The old NFL adage is that ‘defence wins championships.’ No matter which of these teams walks away with the Vince Lombardi trophy this Sunday this will have rung true. In a league that is increasingly pass happy and high scoring when its gets down to the one that really matters we are left with two of the best defensive units in the league.
The stage is beautifully set for what is the biggest event in sports. Peyton Manning will lead the Broncos in what will be in all likelihood his final game. Victory here would be the 200th of his career and what could be more apt than one of the true legends of the game riding off into the sunset with another NFL Championship. He’ll be facing the young pretender, Cam Newton, the self proclaimed ‘Superman’ whose play has electrified the league this season throwing 35 TDs and rushing for 10 more as he edges close to a number of NFL records despite this only being his fifth year in the league. It’s the ultimate contrast of styles the veteran old school pocket passer versus the young dynamic dual threat Quarterback and it should make for a fascinating battle.
This isn’t the same Denver side that last visited the SuperBowl two seasons ago. Back then they had a high powered offence that steamrolled the league before ultimately being completely blown out by the Seattle Seahawks at the final hurdle. If this current incarnation of the Broncos is going to win this Sunday it will come down to one thing and one thing only, Defence. Let’s not forget that this is a team that has broken the 30 point barrier just twice all season (and one of those games required overtime!) Facing a team that leads the league in points per game they are going to have to try and keep this a tight scoring contest. If they do they’ll have a great shot as they have been the league specialists in winning close contests this season. In the thirteen of their games that have been decided by 7 points or fewer they have a 10-3 record. When everything is on the line they usually find a way to win and more often than not it’s through a defensive play.
They finished number one in total defence, pass defence and sacks and have made life tough for the best Quarterbacks in the league. Just ask Tom Brady who was given a torrid time by pass rushers Von Miller and Damarcus Ware two weeks ago. Famed for the speed of his release Brady was hit 20 times in the AFC championship game against this D. The unit is equally adept in pass coverage. Led by Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr, they were the only side in the NFL to give up less than 200 yards per game passing. Tim and time again against the Patriots, Brady struggled to find an open receiver against this secondary and that was with a lot more weapons at his disposal than Newton has in the passing game. Cam is certainly not going to have the joyride here that he has in many of his games this year and if there is one D that could shut him down its the Denver one.
Offensively while the season has been a struggle for the Broncos they are not without their playmakers. Both Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are accomplished wideouts and the good news is that only one of them is going to have to line up on Josh Norman. At running back C.J. Anderson has posted great numbers over the second half of the season and some semblance of a rushing attack will be essential for Broncos success. He is however stuck in a timeshare with the rather ineffective Ronnie Hillman and Coach Gary Kubiak seems to have no plans to change that. As for Manning I think it’s safe to say that he will be employed in the ‘game manager’ role, protecting the football and hopefully moving the chains enough.
Switching to the other side what more can be said about this Carolina Panthers team that hasn’t been said already. This is the league’s best attack and by some distance. They have put up more than 500pts this season and finished with an average of over 31pts per game (as I’ve already alluded to a feat Denver has only achieved twice this year.) In the postseason far from slowing down they have actually averaged over 40pts a game, a feat that had not been achieved since before the merger of the AFC and NFC. There is the obvious Cam factor with those 35 passing TDS and 10 rushing scores but this offence has much more going for it than just the quarterback. Tight end Greg Olsen has finally proved that he is among the elite at his position in the NFL perhaps second only to Rob Gronkowski. In the absence of number one receiving option Kelvin Benjamin, Ted Ginn Jr has also stepped up to the plate. Ginn Jr has pulled in 10 touchdowns this season doubling his previous best season. Meanwhile running back Jonathon Stewart has been his usual dependable self. As a group they have been highly efficient inside the red zone. They average 5.54pts per trip inside the 20, a league leading number. One of the arguments made to disparage the team during the regular season was that they faced a weak schedule. However after facing against top 5 defences in Seattle and Arizona during the playoffs and having come through both games very favourably, I think we can put that one to bed.
However a big part of this phenomenal Carolina offensive success has its roots on the other side of the football. The Panthers had an astonishing 39 takeaways this season and a turnover differential of +20. This meant that their average start position for drives was 69.5yds from their opponent’s goal line, the second best in the league. This defence also managed to chip in with 5 touchdown scores themselves. In cornerback Josh Norman and linebacker Luke Kuechly they have two defensive playmakers of their own that match up with anybody on the Broncos defence. They have also been boosted by the news that both Thomas Davis and Jared Allen will be good to go for Sunday. The case of Davis is particularly amazing as he broke his forearm in the victory over the Cardinals two weeks ago. No problem though, he simply had an operation the next day to install a plate and twelve screws and was a full participant in practice this week! While Norman is certainly one the elite shutdown corners in the league there is the possibility that the likes of Cortland Finnegan and Robert McClain can be picked on. From what we have seen of Manning’s deep ball this season though he might want to think twice before he takes any deep shots.
In the aftermath of Carolina’s victory over the Cardinals I had expected the line is this game to be plus 6 or 6.5 in the favour of the Broncos. When it was originally chalked up the Panthers giving just 3.5pts, I immediately jumped on board. The expected wave of public money has now pushed that line out to a more realistic 5.5pts. This makes backing the Panthers on the handicap an altogether more daunting proposition as it’s a lot of points against a defence as dominant as the Broncos especially considering their penchant for keeping games close. The romantic in me would really like to see Manning a championship one more time and it would be an apt way for his career to end but my head says it isn’t going to happen. As good as the Broncos defence has been this year they haven’t came up against a dual threat quarterback this season (I think we can exclude Alex Smith who isn’t in the same calibre) Newton and this Carolina offence have just too many ways to unlock a defence even one as good as the Broncos. Let’s not forget what they’ve done in the playoffs against two VERY good defences in Seattle and Arizona.
However the key factor will be the turnover battle and who comes out on top. Both defences can make plays here with Carolina having 39 takeaways and Denver 27. The key stat here though is the aforementioned turnover differential. Carolina led the league with +20 while Denver despite their 27 takeaways (5th in the league) managed an overall differential of -4, in the bottom half of the league. This was down to a combination of both interceptions of Manning and fumbles by their key offensive players. Carolina is too good of an offence to be shut down for the game. At some point they are going to get their scores and when they do Denver will have to try and keep up. When they do I foresee the Panthers forcing a couple of key turnovers and with it both win this game and cover the handicap. Defence will win the championship, it just won’t be the defence you think.
Recommendation: Carolina Panthers -5.5 @ 20/21
I’ll be back later with my picks from the many other markets to chose from on SuperBowl 50
Best of luck