For the third year in a row, the Super Bowl will feature the number one seed from both conferences. The Carolina Panthers, the champions of the National Football Conference, and winners of all but one game this season, will make their second Super Bowl appearance this Sunday at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, led by their polarizing quarterback Cam Newton. Their past appearance was against the Tom Brady-led New England Patriots in Super Bowl 38, which ended in a 32-29 victory for New England. On the other side of this year’s Super Bowl 50 is the Denver Broncos, who will be making their eighth Super Bowl appearance. Their record in the big game is just 2-5, and none of the five losses were close, including the most recent blowout at the hands of the vaunted Seattle Seahawks two years ago. In an AFC playoff that featured five very competent teams, Denver, the team that played both its games at home emerged as the victor with aged quarterback Peyton Manning at its helm. Manning offers the game’s most compelling storyline: the chance to end a Hall of Fame career with a win in the Super Bowl. Broncos great John Elway ended his career in the same way in Super Bowl 33 against the Atlanta Falcons, the last time Denver won the season’s final game.
Over the years, most teams that have made it to the Super Bowl won gracefully and usually by a lot. Not this year. This year both teams made “winning ugly” a habit, particularly at the beginning of the season. This meant relying on their defenses to score (each defense scored five times during the regular season) as well as holding on to wins when their offenses sputtered and turned the ball over. For the Broncos, it also meant playing just up to the level of their competition in many games. In their fourteen wins this season, the Broncos won eleven by less than ten points. One game during which they failed to play their best was a game against Cleveland in which Peyton Manning threw three interceptions and needed an interception return for a touchdown by cornerback Aqib Talib to get into overtime (the Broncos won 26-23). For the Panthers winning also meant struggling to hold onto leads that they created for themselves in the first half. In a game against the Giants in week 15, the Panthers made it look easy in the first forty minutes of the game, outscoring New York 35-7. After Eli Manning led the Giants down the field to make the score 35-14, the Panthers lost momentum and allowed the Giants to come all the way back in the fourth quarter. While the Panthers showed their resilience by winning on a last second field goal by Graham Gano, that field goal showed just how difficult it was for them to hold onto leads. It was games like these that prompted most football writers and analysts to deem Carolina the worst 11-0 team in National Football League history back in November. However, the Panthers didn’t care. They just kept winning.
For the Denver Broncos, a win against Green Bay back in November was perhaps their best this season. On defense, they held 2014 Most Valuable Player Aaron Rodgers to just 77 yards passing and held Packers running backs to less than three yards per carry. They also put tremendous pressure on Rodgers, sacking him three times, and forced three Packer fumbles. On offense, Peyton Manning threw for 340 yards while running backs C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman combined for 161 yards and three touchdowns. While the defense played this well on many occasions, the offense seldom did.
In their two playoff games, the Broncos knocked off the Steelers and Patriots, neither of which was playing their best football, by a combined nine points and did so mostly on the strength of their defense. On Sunday, the defense will need to set the tone for Denver and slow down a potent Panthers attack in order to give the offense a shot to win the game. If they don’t, the game could be a blowout. But the Broncos will also have to be as efficient and balanced offensively as they were against the Packers thirteen weeks ago to defeat the favored Panthers.
The Panthers, for their part, didn’t play their best game until last week’s conference championship, knocking off a skilled Cardinals team by a final count of 49-15. However, they also scored two significant victories this season against the defending conference champions, the Seattle Seahawks, which showed their ability to win tough games against quality opponents. The first victory was an impressive comeback from behind in week five at Seattle that showed just how good the Panthers were. The second came at home in the second round of the playoffs as the Panthers went up by 31 points and held on in the second half to knock off a Seattle team that had secured its last two playoff wins on the basis of the fear that it inspired in its opponents, which had both held double-digit leads in the fourth quarter before falling apart in the face of their fearsome opponent. This, too, the Panthers nearly did, allowing Seattle to close within seven points before buckling down and securing a 31-24 win in the final minutes.
While both defenses have been stout, the Panthers have been vastly superior on offense over the course of the season, outscoring the Broncos by nine points per game. Quarterback Cam Newton put together a MVP caliber season, throwing 35 touchdown passes and rushing for 10 more and turned the Panthers’ offense into the most versatile in the NFL. However, the Broncos have one of the greatest quarterbacks ever in Peyton Manning and an offense loaded with talent at each position. As a result, the game will come down to the matchup between the Panther defense and the Bronco offense. Will the running game be able to put enough pressure on Carolina to stop the run so that Peyton can have open looks to his speedy wide receivers? Or will the Panthers’ defense slow down the Broncos capable, but inconsistent attack and create turnovers to give Newton and the offense good field position? I’m predicting more of the latter as the Broncos’ defense plays well but not well enough to power its limping offense past the Panthers, who earn their first Super Bowl win on Sunday. My prediction for the final score is Panthers 28, Broncos 20.