The Panthers and Broncos will both try to make history Sunday. After going 15-1 in the regular season, and with convincing wins over Seattle and Arizona in the postseason, Carolina is on one of the most impressive runs in NFL history. Denver comes to the big dance at 12-4 behind the league’s best defense, and with playoff wins over Pittsburgh and New England.
Carolina comes into the game with the league’s best record and highest scoring offense at 31.3 points per game. Leading the Panthers is Superman himself, Cam Newton. Newton is big, mobile, has a rocket for an arm and just seems to make plays out of nothing. Likely to be named the league’s MVP, Newton is a nightmare for opposing defenses, and will be yet another stern test for this Broncos defense.
The Panthers have a solid offensive line to create holes for the experienced rushing duo of Mike Tolbert and Jonathan Stewart. Newton is a threat with the legs as well; he rushed for 10 touchdowns in the regular season and another two in the postseason. Defending the Panthers read-option rushing attack will be a difficult task, even for the mighty Broncos defense.
Carolina’s passing game has surprisingly effective after losing Kelvin Benjamin prior to the season. The reemergence of Greg Olsen and Tedd Ginn Jr. has been a big reason that the offense has not skipped a beat. The Panthers have a lot of size, and Newton’s arm strength and accuracy, combined with his ability to improvise, leads to a lot of big plays down field.
Denver comes in with No. 1 overall defense, and the ability to shut down both the pass and run on any given Sunday. The Broncos have won 11 games by seven points or fewer, the most by any team in the Super Bowl era.
The Broncos defense has found ways to shut down and frustrate the league’s best quarterbacks all season under first-year defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. The Broncos hit Tom Brady 23 times in the AFC Championship matchup with the Patriots. The front-seven will need a similar spectacular performance to stop Newton and the Panthers.
Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson have been dominant in the middle of the Broncos aggressive 3-4 attack. If Jackson and Wolfe can collapse the pocket up the middle, DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller will have a much easier time getting to Newton from the outside.
If the Broncos can shut down the run, and make the Panthers offense one-dimensional, it plays heavily into the hands of the Broncos, and their aggressive pass-rushing attack.
On the offensive side of the ball, there are a lot of questions surrounding Denver. Since returning from injury, Peyton Manning has led the Broncos to three consecutive victories, and will try and cap off his fourth Super Bowl appearance with a second Super Bowl victory.
However, the Denver has struggled to get the ball into the endzone consistently. If the Broncos are going to overcome the Panthers, they must find ways to be efficient in the red zone, and not just settle for field goals.
The Panthers led the league in interceptions, and have forced seven turnovers in the postseason already. If Manning can manage the offense and establish the running game, it will put less pressure on the offense to move the ball through the air.
Ultimately, the Panthers seem to have the “X-factor” that teams like the 2013 Seahawks had. They are deep at all positions, have speed across the board and play hard every snap. Most of the national media has all but given them the Lombardi trophy already, but something seems different with this Broncos team.
All season Denver has faced adversity and found a way to win. Championship football is not always about flash. The Broncos have consistently found a way to win with their backs against the wall, and have played dominant defense all season, especially when the lights have been brightest.
Sure, as a Denver native, I cannot help but root for Peyton Manning to go out on top, and maybe my inner-fan is coming out. Something just feels special about the Broncos this season. Denver has the chance to send one of the all-time greats out with a storybook finish, and prove all of the doubters wrong. It might just be the recipe for success that Denver needs.
Prediction: Denver 27, Carolina 23.
Collegian Sports Reporter Justin Michael can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JustinSportsCSU.