NFL analysts, Las Vegas odds makers, experts and the general public largely believe the Carolina Panthers will roll to a victory over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50. The reasons for such universal support aren’t rooted in blind faith. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is expected to be named league MVP the day before the big game as he helped lead the NFL’s highest scoring offense, and the defense powered by cornerback Josh Norman and linebacker Luke Kuechly have battered opponents and ranked No. 6 in total defense during the regular season.
The Panthers are clearly a formidable opponent, and they have every right to be considered favorites after finishing with a NFL-best 15-1 record. Carolina even dethroned last year’s Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, and completely lambasted the Arizona Cardinals for the NFC crown.
But even with quarterback Peyton Manning now in the twilight of his Hall-of-Fame career, there’s at least three reasons to believe the Broncos can pull off the upset and claim the third Super Bowl title in franchise history.
Loaded Secondary And Linebacker Corps
As likely as Carolina’s Norman is to be named this year’s Defensive Player of the Year, the Broncos defense had several players who were at least up for award consideration. Linebacker Von Miller and defensive end DeMarcus Ware made up the most effective pass-rush duo in the league, combining for 18.5 sacks for a loss of 136 yards. Miller and Ware helped Denver's defense finish first in yards allowed (283.1), first in passing yards per game (199.6), third in average rushing yards allowed (83.6), and first in sacks (52).
And a litany of high-end defensive backs allowed Miller and Ware to harass every quarterback they met this season. Cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Bradley Roby, as well as safeties Darian Stewart and T.J. Ward, batted down 39 passes and helped disrupt New England’s Tom Brady for two interceptions in the AFC title game.
The Broncos were at first unsure of Ward (ankle) and Stewart (knee) could play, but head coach Gary Kubiak said he expected both to participate in Wednesday’s practice and play on Sunday. Meanwhile, star cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said his left shoulder feels "a lot better" with the extra week off.
With such a well-rounded unit, the Broncos have the personnel to disrupt Newton and keep him out of rhythm and in the pocket throughout the game. The Pro Bowl combination of Talib and Harris might be enough to prevent Newton from making big passing plays to the quartet of Ted Ginn Jr., Jerricho Cotchery, Devin Funchess and Corey Brown, all of whom failed to finish with 800 receiving yards in 2015.
Carolina’s Due For Letdown
As previously mentioned, the Panthers have been the hottest team in the league all season, as evidenced by their nearly immaculate 15-1 record. But that incredible mark also leaves room for some doubt, and any team, no matter how great, can be susceptible to regression.
The Panthers bettered their all-time best regular season mark by three games this season, and Newton finally lived up to his potential and became the most unstoppable offensive player in the league. The same could also be said for the defense, including Norman’s rise to DPOY status.
We’ve seen dominate teams fall to underdogs in Super Bowls before. The most recent example being the 2007 New England Patriots, who finished the regular season a perfect 16-0, reached the Super Bowl, and then wilted to the New York Giants.
And no one on Carolina’s roster knows what the pressure is like at and during a Super Bowl game, while many of Denver’s players were part of 2014’s crew that went to Super Bowl XLVIII two years ago. By kickoff time, the Broncos won't have any jitters, while the Panthers may find the bright lights too intense.
It also won't help that most of the crowd at Levi's Stadium will likely be backing the Broncos.
Manning Should be Stronger
Rib and foot injuries, as well as diminished arm strength have led to rampant and likely accurate speculation that Manning will call it quits after the Super Bowl. But with two weeks to heal and perhaps playing in his final football game, Manning could rediscover the form that made him among the most feared quarterbacks of his generation.
The 39-year-old looked sharp against a tough New England defense in the AFC title game, completing two first-half touchdown throws and avoiding turnovers at every turn after heaving 17 interceptions in his first nine games of the season. He even scrambled for 12 yards for a first down in the third quarter.
Denver also slightly revamped its playbook and limited further wear and tear on Manning’s arm, allowing him to pass 32 times, his lowest total in a playoff game since 2011 and tied for the third-lowest total of his career.
Should the Broncos offensive line perform as they did against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Divisional game, Manning should be able to find No. 2 receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who may be poised for a big game.