Which under-the-radar player or unexpected variable could ultimately decide the outcome of Super Bowl 50?
The big names and obvious attention grabbers will always be at the forefront in the weeks leading up to any Super Bowl. Super Bowl 50, pitting the Carolina Panthers against the Denver Broncos, is no exception. In fact, Super Bowl 50 seems to have more storylines than usual given the unique nature of the matchup. Peyton Manning and Cam Newton alone have yielded more storylines and content than any normal human being could ever even hope to follow.
Related: Super Bowl 50 Preview and Predictions – Carolina Panthers vs. Denver Broncos
That being said, there are plenty of variables at play, and it is not uncommon for an under-the-radar player or unexpected event to ultimately take center stage in deciding the outcome of the big game. Malcolm Butler’s game-clinching interception at the end of last year’s Super Bowl is a shining example of exactly that. The fact that the Seahawks opted to throw the ball on 2nd-and-goal from the 1-yard line, while ignoring the fact that they had the best goal-line back in the NFL, was another unexpected happening that grabbed postgame headlines following Super Bowl XLIX.
While these types of anomalies, or x-factors, usually fail to spearhead the media attention prior to the big game, they often find their way to front-page headlines on Monday morning. So, with that in mind, let’s take a closer look at five potential x-factors for Super Bowl 50.
Carolina Panthers DT Kawann Short
While Short is slowly building a reputation as one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL following a breakout season in 2015, he is rarely one of the names that come to the forefront when discussing the Panthers’ star-studded defense. All-Pros like linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, as well as cornerback Josh Norman, are usually the first names you would hear. That being said, a lot of the aforementioned names would not have the success that they do without a disruptive force like Short setting the stage.
The third-year lineman out of Purdue led the Panthers with 11 sacks during the regular season, while adding 55 total tackles and forcing three fumbles. He’s had two more sacks in the postseason, as well another forced fumble and several QB hurries. Short also serves as a menacing presence in the middle stopping the run. He may not be on your (ahem) short list of players to watch in Super Bowl 50, but No. 99 for the Panthers will likely come to your attention early and often on Sunday. Short could very well have a field day against Denver’s sometimes-shaky offensive line (see below).
The Broncos’ Rushing Attack
While Peyton Manning and the passing game have garnered much of the spotlight heading into Super Bowl 50, it will likely be the Denver rushing attack that has the biggest impact on the game. Denver is a perfect 9-0 this season when rushing for at least 105 yards, leaving no question that the Broncos’ run game (for better or worse) will be paramount to the team’s success in Super Bowl 50. There also is no question that it will be tough sledding against a stout Panther run defense, but C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman will likely be up for the challenge.
Following a terrible start to 2015, the Denver run game was able to stage a monumental turnaround in the latter half of the season, jumping from a woeful 88 rushing yards per game in their first eight to 127 yards per game in the second half of regular season. Anderson, while often under-utilized, averages 6.4 yards per carry over the last nine games of the regular season. He has gained a respectful 4.6 yards per carry in the Broncos’ two playoff games. Hillman has been less impressive down the stretch, but his track record suggests that he is certainly capable of a breakout performance. If this duo can maintain the positive momentum, Anderson and/or Hillman could easily be the x-factor(s) that decide the outcome of Super Bowl 50 in favor of the Broncos.
A Confident Panthers vs. an Arrogant Panthers
The 2015 Carolina Panthers will never be a team associated with a lack of confidence, especially when it comes to their charismatic quarterback and team leader Cam Newton. In fact, it is not unfair to say that Newton and the Panthers have become a little too confident at times this season. The same cocky swag that fueled them to so many dominant performances this season, also has led to complacency at times. It was this complacency that played a big role in costing the Panthers a perfect regular season against a Falcons team that they had destroyed just a couple weeks earlier. It also can be argued that over-confidence was an underlying factor in close calls against the Saints and Giants as well.
The Panthers, as usual, seem to have no shortage of confidence heading into Super Bowl 50. Confidence is a good thing. All great teams have it, and it should pay positive dividends on Super Sunday if held in check. But confidence is a double-edged-sword that can quickly lead to arrogance and complacency. It has been an Achilles’ heel with this team in the past, and it could very well be the x-factor that bites the Panthers again when it counts the most. The loss that cost them their undefeated season should serve as a reminder of what can and will happen if they get a little too full of themselves.
The Broncos’ Offensive Line
Denver has certainly had its fair share of issues on offense this season, but none have been more glaring than up front. The offensive line seemed doomed from the start with the injury bug hitting this unit early and often. From pass protection to run blocking, various combinations of regular starters and patchwork replacements struggled mightily at times during the season, especially early.
The good news is that the Broncos’ patchwork offensive line has shown positive signs of progress down the stretch and in the playoffs. Denver’s running game came alive in the latter stages of the season with the current cast of linemen paving the way. And while sacks and QB pressure remain issues of concern, a steady decrease during the latter part of the regular season and in the playoffs yields credence to some improvement in those regards as well. That being said, it will be a tall order for this group to gel into championship form on Sunday. If the Broncos’ offensive line hopes to avoid being a liability in Super Bowl 50, it must get the job done consistently against a very opportunistic Panther defense.
A Carolina Sleeper
Newton and tight end Greg Olsen are undoubtedly the media darlings for the Panthers’ offense, and more often than not, deservedly so. However, let’s not forget about the supporting cast of unsung heroes that played a huge part in a wildly successful season. Those who fit the bill include everyone that makes up one of the best offensive lines in the NFL to top running back Jonathan Stewart paving the way for arguably the league’s most potent rushing attack to a cast of unheralded wide receivers that always seem to come up with a big play when the Panthers need it most. This offense has plenty of capable playmakers and not all of them are named Newton or Olsen.
Newton and/or Olsen are the obvious odds-on favorites to be the big difference-makers on offense for the Panthers in Super Bowl 50. But it would not be shocking in the least to see Stewart or Ted Ginn Jr., or even someone like rookie Devin Funchess take home the postgame accolades when all is said and done. The same holds true for a player such as Broncos tight end Owen Daniels. There are several candidates on the defensive side of the ball for both teams that could steal the show as well. It certainly isn’t unprecedented, as many under-the-radar players have made names for themselves on Super Sunday in the past. Just ask Malcolm Butler, Deion Branch or David Tyree to name a few.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.