It’s been five years since the favorite in the Super Bowl hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy, but that should change on Sunday when the Carolina Panthers face the Denver Broncos. Carolina has been the NFL’s best team all season long, and they have a good chance to win their first championship in franchise history.
It’s not difficult to see why the Panthers are favored by as much as six points at Las Vegas sportsbooks. Carolina had a near-historic regular season, going 15-1 and posting the best record in the league. They’ve been just as good in the playoffs, beating the two-time defending NFC champion Seattle Seahawks and getting a 34-point victory over the Arizona Cardinals, who had the NFL’s second-best record.
Denver is the AFC’s top team, earning the No.1 seed in the conference while beating the Pittsburgh Steelers and defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots in the playoffs. But they are a notch below Carolina, winning three fewer games than the Panthers, and it should be evident when the two teams face off in Super Bowl 50.
With Peyton Manning at quarterback, the Broncos got used to having the edge at the most important position over the last few seasons. But that hasn’t been the case for much of this year, and it certainly won’t be the case at Levi’s Stadium on Sunday. At 39 years old, Manning is one of the worst quarterbacks in football, and Carolina’s Cam Newton is playing the position better than anyone in the NFL.
There hasn’t been this much of a disparity between opposing Super Bowl quarterbacks since 2007 when Manning and the Indianapolis Colts had little trouble beating Rex Grossman and the Chicago Bears. Manning was far from brilliant in Super Bowl XLI, posting an 81.8 passer rating, but the Bears didn’t stand much of a chance behind Grossman’s 165 passing yards and two interceptions. Denver could find itself in a similar situation in Super Bowl 50 as they face a fierce Carolina defense that has been a nightmare for opposing signal callers.
The Panthers held opposing quarterbacks to a league-low 73.5 passer rating in the regular season, while leading all teams with 24 interceptions. After picking off Russell Wilson twice in the divisional playoffs, Carolina forced Carson Palmer to throw four interceptions in the conference title game. That doesn’t bode well for Manning, who threw 17 interceptions in 10 regular-season games.
Manning hasn’t been spectacular in the playoffs, and Denver has been able to win with the quarterback simply avoiding costly mistakes. He hasn’t been picked off in two postseason games, and throwing for 398 yards and a 55.1 percent completion rate has been good enough behind the NFL’s No.1 ranked defense.
The Broncos sacked Ben Roethlisberger three times in the divisional round, and they beat the Patriots in the AFC Championship by hitting Tom Brady 20 times. Led by Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, the Broncos are first in the NFL in sacks. But it will be much more difficult for Denver to dominate in the trenches against Carolina, who has a top offensive line.
Center Ryan Kalil and guard Trai Turner were both elected to the Pro Bowl, as was fullback Mike Tolbert, who is a top pass blocker at the position. Between Newton’s mobility and Carolina’s ability to give him time in the pocket, the quarterback is extremely tough to take down behind the line of scrimmage. Taking almost every snap for the Panthers this season, Newton was sacked fewer than 11 other quarterbacks, and he’s been sacked just twice in the playoffs.
Denver has reached Super Bowl 50 by winning close, defensive battles. In eight of their 14 wins, the Broncos have allowed 20 points or less and won by one possession. When they face the league’s No.1 scoring team, which is led by the MVP frontrunner at quarterback, the odds of the Broncos winning another low-scoring game are not in their favor.
If the Panthers can get out to a quick lead, it would force Manning to try and make big plays in the passing game. The quarterback has been mistake-free this postseason while facing minimal pressure, but that won't be the case against Carolina's defensive front. The Panthers rank sixth in sacks, and they'll force Manning to turn the ball over if he has to move his feet like he did in the 2014 Super Bowl.
With the much better quarterback and the ability to protect him, as well as a top defense that makes game-changing plays, the Panthers are well on their way to beating the Broncos in the Super Bowl.