Peyton Manning has the opportunity to complete the dream farewell tour.
After a difficult and injury-filled NFL season in which the Hall of Fame-bound quarterback struggled, Peyton now finds himself one win away from winning his second Super Bowl and inserting himself into the “best that ever played” conversation.
Getting that one win will be no easy task, though. The Carolina Panthers have proven themselves to be the best team in the NFL this season and their quarterback is quickly becoming the next great player in the league. The team breezed through the regular season with a 15-1 record and dispatched the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals with relative ease in the playoffs.
While the Super Bowl 50 narrative is dominated by the two quarterbacks, the actual game will likely be decided on the other side of the ball. The Panthers and Broncos are the two best defensive units in the league and their ability to derail their opposition this Sunday will be the difference.
The Panthers excel on both sides of the ball, forcing their opposition to throw and capitalizing on turnovers when they get the chance. Carolina led the league in both fumbles forced and interceptions, as well as defensive touchdowns. The linebacking core, led by Luke Kuechly, was the best in the NFL in coverage, according to Pro Football Focus, and frequently made it difficult for running backs and tight ends to create separation.
The Carolina secondary was among the best in the league and is anchored by cornerback Josh Norman, who is quickly becoming a household name. Norman was fourth in the league in opponent’s quarterback rating when thrown to and single-handedly accounted for six turnovers and two defensive touchdowns. Norman has heaped praise on Manning all week, but knows what is at stake when he faces him this Sunday.
"I’m rooting for him, but shoot, I want that ring," Norman told USA Today reporters. "So I’m going to do everything I can to try to minimize what he likes to do. But at the same time, I respect the heck out of him."
Meanwhile, the Denver Broncos are the No. 1 defense as measured by Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Above Replacement stat (DVOA), a metric which captures the defense’s ability to limit yards and points, adjusted for when those yards and points are conceded. The team excels at stopping the running game, where they allow the fewest yards per rush in the NFL. Their DVOA against the pass is also tops in the league, and pass rushers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware are the best in the business at disrupting pass plays. Last week, Miller was virtually unstoppable as he and the Broncos got to Tom Brady on almost every drop back, hitting the quarterback 17 times and sacking him 4 times in the process.
This week, Denver will have its work cut out for it trying to keep Cam Newton in check. The likely MVP of the league is elusive in the pocket and happens to be the size of a station wagon. Newton rushed for 636 yards and 10 touchdowns this season and has become one of the best in the league at executing the read-option with his running backs, making it difficult for north-south pass rushers to keep him contained.
It will be Miller and Ware’s responsibility to keep Cam in the pocket and not over pursue on misdirection plays. But therein may lie a big difference between going after Brady, who passed on nearly every play vs. going after Newton, who could at least slow down the pass rush with option plays.
Denver must get pressure on Newton if they have any hope at winning this Sunday. According to Pro Football Focus, Newton is the third best quarterback in terms of ratings with a clean pocket and second in the league when blitzed due in large part to his ability to evade the rush. His worst performance of the season, which coincided with the team’s only loss, came against the Falcons, who pressured Cam on 47 percent of his drop backs, the most any team has gotten to Cam this season. Watching Denver’s pass rush and its ability to get to the quarterback in the first quarter should be a good indication of how the rest of the game will go.
On offense, watch for Manning’s ability to throw the ball downfield and his decision making underneath. Manning was 10-42 and threw three interceptions when he attempted passes that flew 20 yards or more downfield. Underneath, Manning struggled due in large part to his offense's predictability. He was much more accurate on passes thrown between zero and nine yards, but he threw only four touchdowns against eight interceptions. Manning’s decision making will have to be much sharper this Sunday if Denver is to succeed.
Denver’s defense has been a game changer all season. The Patriots found that out the hard way when they came to Denver with the better team but lost the game. Carolina is undeniably the stronger overall team, but Denver has the ability to turn the game on its head if they can execute their defensive game plan.
That being said, the Panthers and their charismatic quarterback Cam Newton are our pick to win Super Bowl 50 in what should be an exciting game from start to finish.