We are less than a week away from Super Bowl 50, the final game of the NFL season, which pits the Carolina Panthers and their No. 1 offense against the Denver Broncos’ No. 1 defense (and some guy named Peyton Manning). I spent a lot of the week off trying to envision how I think this game will go. Everyone and their mother are touting the Panthers and the line movement has shown this as it started around 4 and is now 6.5. Before we get to my selection on the game, I'm going to talk about the factors that went into my decision.
The Broncos may be the quietest 14-4 team in the NFL as you didn't hear one word in the national media about them this past week. The oddest part about that is they feature a legendary quarterback in Peyton Manning who may or may not be playing in his final NFL contest. Denver is coming off an awesome win over the Patriots where the Broncos’ defense hit Tom Brady more than he was hit all season. The unit allowed 283.1 yards per game, which was first in the league by almost 10 yards over Seattle. Alex Smith is really the only true mobile quarterback that Denver faced and he had nine rushes for 48 yards in two games. Aaron Rodgers managed two rushes for 31 yards in Green Bay's 29-10 loss at Denver back on Nov 1. Cam Newton represents a completely different challenge though. He'll put a lot of stress on a solid linebacker corps led by Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan. Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. are part of a secondary that should be able to win one-on-one battles with Carolina's mediocre WRs.
With regards to Denver's offense, you notice a clear difference in the group when the run game works. The Broncos managed just 242 yards on the ground in their four losses. Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson represent a solid balance of speed and toughness. They complement Manning well even though the veteran quarterback is basically a game manager now. Manning has shown to be more then that after time off though. Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas are the grade-A receivers, although Thomas has had the drops this season. Denver has allowed 39 sacks this season and that's because of Manning's lack of mobility, plus a slow start to the year. Owen Daniels had two touchdowns against the Patriots, but Carolina has been very good against tight ends.
Trying to find holes in the Carolina offense is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. The Panthers have scored 30 or more points in three straight games and eight of their last nine. Newton's continued maturation has made a difference, as he's not taking off as quickly as he had in the past. He has just 15 incompletions in the two playoff wins. Jonathan Stewart finished the regular season just shy of 1,000 yards rushing. Because of Newton's ability to keep the ball on the read option, one less player in the box has their eyes on Stewart. One of my favorite people in the league is fullback Mike Tolbert because he does anything that the team needs from blocking to getting dirty yards in the middle. When you look at the WRs, Ted Ginn stands out because he's good for one or two great plays and then one or two inexplicable drops. Jerricho Cotchery and Philly Brown wouldn't start on a lot of teams, but they somehow get open. The one legitimate pass-catching threat is Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen, who could prove to be an issue for a Broncos defense that has struggled against that position.
One of the storylines that I want to see play out this week is the health of Carolina's defense. Thomas Davis broke his forearm in the NFC Championship Game victory over Arizona yet he swears he's going to play (with a plate in his arm) on Super Sunday. The All-Pro linebacker is a big part of the defense, registering 105 tackles and 5.5 sacks. Even if he does suit up, who knows how effective he will be. Also we don't know how healthy Jared Allen will be. Everything coming out of Carolina is rosy on Allen, but how much of that is a smoke screen? The secondary is led by All-Pro corner Josh Norman and he takes away one half of the field. The question is can Cortland Finnegan and the rest of the CBs hold their own? They did against Arizona and their three good wideouts. I tried to find a common thread for the games where this side of the ball allowed a lot of points and there really wasn't one outside of a lack of focus. The Panthers had issues putting teams away at times because it got almost too easy for them.
It's a lot to consider when it comes to the Super Bowl. I don't think the line movement is over yet with more and more money streaming in on this one. The total is going to go up because the public will want to see points and feel that taking the under will not be conducive for them having a fun Sunday. I think we see the line move up a little bit more, but fall short of the 7-point mark. If it does get to a touchdown then Vegas is at risk of getting middled and that's the worst-case scenario for them because the sharps will come in on the other side. To me, six points is a gift and anything higher is gold. Denver is too good for the majority to be discounting this team. If somehow it moves back towards the original four, then I'd be a little more hesitant.
Selection: Denver +6 (Broncos 24-23)
2015 Record: 49-25-2
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Josephs prefers non-Power 5 college football and may be the only one wagering on the Sun Belt. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.