The Carolina Panthers have been the NFL’s best team all season long, and they look to be headed for their first championship in franchise history. Only the Denver Broncos stand in their way with the two teams set to meet at Levi’s Stadium on Feb. 7 in Super Bowl 50.
Carolina is the clear 2016 Super Bowl favorite, following their performance in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game. The Panthers blew out the Arizona Cardinals, delivering a 49-15 defeat to the team that had the second-most wins in the regular season. Denver beat the New England Patriots by two points in the AFC Championship, and they could have a tough time against a Panthers team that’s been much more dominant this season.
The Broncos were impressive in Sunday’s game against the defending champions, making Tom Brady look pedestrian on their way to a second Super Bowl appearance in three years. Both of Denver’s playoff games have come down to the wire, and the team has narrowly escaped defeat on several occasions this season. Peyton Manning and Co. might not be so lucky in the Super Bowl, since Carolina has been consistently dominating teams since Week 1.
The Panthers’ big win over the Cardinals wasn’t exactly expected, but it shouldn’t have come as that much of a surprise. In the divisional playoffs, Carolina jumped out to a 31-0 halftime lead over the Seattle Seahawks before taking their foot off the gas pedal and allowing last year’s NFC champs back in the game. In the regular season, Carolina was one win away from going undefeated, beating five of their last eight opponents by 17 points or more.
It might not be easy for the Panthers to put up points against the Broncos. Denver put pressure on Brady all day long, forcing him to have one of the worst games of his career on Sunday. It wasn’t a fluke, considering the Broncos had the No.1 ranked defense in the regular season. But if any team can find success against Denver’s defense, it’s Carolina.
Not only did the Panthers score more points than any other team in the regular season, but their offense has looked even better in the playoffs. Carolina moved the ball with ease against Arizona’s top-five defense, and they scored 31 points, including a pick-six, against a Seattle defense that allowed fewer regular-season points than any NFL team.
Cam Newton has separated himself as the best quarterback in football, running away as the likely MVP winner and playing just as well in the playoffs. After totaling 45 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in the regular season, Newton has five scores and one pick in the postseason for a 113.4 passer rating. His ability to throw and run the ball might be too much for Denver to handle, though their defense was able to shut down both Brady and Aaron Rodgers this season.
Newton won’t have to put up monster numbers in order for the Panthers to win. The Broncos’ defense has carried the offense and Manning, who’s looked like a shell of his old self, even in victory. The quarterback threw two touchdown passes in Sunday’s win, but he still completed just 17 of 32 pass attempts for 176 yards. Things won’t get any easier for him against the Panthers, who forced Carson Palmer to throw four interceptions in the NFC title game.
Whether it’s been Manning or Brock Osweiler under center for Denver, the offense has been nothing special this year. Only once has the team scored at least 30 points in regulation, and Carolina’s defense is one of the league’s best. Ranking sixth in both yards and points allowed, the Panthers change games by forcing turnovers.
Carolina led the NFL in takeaways in the 2015 season, and they’ve forced nine turnovers in two playoff games, including two interceptions returned for touchdowns by linebacker Luke Kuechly. Manning hasn’t been picked off in two postseason games, but that should change in Super Bowl 50 since the quarterback threw 17 interceptions in his 10 previous games.
Manning has been able to limit his mistakes in the playoffs by making safe throws and relying on Denver’s running game behind a good offensive line. But that could change if Carolina takes an early lead, forcing the Broncos to make plays in the passing game.
The Panthers have one of the best defensive lines in football, and they’ve put plenty of pressure on opposing quarterbacks this postseason with eight sacks. If Manning faces the same kind of pressure, he could have another nightmare Super Bowl performance.
Everything has gone the way of Newton and Carolina this season, and there’s little reason to believe that will change in Super Bowl 50.
Prediction: Carolina 30, Denver 17