This is it. This is the game we have all been waiting for, but let’s get it straight this is the preview we were truly counting down to. This year you have a Super Bowl that has been talked about as boring, and had trouble originally selling out, but that’s on the fan bases not the football teams. I mean you are looking at the top offense in the league and the top defense in the league facing each other. You have the Panthers scoring 30 points ten times, eight of the last nine games, and a defense that has not given up 20 points twelve times this season and this is going to be boring? Come, on.
You also get the top two picks of the 2011 draft actually squaring off on the field unlike all the “Brady vs Manning” rivalry talk. Cam Newton and Von Miller led what is arguably the best draft ever with names such as Marcell Dareus, AJ Green, Julio Jones, JJ Watt, Tyron Smith Richard Sherman and Patrick Peterson and that is just a few of them. The top two picks lived up to the hype and they are the most valuable players on the two teams in this Super Bowl.
Also we get it, Peyton Manning isn’t as good as he once was. Guess when most people knew that? Week 11 of LAST YEAR. Since then the Broncos went 19-6. That includes a 4-2 record with Brock Osweiler but the point remains that last week was not the first time the Broncos relied on their defense to win a game.
At the end of the day the matchup everyone wants to talk about is that top offense and that top defense and the thought would be that Carolina will want to receive if they win the toss while Denver would defer if they win so let’s start there. The Panthers game plan will be very interesting. It will feature more than likely 100% shotgun snaps, and very little runs without the idea of Newton running a read option. Without a threat of misdirection the Broncos are going to defend the run well and the Panthers just aren’t going to want to go there. The Broncos are a swarming defense and the threat of misdirection is the only way to pause them long enough to set up blockers or receivers moving down field. In that it is tough to see Jonathan Stewart get going. Demarcus Ware and Von Miller are going to set the edge, and most times they will see not only a tackle, but a tight end into chip block. In the passing game Stewart will be used to chip one side, in the run it will be Olsen across from Ed Dickson who is quietly the key to the game. Dickson will see plenty of snaps and essentially is going to be an extra blocker who can switch sides. Even in a 4 on 2 situation the edge goes to Miller and Ware, especially when you consider who else comes to the table. Shane Ray and Shaq Barrett are starting NFL pass rushers on more than half of the teams in the league but here they are spelling Miller and Ware. It leaves these two with no chance to over exert themselves and the relentlessness will have to wear down the Panthers. With the edges set it will be tough for Cam Newton to hold the ball in the pocket which he loves to do so much. The Panthers run a lot of vertical routes and let Newton unleash his cannon down field. However, that typically is not the way to beat the Broncos pass rush. The Panthers will want to look to the Steelers game plan when Ben Roethlisberger, similar in body type to Newton picked them apart at home. Roethlisberger threw the ball 55 times for 380 yards, a 6.9 y/a rate. In perspective his 2015 season finished with a 8.4 yard per attempt clip. Martavis Bryant who is used as a deep threat with a 15.4 yards per reception rate this year caught 10 balls for 87 yards, a stat line he probably will not see again. It is because the Steelers adjusted and turned their offense into a fast paced, quick strike offense. Bryant is a guy who demands respect for the deep ball, and Antonio Brown who grabbed 16 balls that game is the best wide receiver in the game. For Newton, even if he plays like Roethlisberger has nothing near the talent of Roethlisberger around him. Chris Harris got burnt many times by Brown, but he is by many standards the best corner in the league, especially against slot/possession receivers. In this game it would be expected that he shuts down Corey Brown. This Brown is nowhere near Antonio, nor is he close to Julian Edelman who was held in check last week with 7 catches for 50 yards. Aqib Talib and Bradley Roby will more than likely switch off between Tedd Ginn and Jerricho Cotchery depending on where they line up. Either is an easy win for the Broncos. Ginn has burner ability, but Talib is typically a solid defender of the deep ball, while Cotchery and his spell Devin Funchess like to work the slot but Roby has faced tougher. The Broncos will allow short receptions to all as they are a very good tackling team. They will refuse to get beat deep though, and that is when the pass rushers will need to step up and sack Newton. The Broncos also have the luxury of having two of the more skilled middle linebackers in the game. The plan should be for these two to jam the middle, along with the Broncos interior lineman to keep Newton from busting free in the run game. Marshall is the only linebacker on Denver bigger than Newton and should be sent on the most blitzes as well as showing blitz, jamming the center and jumping back to spy Newton. Danny Trevathan doesn’t have the size but is a solid coverage linebacker with speed and will see a lot of Greg Olsen. Olsen is the game breaker and by far Newton’s biggest mismatch. To help the undersized but quick Trevathan will be TJ Ward who is a lumbering safety that cannot afford to let Olsen school him. Darian Stewart will also see Olsen and Talib will more than likely take snaps on him as well as he is the biggest fear from Carolina. The Broncos have done a poor job against tight ends in the past, but the thought is that if everyone else can be shut down in man to man coverage it will be a heck of alot easier to bracket Olsen. They also held New England to 18 points despite giving up 8 catches for 144 yards to Rob Gronkowski, and while Olsen is great he isn’t quite Gronk either. At the end of the day it is defensive coordinator Wade Phillips who will have to find ways to mix coverages, mix blitzes and keep Newton contained in the pocket.
When Manning gets the ball the job is to let the clock run. Make no doubt, Denver and all of their talent can contain Newton. However, Newton is a load. He is going to get you at some point, he is going to extend plays and he is going to make the entire defense, despite outstanding depth tired. Therefore the run will be prevalent. The Broncos have surprised people by letting Manning throw in his playoff run this year, but that is what he needs to do to open the run game. CJ Anderson in these last two games ran 31 times for 134 yards and he will be the key to whether or not Denver can keep it close. The Panthers make their hay off of turnovers, and while the run will be obvious at times, leaving Manning back there to take sacks is more dangerous to turning it over. The Panthers rotate seven or eight defensive lineman depending on if Jared Allen is healthy and can usually get the pressure on with rushing four and dropping back seven. The Panthers also run a ton of Cover 3 which leaves the short middle for Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis making it extremely hard to have a short passing game. The key here is Davis. Davis is an All-Pro player and is one of the most underrated players of this decade when you compare contributions to publicity. However, Davis broke his forearm just two weeks ago. He looks good in practice and will wrap it up in a club like cast but if I am Manning I am testing him early. A quick drag to Demaryius Thomas can be remembered as the opening of a can of whoop ass when Kam Chancellor laid him out to set the tone of Super Bowl 48. This time I go right back to Thomas and tell him to go right for Davis and force Davis to bring him down. The earlier you get him to tackle the earlier he feels it in his arm. The Panthers secondary ranked second against the pass, but really the pass rush and linebacker play are what makes it so hard to breath against them. Josh Norman is in the midst of a breakout year but he typically sticks to one side. The debate all week has been who he will cover, and if he will follow either Thomas or Emmanuel Sanders but that seems very doubtful. Norman will stick to the left side making it easier to pick your wideouts pre play. Sure they will shift coverage away from Norman, but in Sanders and Thomas you have possibly two of the top ten wide receivers in the league. Sanders has come up with big play after big play and is certainly more sure handed than Thomas. Sanders played the slot the majority of his career in Pittsburgh, and lines up in the slot about 20% of the time in Denver. Sanders in the slot is dangerous to him in the fact that he will be staring down shots from Kuechly in the short pass, but is even more dangerous for Carolina because he will not be able to be contained in the man to man. Robert McClain and Cortland Finnegan are the keys here because one of them will be in a mismatch all game whether it be Sanders or Thomas. If the short passes can be opened up, Davis will be subbing out a lot and the run game and Anderson should be somewhat successful. The key for Denver is they don’t need to break this game open. They need to avoid turnovers, complete their short passes, run the ball and keep the clock going. It would keep Newton out of sync, keep their defense honest and win the field position battle which they have done in the past two games.
At the end of the day the Panthers are the hottest team out there. America said the Cardinals and Seahawks were the best in the league and the Panthers laughed. The Broncos however weren’t just beating the trash of league. They beat the Bengals in their second to last regular season game before knocking off six combined Super Bowl wins and the nine appearances between Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger. They did so in holding them to 17 points per game. Sure Antonio Brown wasn’t in there for Pittsburgh, but doesn’t every team need some type of break? How about the Panthers facing Seattle in a spot where they had to fly to the east coast in back to back weeks for two straight 10 AM pacific time starts? Seattle had to play in the coldest game ever on the East coast, fly home and thaw out just in time to turn around and fly back across the country, plus having their star running back jump back into the mix after a nine week hiatus only to prove rust is real. We also joke about Carson Palmer’s play and fail to mention that he has already undergone thumb surgery in the offseason. Lastly you have the Broncos at 4-0 in the past month beating 3 playoff teams and facing seven over the course of the regular season. The Panthers last month they went 3-1 with two wins over playoff teams and only beat four playoff teams all season. Two of which happened to be the hands down worst two in the playoffs (Washington and Houston). This isn’t to demean what the Panthers have done but more to say why is this game so obvious to so many? The Panthers have blown teams out but the Broncos have won the dog fights, the Panthers have played the disrespect card all season but now it is the Broncos being disrespected. The better defense has won 40 of the 49 Super Bowls and while Cam Newton deserves all of his accolades it is too tough to go against the better defense, let alone when they are getting six points. I’m sure the media will tell this story as Gary Kubiak pulling a Steve Kerr and Peyton Manning having just enough juice to win the game, but I see it more as Wade Phillips took a good defense and made it great and it will be a defense that I will remember for years to come and compare only to the 2013 Seahawks, the 2006 and 2008 Steelers, the 2004 Bucs, the 2001 Patriots and the 1999 Ravens as the best in my lifetime. Lastly, Manning knows he has what, 30 passes left in his career? He has been known as a playoff choker but this playoffs has yet to throw an interception. His time off has seemed to be humbling and the Manning we saw throw a league leading 17 interceptions has no longer pushed his limits in the past three games. I see Manning doing just enough, Von Miller pushing his way to being the highest paid defender in the league with a Super Bowl MVP and the Broncos shocking many in a 20-17 win. My play of the day is the under due to both teams wanting to have a conservative game plan, and a bet that Manning will fail to throw an interception. Here is a list of bets I will be making in the most fun day to bet on football of the year.
Total score under 45 points
Tease Broncos +11.5, under 51 points
Cam Newton to win MVP -140 (better hedge than Panthers money line)
Von Miller to win MVP +1800
Will there be a scoreless quarter? Yes +200
First touchdown pass under 13 yards -115
Will there be a Score in the first 6:30 no -110
Will there be a Score in the first 7:30 no +135
First play of the game: rushing attempt +125
Will the game go to OT? No -1200
Total combined first downs under 40.5 -115
Cam Newton passing attempts under 31.5
Jonathan Stewart under 68.5 rushing yards
Greg Olsen over 71.5 yards
Tedd Ginn over .5 rush attempts +130
Devin Funchess under 23.5 yards
Thomas Davis under 5.5 tackles
Will Peyton Manning throw an INT? No +175
Peyton Manning attempts under 36.5
CJ Anderson over 13.5 rushing attempts
CJ Anderson over 1.5 catches Ronnie Hillman under 37.5 yards
Emmanuel Sanders over 5.5 catches
Will Emmanuel Sanders attempt a rush? No -300
Owen Daniels under 15.5 longest catch
Vernon Davis under 5.5 yards
Brandon Marshall over 6.5 tackles