It appears a consensus has developed around the Panthers as not only the winners of the Super Bowl, but the strong possibility of a blowout. And that is certainly a possibility. But can Denver win this game? I think the answer is yes, if a number of things go their way. What are those things? Let’s take a look:
1. Manning’s Last Stand: there is no doubt that Peyton Manning has been playing better since his comeback relief appearance in the final regular season win over the Chargers. He is now 3-0 since returning from injury and has yet to turn the ball over. Of course, he also only has two touchdown passes in those three games, though one should note both came against the Patriots, building the early lead that was just enough to send them here. Now he faces the defense with the most turnovers, and most interceptions, of any team in the NFL during the regular season – a trend that continued in a big way with their wins over Seattle and Arizona. So the first essential question of the game is whether Manning can avoid the turnovers plagued him earlier in the year (and during the second half of last season as well). It won’t be easy, but one wonders if knowing he might be playing his last game might put a little more sparkle in his feet and a little more power in his arm. Manning played well in the first half against the Patriots, hitting a number of impressive passes, but then seemed to revert to his form from earlier in the season, missing receivers with passes that were short or long. He will need to play most of this game at the level of the first half from two weeks ago or this game could be another blowout loss for the Broncos.
2. Running Attack: the Broncos were only the 17th best NFL team in rushing offense, and 14th in passing. Given the reality they are playing the second best defense in the league, will they be able to move the ball. The first key, of course, is whether Manning can hit his receivers and avoid turnovers, but that will only matter if they can gain some yards on the ground. Their two-pronged attack of Hillman (863 yards on 207 carries) and Anderson (720 on 152) nets over 4 yards a carry and could push the Carolina defense later in the game, but will they be able to gain the yards early to avoid the third and longs that make turnovers much more likely, while placing undue pressure on Manning. Of course, one big problem is that Carolina was fourth in the league in rushing yards allowed (3.3 per attempt) and recovered an impressive 9 fumbles, to go with their league-leading 24 interceptions. However, one hopeful stat for the Broncos is that Carolina are only 11th in passing defense and have largely relied on the interception to get themselves out of trouble. Going back to #1, Manning will need to exploit the openings in the defense when they emerge and avoid turnovers.
3. Denver D: everyone seems to be ignoring the impressive Denver defense that led the league in total yards allowed and passing yards allowed, was third in rushing yards allowed and fourth in points allowed (18.5). They largely shut down a Steelers offense that had everyone in the playoffs worried and then found ways to close down playoff god Tom Brady and his Patriots for most of the AFC Championship Game. Carolina has been impressive all season as the number one scoring offense in the league (31.3 points per game), but are only 24th in total yards, second in rushing yards and 24th in passing yards. Turnovers have played a big role in the yards versus points disparity and this might be one area where Denver have a clear opportunity. If they can stop the run and force Newton to throw from the pocket, they have a chance. I realize how much better Cam has been playing, even from that position this year, but he hasn’t faced a defense as impressive as the Broncos all season. A third key to the game, then, is to slow down the Panthers running attack and hope that Cam doesn’t burn them deep.
4. Keeping Cam Contained: Newton has become a better total quarterback this season, obviously, and running is no longer the key aspect of his game. And yet it is his running, along with managing the game and improving his passing efficiency, that will probably win him the MVP this season. He showed those skills against both Seattle and Arizona in the playoffs so far and the 12-yard-run by Tom Brady in the AFC Championship Game could be a preview of an ugly afternoon for the Broncos’ D. They will need to leave a man marking Newton for most of the game, trying to keep him from getting out on the flanks. Easier said than done, but necessary if the Broncos are going to have a chance. Pressure up the middle could be one way to allay this concern, and they were able to do this against the Patriots. Von Miller and Ware creating pressure while limiting the run is the fourth key to the game.
5. Luck: let’s be honest; one paper the Panthers appear to be the clear favorites in this game. They are better offensively, better in the running game, better at forcing turnovers and a more complete team. They win far too many of the statistical battles that often define games like this. And they have one of the most confident, and competent, quarterbacks in the league versus a guy whose best days are behind him. And yet it is possible that experience trumps youthful exuberance here, that Denver’s offense takes the heart out of Carolina’s passionate approach and that the elder statesman finds one more stellar performance in an up-and-down playoff career. Luck in special teams, in turnovers or even in calls, could turn this game if it stays close, and Denver will probably need that luck to win this game.
The Panthers are the huge favorite for a reason and it seems crazy to pick Denver to win this game. So what the hell …. Denver 21 Carolina 17.