IN FOCUS EDITOR
Not a lot of people expected it. While the spread only favored the Patriots by three points, commentators and journalists all over the country predicted the Patriots to rout the Broncos. Still, the Broncos pulled out a 20-18 victory over the Patriots on Jan. 24. And while watching, it seemed like much more.
The Broncos never could have gotten this far without head coach Gary Kubiak’s lead. Coming from a year off after a disappointing season at the helm of the Texans, Kubiak surprised everyone by leading the Broncos to a 12-4 season.
Unfortunately for Kubiak, QB Peyton Manning hasn’t performed well all season — three weeks ago, he played as backup quarterback to Brock Osweiler — and has struggled with a foot injury. The numbers reflect that; over the season, he has completed just 59.8 percent of his passes, and has thrown just nine touchdowns to 17 interceptions. But against the Patriots, he threw for two touchdowns without a single interception, earning him a 90.1 passer rating (compared to 67.9 on the season). Manning isn’t the Broncos’ strongest weapon, but he proved his worth against Tom Brady’s Patriots. His momentum is important going into Super Bowl 50, and he will perform well enough to support the
Broncos’ run game.
The Broncos’ runningbacks pose the greatest threat to the Panthers. Over the season, tailbacks Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson have run for 863 and 720 yards, respectively. What’s more, they each went out for over 20 receptions, showing their versatility. If Manning doesn’t perform like he did against the Patriots, he’s got two other options to bail
But the Broncos’ defense is their main asset. On average, they limit opponents to two touchdowns a game, and have 52 sacks and 14 interceptions in the regular season. Not only that, they proved they can hold their own against the best; Julian Edelman caught 10 passes for 100 yards against the Chiefs, but the Broncos held him to just 53 yards. More importantly, they kept the Patriots from running the ball for more than 44 yards. Both tailback Jonathan Stewart and quarterback Cam Newton run the ball very well, so the Broncos need to contain them. And when Newton looks to throw the ball, the cornerbacks need to play the close, aggressive defense that they have been playing.
It will certainly be a tough battle; but if Manning throws well, Hillman and Anderson find openings, and the defense can stop big run gains, then the Broncos will have a very good game and a great shot at winning Super Bowl 50.
In honor of the upcoming sequel to Zoolander, allow me to butcher a quote from
The Carolina Panthers are really, really, really ridiculously good-looking.
I mean, at this point it almost seems unfair. Last Sunday, the Panthers took on a team in the Arizona Cardinals that, weeks ago, I had professed to be the best team in football. Lockdown defense, a dynamic offense, depth on the bench, veteran leadership; the Cardinals had it all. At least, it appeared that way until they ran into the Panthers, who swatted them away like they were the Panthers’ annoying younger brother asking to borrow some money.
But this is bigger than just the NFC title game. The Panthers have dominated the entire league all year, and I don’t see the Super Bowl going any differently.
First of all, the Panthers have one of the better defenses that we’ve seen in recent years. The unit may not be as touted as, say, the Broncos’ defensive machine, but, led by linebacker Luke Kuechly, they get the job done. The Panthers led the league in turnover margin, or the difference between turnovers recovered and turnovers given up, at plus 20. Incidentally, in 2013, the Seahawks also led the league with the exact same turnover margin, and we all remember how that season ended up. Peyton Manning is still having nightmares about that football flying past his head.
Kuechly’s crew isn’t just a regular season bunch, either. In the Panthers’ first two matchups in the playoffs, they took two of the hottest quarterbacks in the league and flat-out embarrassed them. They forced quarterback Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks into throwing two interceptions in the first quarter, one of which was returned by Kuechly for a touchdown, and also sacked him five times. And last weekend, they made the Cardinals’ Carson Palmer want to curl up in bed with a hot chocolate and a paperback novel. The Panthers’ defense intercepted the Cardinals QB an absurd four times (one was returned for a touchdown by–guess who–Kuechly), and also forced him to fumble twice, forcing seven turnovers on the game.
But the Panthers’ aspect of their game that they really hang their hat on is their dynamic, high-octane offense, a unit that led the league in scoring. Quarterback Cam Newton is the clear front runner for the MVP race, and rightly so, when you look at Newton’s body of work this season. The receiving corps, led by tight end Greg Olsen, may be one of the most underrated in the NFL. The Broncos defense has the potential to completely lock teams down, so an effective outing from the Panthers’ offense will be a key to victory. Luckily, the Panthers have experience tearing apart quality defenses, as they just torched the Cardinals’ solid unit
for 49 points.
There is no denying that the Broncos are a formidable adversary, and Manning is one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. But when the final minutes tick off the clock in Santa Clara, it will be Newton, Kuechly and their juggernaut Panthers that will come out on top.