America’s biggest game returns for its 50th edition this Sunday, and it is already shaping up to be a classic. The Denver Broncos, who made it into the Super Bowl after outlasting the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game in a 20-18 battle, have their toughest task ahead of them, when they take on the 17-1 Carolina Panthers for all the marbles.
After having a season full of twists and turns, it seemed the Broncos somehow came into the playoffs as an underdog, despite being the number one seed in the AFC. Their 12-4 record was good, but they had only won three games by more than a touchdown. Additionally, their star quarterback, Peyton Manning, had been benched in favor of Brock Osweiler, an inexperienced quarterback whose first NFL start wasn’t until November of this season.
But the team, led by seemingly omnipresent defensive players such as Von Miller and Demarcus Ware, held tough all season long. Miller had 11 sacks and 35 tackles on the season, and Ware had 7.5 sacks of his own. The team was able to top the Pittsburgh Steelers in their first playoff game, and narrowly escaped a comeback attempt by the Patriots in the AFC championship. In those games, Manning, who had thrown more interceptions than touchdowns in the regular season, got the start. He threw for 398 combined yards, and scored two touchdowns against a solid New England secondary. He has not thrown a single interception in the playoffs, and he looks like the Peyton Manning that has taken a trip to three previous Super Bowls.
The Carolina Panthers were the team with “it” this year. There is no real way to describe the confidence and momentum they possessed this season, a season that was near perfect. Their only loss was a stunning 20-13 defeat at the hands of the Atlanta Falcons, who finished 8-8 and didn’t even make it to the playoffs.
After losing to the Seattle Seahawks in the playoffs last year, the Panthers took a 31-0 lead into halftime against them this time in the playoffs, and went on to win the game, albeit after a massive comeback by Seattle made the final score 31-24. They then went on to face the Arizona Cardinals, a team they had beat in the postseason last year 27-16. The game this time around wasn’t nearly as close, and Carolina went on to roll Arizona 49-15.
The chemistry and mojo the team has created this season is centered around quarterback Cam Newton, who has had a remarkable season in which he threw for 3,837 passing yards and ran for an additional 636 yards. Cam Newton was involved in over 83% of all Panthers’ touchdowns this year through the dual threat of passing and rushing. But it isn’t all about Newton: running back Jonathan Stewart was just 11 yards away from rushing for 1,000 this season, and wide receiver Greg Olsen caught for more than 1,100 in all this year.
It’s clear that these two teams have come from different sides of the tracks. Carolina essentially waltzed into the Super Bowl, while the Broncos have made it look anything but easy. However, the Broncos played seven regular season games against teams that made it to the playoffs, while the Panthers only played 4 such games. As a result, the Broncos had the 13th toughest schedule this year, while Carolina had the fifth easiest one.
While the Panthers didn’t have to go through as many obstacles as the Broncos to make it to the big game, there’s no one that can say they didn’t deserve it. The overall level of talent Carolina showed this year was overwhelming, and they won the big games against the big teams when they needed to.
The stark contrasts between the two teams has made it nearly impossible for anyone to gauge the closeness of the game. Even the best analysts can’t determine whether the game will be won by Carolina’s league-leading offense or the Bronco’s defense, also the best in their field. No one knows for sure which Peyton Manning will show up to the Super Bowl, or whether NFL MVP favorite Cam Newton will have a decent outing against a tough Broncos’ defensive line.
The Broncos’ defense is the best in the league, but the Panthers’ isn’t that far behind. While the defensive advantage will go to Denver, it will be close, which means that the game will probably be determined by the play of the offense. That is where Carolina holds the significant advantage. Cam Newton’s legs are incredibly difficult to stop, and he’s no slouch at passing, either. Throw in a solid running back like Stewart, and the Panthers have a multi-faceted offense that has more ways to win than the Broncos’ pass-heavy style of play.
There’s also just something about the Carolina team. That intangible momentum the Panthers amassed throughout the year is huge- the team shows confidence but not arrogance, and that mixed in with some lopsided victories against quality teams has been crucial into getting them this far.
At this point, guessing what the final score will be is a crapshoot, but I’ll give it a go: Panthers 28, Broncos 17