out of successfully reading coverages and exploiting various blitz packages, it is fair to say that has not been among his strong points this season. Conversely, the Panthers excel in disguising coverage. They also thrive off of disguising their blitz packages and bringing pressure from all directions. This pressure often leads to bad decision-making, which then translates into costly turnovers. Turnovers appear to be inevitable for Manning and the Broncos in this matchup. This could very well prove to be the deciding factor in Super Bowl 50.
5. A Painful Reminder Serves a Purpose
Carolina entered Week with a perfect 14-0 record with dreams of becoming the first team since the 1972 Miami Dolphins to finish the season as undefeated Super Bowl champions. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be, as an arrogant, unfocused Panthers team would post a mediocre performance, resulting in a loss to an inferior Falcons team that they had dominated just two weeks prior.
In hindsight, that loss was the best thing that could have happened to them. It serves as a constant reminder that they cannot afford to be over-confident against any opponent, especially at this point. We will never know for sure what would have happened if Carolina had made it into the playoffs with their perfect record intact. Regardless, the Panthers’ destiny was not to finish the season undefeated, and thanks to that embarrassing loss to the Falcons, they stand a much better chance of avoiding the same fate as the 2007 New England Patriots.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.