With 10 players selected to the 2016 Pro Bowl, it’s not hard to see why the Carolina Panthers have lost just one game this season and are favored to win Super Bowl 50. The NFC champs have a few players who are the best in the NFL at their respective positions, and they stand out as the biggest reasons why Carolina could be headed for their first title in franchise history.
While the Denver Broncos reached Super Bowl 50 largely because of a dominant defense, Carolina has been exceptional on both sides of the ball. The Panthers have scored 80 points in the playoffs after ranking first in the regular season in points scored, and they ranked sixth in total defense while leading the NFL in takeaways.
Carolina outscored the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals by 41 points in two playoff games, and they are 4.5-point favorites over Denver in Super Bowl 50. If the Panthers defeat the Broncos, it will be in large part because of their five most impactful players.
The Panthers’ quarterback will be the best player on the field in Super Bowl 50, giving Carolina a distinct advantage over Denver. The clear choice for MVP, Newton has put up some incredible numbers this season, and he seems to get better each week. He ended the regular season with 45 total touchdowns and 10 interceptions, and he’s combined to rush and throw for 31 scores while being picked off just twice in his last 10 games.
The best teams haven’t been able to stop Newton, who has a 113.4 passer rating in the playoffs against two top-five defenses. If the quarterback plays like he has all year long, Carolina won't have a problem beating Denver.
Few defensive players, if any, have made as many game-changing plays as Kuechly this season. He’s solidified himself as the NFL’s best linebacker, coming up big when defending both the pass and the run. Despite missing three regular-season games, he still ranked 13th with 118 tackles. He also recording four interceptions and 10 pass deflections.
Kuechly has been as important as any player in the postseason, returning an interception for a touchdown in both of Carolina’s wins. He could make life difficult for Peyton Manning, who hasn’t faced a defense as good as the Panthers all season long.
The cornerback has gotten a lot of attention for all his trash talk, but he backs up what he says on the field. Norman is arguably the best player at his position, and he’s shut down some of the NFL’s best receivers this year. In the first three months of the season, Norman limited DeAndre Hopkins, Mike Evans, T.Y. Hilton, Dez Bryant and Julio Jones to a combined nine receptions for 89 yards. Against the Cardinals Sunday, Norman led a secondary that didn’t allow a wide receiver on the NFL’s No. 1 offense to total more than 37 yards.
Norman will likely go up against Demaryius Thomas in Super Bowl 50, but the usually reliable wide receiver has struggled lately. He has just 52 receiving yards in the playoffs, and he’s surpassed the 100-yard mark in just one of his last 11 games.
Newton has been so good this season that he’s been able to excel without a top wide receiver, but a big part of his success has been having a top tight end. Other than Rob Gronkowski, Olsen has been the best player at his position this season, putting up career-highs in his ninth season. Olsen had 77 catches for 1,104 yards and seven touchdowns in the regular season, and he’s been just as good in the playoffs with 12 catches for 190 yards and a score.
Ted Ginn Jr. is Carolina’s top wide out with 44 catches for 739 yards, making Olsen Newton’s best weapon by far. He hasn’t had much of an impact when the offense has struggled, catching 11 passes for 121 yards in the three games in which the Panthers have scored fewer than 27 points.
Short emerged as a top defensive tackle this season, as well as one of the most important players on the entire Carolina roster. With 13 sacks in his last 14 games, he’s as good at rushing the quarterback as any interior lineman in football. Short has helped the Panthers dominate the trenches this postseason, applying constant pressure on Russell Wilson and Carson Palmer, while preventing Seattle or Arizona from establishing a consistent running game.
Manning hasn’t thrown an interception in the playoffs, but that could change in Super Bowl 50 if Short and the rest of Carolina’s defensive line are giving the quarterback little time to throw the ball.