Friday, February 5, 2016

Super Bowl 50

#1 Carolina Panthers (17-1) vs. #1 Denver Broncos (14-4) in Santa Clara, CA, Carolina favored by 6

It feels weird not writing Roman Numerals when talking about a Super Bowl, but that is where we are with the NFL's 50th version of the biggest game in American sports. The Carolina Panthers have been the best team in football this year and while it only took 18 weeks, most of the country seems to finally be buying into that notion. I admit I was slow to come around as well, but the Panthers are highly talented in every facet of the game and thus enter as favorites against the Denver Broncos.  The Broncos have one of the best defenses we have seen in recent memory, and in a sentence I never thought I would type, have made it this far in spite of Peyton Manning.

The best way to preview a Super Bowl is to sort out how the teams compare position wise. Starting at quarterback, Cam Newton is head and shoulders above Manning. Newton is going to be the MVP of the league and rightfully so. He accounted for an absurd 45 touchdowns this season, 35 through the air and 10 rushing the ball. Manning on the other hand, started just 9 games in the regular season and yet for most of the year, led all quarterbacks in interceptions with 17. Manning has played pretty well in the playoffs, but it is clear that he is a far cry from the Manning that used to single-handedly carry teams. The Panthers have the edge in the rushing game with Jonathan Stewart, Mike Tolbert and Newton versus the Broncos duo of Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson. Stewart and Tolbert each averaged 4.1 yards a carry this season, and Stewart was just 11 yards shy of a 1,000 yard season despite missing the final three games of the season. Newton rushed for 636 yards this season and gives the Panthers rushing attack a whole other dimension that Manning can't give Denver. Hillman and Anderson have each had their moments this year, but Denver's offense has never been committed enough to the run for either to have an overall huge impact. The Broncos get the edge in the passing game but they haven't been nearly as potent throwing the ball as in years past. A lot of that had to do with Manning's struggles but their receivers, Demaryius Thomas especially, have been terrible at holding on to the ball. It was also clear that the Broncos had no true replacement for Julius Thomas. Owen Daniels busted out in the AFC Championship game but was invisible for most of the year. The Broncos traded for Vernon Davis but Vernon stopped giving a shit about football two years ago. Emmanuel Sanders still has that big play, game changer potential, but far too many times this season he turned into a non factor. Sometimes in Super Bowls a receiving option will come out of nowhere and make plays, like Chris Matthews last season for the Seahawks. A possible Bronco that could do that is Jordan Norwood. He has been seeing a decent share of targets his last few games and since he obviously won't attract the attention that Sanders and Thomas will, he could make an impact. The Panthers biggest weakness coming into the regular season appeared to be at receiver. They weren't all that deep to begin with and then they lost stud #1 receiver Kelvin Benjamin to injury in the preseason. However, in his absence guys stepped up, especially Ted Ginn Jr. who averaged over 16 yards per catch and scored 10 touchdowns. TE Greg Olsen led the Panthers in catches and yards, while other contributors include rookie Devin Funchess, veteran Jerricho Cotchery and second year man Corey "Philly" Brown. The Panthers have the edge at offensive line, with Pro Football Focus ranking their line the 2nd best in the league and the Broncos tied for 20th. Trai Turner was the Panthers best offensive lineman, but Michael Oher has been getting the most attention in the run up to the Super Bowl. Obviously, most of that has to do with The Blind Side effect but he also played well this year in protecting Cam when he dropped back to pass and has revitalized his career after bottoming out with Tennessee last season. Ryan Kalil and Andrew Norwell also have been consistent this season and a big reason for the Panthers having the best rushing attack in football. The Broncos received a massive blow before the season when they learned they would be without their best lineman Ryan Clady this season. I thought it would be a deathblow and fortified my thinking that the Broncos would be a bad team this season. However, much like how they overcame Manning's struggles, the Broncos did enough mixing and matching to make things work with their offensive line. Evan Mathis was a great pick up and the rest of the current lineman, including Michael Schofield (not the Prison Break character), second year man Matt Paradis and vets Louis Vasquez and Ryan Harris have played well enough.

Each team is strong defensively, and as has been talked about frequently the Broncos defense has been next level this season. Denver's 3-4 defense led the NFL in sacks this season, with DeMarcus Ware's 7 1/2 sacks, and LB Von Miller leading the team with 11 sacks. Brandon Marshall and Shaquil Barrett led the Broncos in tackles for loss. The Broncos defensive line of Derek Wolfe, Sylvester Williams, and Malik Jackson are not household names but were a big reason that the Broncos defense led the NFL in allowing just 3.3 yards per carry, best in the league. The Broncos have a great linebacking corps, including the aforementioned Marshall, Miller and Ware, they also have Danny Trevathan. Another area where the Broncos defense ranked first in the league is pass defense. The Broncos secondary of corners Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib, along with safeties T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart is unmatched. Stewart is questionable for the Super Bowl but expected to play. While the Panthers 4-3 defense wasn't as good overall as the Broncos, they were better than Denver at creating turnovers. LB Luke Kuechly has pick sixes in both Panthers playoff victories and Carolina's linebacking corps of Kuechly, Thomas Davis and not much talked about Shaq Thompson are one of the better units in football. Thomas broke his arm in the win against Arizona but all indications are that he will play against Denver. The Panthers were sixth in the league in sacks this season and have racked up 8 in the postseason. They have a stout defensive line, anchored by ends Charles Johnson and Jared Allen. Allen missed the NFC Championship with his foot injury, but he has sworn he will play on Sunday. A former first round pick, defensive tackle Star Lotulelei took some time but this year you started hearing his name more and more on Sundays, wreaking havoc. Kawann Short rounds out the Panthers defensive line. The Panthers have been battling injuries with their secondary and things got so bad they had to take terrible Cortland Finnegan off the streets and insert him into the lineup. The other corner Josh Norman has had a breakout season in his walk year. That means you can expect Denver to try to pick on Finnegan. I would expect Norman to be on Thomas, so Sanders could have a chance for some big plays going against Finnegan and other recent off the street pick up Robert McClain. Although, to his credit, Finnegan did well against Larry Fitzgerald in the NFC Championship game. Safety Kurt Coleman has had a breakout season and been an interception machine, while ole vet Roman Harper has been a reliable hand at the other safety position.

These teams are about even in special teams. Panthers kicker Graham Gano has been good this year and improved from his Redskin days. I could pretend like I know anything about punter Brad Nortman but I would be lying. Fozzy Whittaker is the Panthers kick returner and Ginn handles punt return duties and he can change a game in an instant with his speed. He will be a player to watch in the Super Bowl, not just on offense, because his return abilities could have a major effect on field position. Brandon McManus is mostly reliable and punter Britton Colquitt played a huge part in the Broncos upset of the Patriots, by continually pinning New England deep in their own end. Kick returns barely even happen in today's NFL so I don't expect Andre Caldwell to have much of an impact, but Sanders can be dangerous as the Broncos punt returner. Neither Panthers coach Ron Rivera or Broncos coach Gary Kubiak would be in many peoples top coaching lists. I think Kubiak is mostly mediocre and just stepped into a talented team in Denver. Rivera has improved the Panthers year to year so I would give him the edge over Kubiak, although I think having a once in a generation player like Newton has helped make him look even better.

I have gone back and forth in my mind on my pick. I initially was very confident in picking the Panthers, but then started thinking about the Super Bowl two years ago where the Seattle Seahawks mauled the Broncos. Denver came in with the great offense and was expected to roll over the elite Seattle defense but the exact opposite happened. So then I was thinking maybe this Broncos defense is so good that they can almost win the game themselves. But I don't feel like they have played a guy like Newton this season. The things Cam opens up for Carolina's offense is going to be too much even for a defense as good as Denver's. Newton and the Panthers rushing attack is going to wear out the Broncos defense with just enough runs and then that is when you will start to see play action come into play. Once the Broncos are focused on the rushing game, they will end up like every other defense this season and start being susceptible to those big chunk plays from the passing game that the Panthers have done so well this season. Plus, that super powered offense the Broncos had two years ago wasn't complemented by a top flight defense like the Panthers have this season. I also think that Manning will revert back to the mistakes we saw from him in the regular season. He has played clean in the playoffs and avoided the turnovers but he isn't going to be so lucky against a defense that are such ball hawks. Anderson and Hillman have had problems holding on to the ball, so I bet they are good for a fumble in this game as well. The Broncos defense will do their best to keep it close but will eventually wear down. The Broncos offense isn't good enough to have to score like they will need to in a game like this. Newton will win the MVP and the Panthers will have their first Super Bowl championship. If people are being honest then after Carolina wins on Sunday they should go down as one of the greatest teams in NFL history.

Prediction: Carolina 27, Denver 17

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