Is it the “Year Of The Dab”, or the modern version of “This One’s For Peyton?” That’s the question to ask in a weird, but ultimately unsurprising, NFL season close.
The 2015 season was in a word, anticlimactic. Parity abounded among the bottom feeders and pack playoff teams, but the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos have, for the most part, been near the top of the standings wire to wire. It’s no surprise, now, that these two meet in the grand spectacle of our country (I am literally trying to be as cliche as possible).
On paper, it seems Carolina should, indeed, blowout the Broncos, which in turn would have CBS and Phil Simms exasperatingly try to figure out what “dabbing” means. That’s popcorn television. Let’s take a quick look at some points:
- The coaching matchup is a largely a wash with Ron Rivera and Gary Kubiak
- Denver’s defense was ranked 1st in the league but Carolina’s was 3rd.
- Yet, in the most important facet, Cam Newton has been transcendent, while this has likely been Peyton Manning’s disappointing swan song for the Broncos.
If you objectively go off of who the quarterbacks will play, there’s no reason to expect anything but an easy double digit win for Carolina. That even seems to be the sentiment I’m getting among the major media outlets. (Some are eulogizing Manning as if he’s dying, not ending his career. Let’s calm down.)
I’m more of the mindset that, while I’m not inherently expecting a classic, I think it could become interesting.
Time to break down Super Bowl 50.
When Carolina has the ball:
There’s nowhere better to start then where this game will be won. The league’s top ranked rushing offense, that features Cam Newton and running back Jonathan Stewart, going up against the league’s best, and #1 overall, defense in the Broncos.
Carolina’s greatest strength is power football and reliance on the play action game. It’s a very old school, measured way to play but it’s proven to be quite explosive. It helps when you have two Pro Bowl lineman like guard Trae Turner and center Ryan Kalil on the inside to help a strong runner like Stewart, along with the continual threat of the athleticism of Newton. The Panthers being able to maul, and quite frankly push people around, is why you saw them jump out to huge leads against Seattle and Arizona.
The respective mauling of Arizona was noticeable in particular because it isn’t like Arizona has a soft defensive front seven at all. Calais Campbell, Deone Buchanon, and Markus Golden are no slouches, especially with the coaching they receive, yet it seemed as if they were completely invisible during the NFC title game. That’s a scary sentiment for the Broncos or any team. A grave mistake would be made if you were to understate the power offense, here.
Yet, Carolina’s greatest offensive strength plays right into the Broncos’ hands. The NFL’s 3rd ranked rushing defense simply offers no running room on a consistent basis.
Linebackers Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall, while somewhat liabilities in the passing game — which we’ll get to, do a fantastic job of shedding blocks, while guys like defensive tackle Malik Jackson occupy blockers in defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ scheme. Denver is well schooled and very disciplined with their gap integrity and they play with speed and athleticism that most defenses in the league really don’t feature.
Carolina will have to effectively mix in the pass and run, taking a lesson from the Patriots to have effective balance instead of completely abandoning either facet of offensive play to fool Denver. The only problem is if Carolina decides to pass, then comes the issue of outside linebackers Von Miller and Demarcus Ware.
It’s an embarrassment of riches for the Broncos to possess the most transcendent pass rushing duo we’ve seen in the league in a long time. Miller and Ware were both at point in many conversations for defensive player of the year and for good reason. They’re both worthy MVP candidates and future Hall of Famers based off of their track record. Michael Oher and Mike Remmers have been more than adequate in pass protection as the tackles for Carolina, but adequate simply isn’t going to cut it against either Miller, Ware, or both. If the Broncos are to win this game, it’ll be on the backs of these gentlemen as they already did it against New England, which is why the Panthers have to protect and help their tackles with max protection.
Max protection should offer plenty of time and space for Newton to work with but the only problem is that the team doesn’t have much explosive receiving talent. Receivers Ted Ginn Jr. and Corey Brown have seen a resurgence due to Newton’s greatness but it’s not like the Broncos should necessarily be afraid of them. Secondary members Aqib Talib, Bradley Roby, Chris Harris Jr., and TJ Ward are like their pass rushers, the best collection of talent in a unit in football. The squad makes superstar receivers look pedestrian and pedestrian receivers look like complete non factor face on milk cartons altogether.
In order for the Panthers to be successful, they’re going to have to rely on Newton to make plays with his feet in the running game as well as avoiding the pass rush. They can also lean on tight end Greg Olsen which sans Miller against the Carolina tackles, may provide the biggest mismatch in the contest. Denver has no one to cover Olsen, who had the 2nd most receiving yards by a tight end this year. As mentioned, while Trevathan and Marshall are quite good at run support as linebackers, they can be consistently exploited by an elite tight end. Just look at Rob Gronkowski running seams and crossing routes at will in the AFC title game and practically stealing a Super Bowl berth for New England. The two linebackers are going to be a liability in pass coverage against Olsen and will probably have to wander everywhere with safety support.
Olsen will probably be schemed to be taken away by Phillips by matching up someone like Talib on him, a corner with size and speed, yet Olsen can still win that matchup. Carolina on the other hand will likely have Olsen in motion aplenty to try to force Trevathan or a linebacker into coverage with their star tight end. If Greg Olsen has a typical big game and decent line, you can bet money that the Panthers should have no further problems against the Broncos defense. Because if Greg Olsen is making plays down the field, the once vaunted Denver rushing defense is no longer stacking the box and that in turn will allow Trae Turner and Co. to go to work for Jonathan Stewart.
I get the sense Wade Phillips will attempt to have his guys play man on receivers that Denver shouldn’t really be scared of to try and limit the Carolina ground attack. Carolina will counter by trying to unleash they’re one matchup weapon in that sense to break the defensive shell in Olsen. Safety TJ Ward in turn will probably be roaming over the top to help the Denver corners and linebackers with Olsen to sacrifice one facet for the Broncos. It’s an interesting chess match that should evolve over the course of the game.
X Factor: Cam Newton, QB
All in all though, the Panthers offense goes no where if Cam Newton can’t make plays with his feet, in keeping plays alive while also keeping the defense honest in rushing. The 26 year old is more than capable of the task as evidenced throughout this season, it’s just that it’s ever the more difficult against Von Miller and the rest of his Orange Crush lineup. Carolina would be wise to double team Miller every possible play, because he can have that kind of impact against even two blockers, so why try your chances. Denver will be much more equipped to keep Newton hemmed in than any team he has ever faced in his career. That’s due to their talent and the coaching of Wade Phillips.
With Newton using his athleticism effectively, Greg Olsen should be running rampant in the secondary. These are the kinds of moments Newton has lived for this season, as he’s been the primary factor for the elevation of Carolina. Don’t be surprised if he’s able to break one long one with the entire Denver defense pressed and focused in. A transcendent special QB and future MVP makes all the difference for a 15-1 football team on this stage. Yet one final challenge awaits him. (Damn it, I thought I was going to stray away from cliches).
When Denver has the ball:
In what is being reported as his likely final game and swan song, Peyton Manning is probably the biggest liability playing. Much has been made of how Newton and Carolina will somehow deal with Denver’s league best defense, yet the question as to how Manning and Denver deal with Carolina’s 3rd ranked front should be an even bigger one. You can so easily put two and two together here.
2015 was the worst season of Manning’s career as his physical limitations from injuries finally completely caught up to him. 9 TD’s and 17 INT’s in the regular season is a far cry from throwing 55 TD passes and lighting up the league on an every week basis just two seasons ago. Peyton Manning is no longer the “God” quarterback who knows all sees all that we have come to expect over the past 16 years. He is an effective shell that has to protect itself offensively rather than push the needle. I’m not sure if you insert 2000 Trent Dilfer in at quarterback in the same position Manning is in, and you still don’t get the same results.
Manning has been that average or worse.
Yet something has flipped in the Denver and the wary signal caller in the postseason. After leading the league for most of the season in turnovers, Manning has yet to cough the ball up and hasn’t taken the same chances with his limited arm strength (noodle arm to be politically incorrect) that became interceptions previously. The Broncos have also been able to run the ball well with running backs CJ Anderson and Ronnie Hillman popping off more than a few quality rushes against tough New England and Pittsburgh defensive front sevens. It’s anything but pretty, and one would never think Manning would be at the helm of such a restrained offense with no flair, but it has worked to this point and that’s all you can ask if you’re in any way a member of the Mile High faithful.
The Broncos will largely have to maintain the same level of play without turning the ball over, especially against a Carolina team that forced the most turnovers in the league this season and had the highest TO differential. Denver is in it’s own pickle here because the Panthers also have a quality rushing defense and front seven that is built much differently than any team Denver has played.
Linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis (who may be somewhat limited with a broken arm) are phenomenally athletic and gifted linebackers who are almost never out of position. While the Carolina defensive line might as well load up a consistent second unit with all the depth they have in Ka’Wann Short, Charles Johnson, Star Lotulelei, etc. Carolina isn’t inherently more talented than Denver’s defense, yet they are in a much more advantageous position considering the competition they’re facing.
CJ Anderson and Ronnie Hillman won’t have the running room unless Manning can get it going and make more plays, but as mentioned, he obviously isn’t the 30 year old superstar he used to be. Where Denver had success in the AFC title game, was by moving Owen Daniels around in the passing game to the tune of two touchdowns. You can’t expect to have the same success against Carolina. Both scores were designed effectively in disorganizing the Patriots’ defense in a fashion that left Daniels open. Fantastic misdirection was the name of the game for Gary Kubiak. With Luke Kuechly as the field general, and smartest linebacker in the NFL, you can’t expect to out scheme or out audible the young star as he’ll have Denver’s schemes mapped out for all intensive purposes.
Manning is going to have to make some throws and he’s going to have to test Kuechly and Davis in the middle of the field. The measure of success he’ll enjoy with that, remains to be seen.
If the Broncos for some reason to decide to air it out to even outside weapons like Demaryius Thomas or Emmanuel Sanders, the offensive line in Denver has been an effective sieve all season. Ryan Harris and Evan Mathis have struggled on the left side and were attacked often in the AFC title game by Rob Ninkovich, Jamie Collins, and Chandler Jones. Missed assignments, flailed blocks, and awful technique were rampant and it hasn’t been improved much all year. The Carolina defensive front can have a field day in that respect that the Broncos need to be wary of if they stray away from balance.
Josh Norman has also been the best corner in football this year, so if by chance Peyton does decide to test him with longer throws, don’t be surprised if you see a pick six with everything considered. Manning does not have the tools at this point to be able to test someone of Norman’s caliber or even an under the radar pick up like Kurt Coleman at safety (seven picks for this guy, unreal).
What Gary Kubiak and his staff are going to have to do is scheme in plays where they have Carolina stacking the box, something to be expected all game, and they throw a backdoor screen to Thomas or Sanders underneath. It’s the Denver staple play ever since Manning arrived in Denver and Carolina is certainly vulnerable considering the aggression and confidence they display on defense. Designed screens to Daniels underneath to avoid Kuechly and Davis in taking advantage of overaggressiveness, wouldn’t hurt too as you saw the Broncos exploit the Patriots with this same play a few times. If these kinds of plays click, you may see Anderson and Hillman get some running room with Carolina concerned with all of the underneath play that they back off.
Above all, there has to be a measure of patience for Denver. They can’t be frustrated if a long drive doesn’t finish in points and they have to stick to a conservative game plan tailored in that manner. If Kubiak and Manning decide to overstep their boundaries, then that plays directly into Carolina’s hands, and it’s why so many people think this game could be a blowout. They need to play their game and trust Von Miller and his boys to keep Newton and the Panthers within reach.
X Factor: Owen Daniels, TE
When the Broncos last reached the Super Bowl, they had a superstar tight end by the name of Julius Thomas who has been completely enveloped by sinkhole known as the Jacksonville Jaguars. No one thought they would be able to find an effective replacement that could more suit Peyton Manning as he transitions towards the end of his career.
Owen Daniels has been that man and more.
While not exactly not lighting it up this year with 46 receptions for 517 yards in the regular season, along with two touchdowns in the postseason, he is the safety valve and swiss army knife the Broncos offense has needed. Daniels more often than not capably sets the edge in the running game that has allowed Denver to get to this point and is a consistent matchup issue that knows his role.
The 33 year old veteran is no Rob Gronkowski but it just seems like at one point in every game he’s in the right place at the right time with either a crucial catch or big block. The AFC title game is rife with examples of his scores or blocks on big Anderson runs. He’s a quality and useful player, if I haven’t said it enough, and could be a sleeper game MVP candidate.
Expect Daniels to be factored in heavily in the Broncos offensive game plan because they know they can rely on him. Screens and seam routes in the red zone are to be expected especially if the Denver defense can get the offense a short field. Manning and Daniels have a chemistry together that paints a picture of a 10 year partnership not a free agent pickup just this season. In no way can you dismiss the significance of that notion.
I hate to put so much reliance on the outcome of the game on tight ends, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that whoever has the bigger game overall in blocking and receiving between Daniels and Olsen, will be the one that is standing on the platform come 6:30 PT. Elite tight ends make the difference on the biggest stage. (Along with QB play, obviously. That comes first, I know that)
The Pick: Carolina 34 Denver 19
Denver has done more than an admirable job in getting to this point.
The defense is fantastic and the offense has been commendable considering what we’ve seen previously this season, but they just don’t have the horses to take down the mammoth Carolina. The Panthers blew and or punched out better more complete teams in Arizona and Seattle and I have no reason to expect any different here.
Manning isn’t going to embarrass and soil himself the way he has in Super Bowls’ past, but a just adequate game manager isn’t enough against a team that we might be putting in the conversation for one of the greatest ever when it’s all said and done in the Panthers.
Unless there’s some kind of trick plays in store, there’s just no way I can see the Denver offense having any realistic success throughout the entire game as they need to here. They don’t have any discernible advantages and everything they have had success in the postseason up to this point plays right into Carolina’s hands.
This isn’t even mentioning the quarterback on the other sideline. Cam Newton is going to win the MVP and Super Bowl MVP because he deserves it. Because he has enjoyed one of the most transcendent seasons by a quarterback ever and because he has evolved into arguably the NFL’s best leader. With him, the Carolina offense just has more tools to be able to attack a great Denver defense and open things up. Where the Panthers may struggle in pass protection, they’ll still be able to push the Denver front as the game wears on.
The Denver defense will limit him to a degree and keep the game watchable, but barring a complete implosion by the superstar Newton, who in my mind is the best player in the NFL, Carolina should have no concern.
Even if things start slowly like with perhaps Denver grabbing an early lead thanks to someone like Miler, over the long haul, the Carolina offense will grind it out in the end.
We’ve been wrong to underestimate Carolina all year, but they’ve gotten to this point for a reason. A half effective Peyton Manning isn’t going to be the one to stop this marvelous run.
Still, forget the Peyton swan song talk though. (Will we see tears?)
Forget the narrative of Newton being the face of the league.
Forget all of that crap.
Let’s just to try to enjoy the game people. The Super Bowl is a national holiday whether the government acknowledges it by giving everyone the Monday after off or not (Wake up Congress!). However the game plays out, let’s just enjoy the game with our families and friends.
It’s the one sporting event of the year that even those who don’t care about sports, actually watch and talk about it. Because the event brings us together. Appreciate it.
Enjoy the Super Bowl everyone.
Robert Zeglinski is a student writer and broadcaster who absolutely loves all the nitty gritty that comes with pro sports. He is currently attending Aurora University in Illinois. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZigZags82 or reach him through email (firstname.lastname@example.org) for questions or feedback.
(Credit: NFL, ESPN, The Onion, Fansided, footballdailyherald.com, q13fox.com, sportsworldreport.com, denverpost.com)