by Blake Krantz
Peyton Manning hinted that this season may be his “last rodeo” in conversation with Bill Belichick at midfield after the AFC Championship game, arousing interest nationwide and from the media for the potential ending of a legendary quarterback’s NFL career. What is certain, however, is that Super Bowl 50 will be the final game of the NFL season on Sunday in Santa Clara, between the AFC Champion Denver Broncos and the NFC Champion Carolina Panthers.
After an upset win at home against the New England Patriots, veteran Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning may play his final game in the most popularized event in all of sports. “The Sheriff,” as many call Manning, has been able to rely on a Denver defense that seems to consistently produce pivotal plays in critical moments throughout the season. In the case of the AFC title game, it took an astounding effort for the entire game from the Broncos defense, with defensive coordinator Wade Phillips adapting coverages and pass rushes to keep Tom Brady and company on their heels.
With an abundance of stars such as Von Miller, who had four sacks against New England, Demarcus Ware, and cornerbacks Chris Harris and Aqib Talib, there is not much to criticize on the defensive side of the ball for Denver going into the Super Bowl. Perhaps more than any defense in recent memory, the Broncos boast pro-bowl caliber players on the defensive line, at linebacker, and in the secondary, and this group will face its toughest task against Cam Newton and the Panthers in the final game of the year.
Although the Broncos seemed able to put pressure on Brady all game with just a three-man rush on many plays, the story is likely to be much different against Newton and the Panthers. While Brady was often forced to throw the ball away during the AFC Title game, Newton’s mobility will present an entirely new challenge for Denver. Newton’s ability to escape the pocket and run has been dynamic all season for the 17-1 Panthers, a record and success which will likely award Newton the MVP this season.
Carolina’s offense, simply put, has seemed unstoppable as of late. In the Panthers’ first two playoff games against the Seattle Seahawks and the Arizona Cardinals, they scored 31 and 24 first half points, respectively, and they hope for one final fast start on Sunday. In addition to Cam Newton, tight end Greg Olsen and wide receiver Ted Ginn have been key pieces on the offensive side of the ball for Carolina, as Newton’s primary targets in the passing game.
The success of Denver’s offense has often relied on running backs C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman, as Manning’s arm strength, or lack thereof, has been a primary focus throughout the season. At the start of the year, Manning was throwing many interceptions and seemed unable to hit Denver’s explosive receivers such as Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, and he was benched in favor of Brock Osweiler as a result. However, after being reinserted Week 17 against the Chargers and defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots in the playoffs, Manning appears ready to hold his own in Super Bowl 50.
The Broncos will no doubt need to generate a running attack against Carolina’s defense, but Manning will also need to make the throws in the pocket and off of play-action that he made in the AFC Championship game to give Denver a shot. Carolina is heavily favored in this one, for good reason, but a combination of a dominant defense, a solid running attack, and a competent Peyton Manning has been a formula for success that the Broncos will lean on one final time in Santa Clara.
Finally, Luke Kuechly and the Panthers defense have seen similar success to that of the Broncos this season, undoubtedly sitting in the top tier of defenses in the NFL. Keuchly leads this group, with an interception returned for a touchdown in two straight playoff games. Simply put, Kuechly always seems to be in the right place at the right time, accumulating tackles and other key plays for Carolina. Rookie cornerback Josh Norman has also been essential for the Panthers this season, shutting down marquee receivers such as Julio Jones and Odell Beckham Jr.
Ultimately, although both teams are going into the game with confidence and stars on both sides of the ball, I see Cam Newton and the opportunistic play-making ability of the Panthers’ defense as proving too much for Denver. As much as I am rooting for the Broncos and “The Sheriff” to win in what may be his “last rodeo,” as he dubbed it, I see Manning throwing a key interception at some point in this one. Carolina is simply dominating their opponents as of late, and the Broncos will not have enough firepower to come out on top. Carolina wins a close game, and Newton wins the first Super Bowl of his career as a future face of the NFL.