The 2015-16 NFL season has been every bit as exciting as the league had hoped it would be, from Deflategate, to the Carolina Panthers’ 14-game undefeated start, all the way up to the dramatic unfolding of the playoffs thus far. The culmination of the season has led us down the road to Santa Clara, California — the site for Super Bowl 50.
How we arrived here
The matchup between the 17-1 Panthers and the 14-4 Denver Broncos appears to be the golden-anniversary matchup that fans have been dreaming of. The old sheriff, Peyton Manning, has one more bullet left in the chamber as he leads his Broncos into what could possibly be his final game versus the NFL’s new superman, Carolina’s Cam Newton.
This season Newton has been nothing short of spectacular — amassing 50 total touchdowns in a year in which few teams could keep up with the Atlanta native’s torrid offensive pace. The Panthers faced little opposition in the regular season, as the Atlanta Falcons dealt the Panthers their only loss in Week 15. The likely league MVP has carried Carolina through the postseason, defeating the Seattle Seahawks 31-24 and dismantling the Arizona Cardinals 49-15 in the NFC Championship Game last week. Newton is now set to lead his No. 1 scoring offense up against the Broncos’ top-ranked scoring defense.
Led by Von Miller and company, the “Orange Crush Defense” has been revitalized in 2015, allowing the fewest points (18.5) and the fewest yards per game (283.1) in the regular season. Miller and seasoned veteran DeMarcus Ware pushed the Broncos’ pass rush to a league-high 52 sacks, harassing opposing quarterbacks week in and week out. The Broncos made it to this point by defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers 23-16 then knocking off New England 20-18 in the AFC Championship Game.
Manning had the worst statistical season of his career in 2015, dealing with a partially torn plantar fascia in his left foot for most of the second half of the season. The injury forced Manning to miss six games and limited his offensive output to a paltry 2,249 yards passing with nine touchdowns and 17 interceptions on the season. Nevertheless, Manning has done just enough offensively to get the Broncos within one game of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy for the third time in franchise history.
Cam Newton vs. the Broncos pass rush
This year’s Super Bowl is the first time that a No.1 overall pick (Newton) and a No. 2 overall pick (Miller) from the same draft will face each other on the game’s biggest stage. Keeping Miller out of Newton’s face is Carolina’s top priority.
In the AFC Championship Game, Miller did it all for the Broncos, sacking Patriots quarterback Tom Brady 2.5 times and snagging an interception. Carolina’s third-year right tackle Mike Remmers will certainly have his hands full come Super Bowl Sunday. On the blind side of Newton, Michael Oher will also have a tall task in trying to stop Ware from breathing down Newton’s neck. Expect the Panthers to keep AP All-Pro fullback Mike Tolbert in the backfield in shotgun situations to assist in pass protection.
Carolina’s defense vs. Manning
Manning’s decline in statistics can not only be attributed to his injury in 2015, but also to his reduced arm strength. Manning is lining up for his last rodeo, but sadly for him, it’s against one of the toughest front sevens in all of football.
AP All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly, who has consecutive games with interceptions returned for touchdowns, could be in line to make his presence felt once again. Kuechly will be all over the field on Super Bowl Sunday and most likely will be matched up against Denver tight end Owen Daniels in passing situations.
Another All-Pro, cornerback Josh Norman, will be lined up with Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and should be able to cover the Broncos’ main outside threat, leaving Manning few options to throw to in key third-down situations. Sending pressure would benefit the Panthers, as Manning is one of the least likely quarterbacks to leave the pocket.
For the regular season, Carolina registered 44 sacks, but the Panthers only blitzed 28 percent of the time to achieve that feat, according to ESPN statistics. If the Panthers can get pressure on Manning while only sending four rushers, the Broncos offense will be in for a long day.
Super Bowl 50 will be a defensive showdown, with both teams looking to establish the run early. Carolina’s success will depend on Newton’s ability to escape pressure, buy time for his receivers to get open and run for key first downs. Newton has all the intangibles for the big stage and will prove why he is the MVP of the NFL, while Manning falls short in his final conquest to ride off into the sunset as a two-time champion.
Final score: Panthers 24, Broncos 17.