It’s only fitting that Super Bowl 50 between the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos features so many historical storylines and angles. And it’s not just the quarterbacks either. Carolina comes to Levi’s Stadium in search of the franchise’s first Lombardi Trophy in its second appearance, while Denver is now tied with Dallas, Pittsburgh and New England for the most appearances with eight. The Broncos (2-5 in Super Bowls) are looking to become the ninth franchise in NFL history to win at least three Lombardi Trophies while a loss would only extend their lead in that column.
And while a great deal of the attention leading up to the game will focus on the quarterbacks, this matchup is much more than Cam Newton vs. Peyton Manning. For starters, while this is the 12th time since 1975 that the two top seeds in each conference meet in the Super Bowl, it’s somewhat rare in that it pits the league's top scoring offense (Carolina) against the stingiest defense (Denver). A similar matchup took place two seasons ago, when Seattle’s defense handled Denver’s record-setting offense in a 43-8 whitewashing in Super Bowl XLVIII.
The roles are reversed for the Broncos this time around, but Denver’s top-ranked D figures to have its hands full trying to slow down a Panthers offense powered by Newton’s dual-threat capabilities. Of course Carolina’s defense is no slouch either not with a pair of All-Pro linebackers in Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis manning the middle and shutdown cornerback Josh Norman making life miserable for opposing wide receivers. Whether you prefer offense vs. defense or young vs. old to describe this matchup, Super Bowl 50 doesn’t lack for storylines. The question is will the game itself follow the script of one of these or will it write its own?
Super Bowl 50: Carolina Panthers vs. Denver Broncos
Kickoff: 6:30 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Location: Levi's Stadium (Santa Clara, Calif.)
Spread: Carolina -6
5 Things to Watch
1. Superman vs. The Sherriff
Cam Newton enters his first Super Bowl with plenty of momentum, as he was named an All-Pro after posting the best numbers of his career in leading Carolina to a 15-1 record in the regular season. In 18 games, Newton has accounted for 50 total touchdowns (38 passing, 12 rushing) and just 14 turnovers (11 INTs, 3 fumbles). He clearly is the engine that drives the Panthers’ No. 1-ranked offense. Then there’s Peyton Manning, who has thrown more picks (17) than touchdowns (12), as injuries limited him to just 10 starts in the regular season. He clearly isn’t the quarterback he once was, but he has done what has been needed to get the Broncos back to the Super Bowl for the second time in three seasons. Manning has been here before and would love to get that second ring, which also would even his Super Bowl record. This is Newton’s first Super Sunday appearance and he fully intends to make the most of it. Both quarterbacks will have to contend with defenses that ranked in the top six in the NFL in yards and points allowed. How each quarterback performs will not only go a long ways towards determining which team wins Super Bowl 50, but it also will represent the final chapter to either an incredible season or, quite possibly, a remarkable career.
2. Staying Grounded
As important as quarterback play will be in Super Bowl 50, the running games certainly can’t be overlooked. For one, running the ball is a big part of the Panthers’ offense, especially when you take Newton’s contributions into consideration. Carolina finished second in the regular season in rushing (142.6 ypg) and has picked up nearly 300 yards on the ground in its two playoff victories. Denver may not have the overall numbers that Carolina does, but the Broncos have been more effective running the ball lately, averaging 132.8 yards per game since Manning reclaimed the starting job in Week 16. Denver (third in NFL) and Carolina (fourth) both did a good job against the run in the regular season and have been even stingier in the playoffs. Panthers All-Pro linebacker Thomas Davis broke his right forearm in the NFC Championship Game, but he underwent surgery last week to insert a dozen screws and a metal plate into his arm and has sworn he will play in his first Super Bowl. It will be interesting to see how effective Davis is, but Carolina’s defense is anything but a one-man show. From a quarterback perspective, Manning needs the Broncos’ run game to make life in the pocket easier, while Newton has it as part of his arsenal. However, both offenses must find a way to pick up yards on the ground, especially against two defenses that that excel in bringing pressure.
3. What’s the Rush?
Speaking of pressure, both Carolina and Denver are able to create some without relying too heavily on the blitz. The Panthers have a fairly deep front that’s capable of making plays, while the Broncos have Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware bringing the heat from the edges. The Panthers’ pressure not only produces sacks (44 in regulars season, eight in playoffs), but it also helps create turnovers. That was never more evident than in the NFC Championship Game where Carolina forced Arizona into seven miscues, including six (4 INTs, 2 fumbles) by Carson Palmer. On the other side, pressure was a key to Denver’s AFC Championship Game win over New England, as Miller, Ware and others harassed Tom Brady (4 sacks, 23 hits, 2 INTs) all afternoon. Newton is certainly more mobile than Manning or Brady, not to mention a lot tougher to bring down, but that doesn’t mean Denver’s pressure can’t be successful in disrupting Carolina’s offensive rhythm while also potentially frustrating its dynamic quarterback. It’s no secret that the Panthers would love to get their hands early and often on Manning, who not only can’t afford to take too many big hits, he’s also much more limited in his ability to make plays when the pocket collapses. Simply put, whichever defense can do a better job of bringing the heat will likely have a better chance of dictating the course of Super Bowl 50.
4. Does Experience Matter?
Since this is Denver’s second Super Bowl trip in three seasons, it makes sense that the Broncos would have the edge in experience. Denver has 18 players who have been on a Super Bowl roster previously and 16 who have played on Super Sunday. As has already been noted this will be Manning’s fourth Super Bowl start, while head coach Gary Kubiak will be participating in his seventh. A backup to John Elway on three Bronco teams that lost in the Super Bowl, Kubiak was Denver’s offensive coordinator for its back-to-back championship teams and also has a ring from his time as the 49ers’ quarterbacks coach. His counterpart, Ron Rivera, was a reserve linebacker on the 1985 Chicago Bears that won Super Bowl XX, but otherwise this is an entirely new experience for his team. The Panthers have seven players who have previously experienced a Super Bowl and only five who have played in one. The Broncos also are no doubt motivated to redeem themselves following the embarrassment of the 43-8 beatdown courtesy of the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII. Denver’s been here before, while Carolina has no familiarity with all the extra attention, obligations and distractions that come before the game itself is actually played. But the flip side of this is that the Broncos enter this game arguably with more to prove because of what happened two years ago, as well as the fact the Panthers are the favorite. Will any of this matter come kickoff? Probably not, but it’s something worth keeping an eye on.
5. Sound in the Kicking Game
This may be the last thing anyone is really thinking about, but as the AFC Championship Game showed, nothing should ever be taken for granted, not even an extra point. To that end, Carolina’s Graham Gano has had a fine season, finishing second in scoring to All-Pro Stephen Gostkowski. But Gostkowski’s missed PAT, his first of the season, loomed large in New England’s loss to Denver in the AFC title game. Gano missed three PATs in the regular season (out of 59 attempts) with the last coming back in Week 13. He’s been a perfect 25-for-25 since then and has missed only one of his nine field goal tries during that span. On the other side, Denver’s Brandon McManus has missed just one of his 38 PATs entering Super Bowl 50. His lone misfire came in Week 15 at Pittsburgh. McManus has a strong leg and has been successful on all seven field goal attempts in the playoffs, but he won’t be kicking at home at altitude for this game. Barring a shutout, both of these kickers will factor at some point, but exactly how much remains to be seen. But wouldn’t it be something if the outcome of Super Bowl 50 was decided by a missed extra point? Remember, it’s a longer kick this season than in years past and it’s not like something similar hasn’t happened before. Sorry Bills fans.
On paper, Super Bowl 50 is the type of matchup any football fan should be looking forward to – the top two teams from each conference going head-to-head, as well as the NFL’s No. 1 (scoring) offense vs. the No. 1 (total) defense. Throw in the Cam Newton vs. Peyton Manning dynamic, not to mention the presence of All-Pro defenders like Luke Kuechly, Von Miller, Thomas Davis and Josh Norman, and this game has a little bit of everything.
However, as we have seen in the past Super Bowls sometimes don’t go like we envisioned. That was the case two years ago when Denver got manhandled by Seattle in Super Bowl XLVIII. The Broncos are intent on erasing that bad memory, but the Panthers have been rolling all season and have their sights set on finishing strong and in their own style. Denver has the experience, but will that matter considering Carolina is favored and has the likely league MVP leading the charge? With the expectation that this could be Manning’s final game is he due for a storybook ending or another Super Sunday disappointment?
Athlon Editors Super Bowl 50 Predictions
Athlon Contributors Super Bowl 50 Predictions
Ted Ginn Jr.