As the season began, I started my weekly predictions for the first time in my new journey and hobby of writing and analyzing. Through the first few weeks against slightly lesser opponents, I picked the Panthers each week. As I watched the team mold and grow, I found myself picking them every week right into Super Bowl 50. After about week six, I caught myself smiling as I typed, thinking "I really believe this team just can't lose right now." i kept it to myself in hopes of not jinxing anything all season. We had one slip, but we haven't and shouldn't have another.
The Panthers have steam rolled into Santa Clara with a 17-1 record with the league's best offense and a top ten defense with a knack for taking the ball away. In fact, Carolina leads the league in that category and it isn't close. Not to mention they've had a few dances, dabs, and team pictures along the way enjoying every minute of it.
The Broncos enter the big game with a gritty style of winning behind the leagues best defense. Future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning is perhaps playing the final game of his career after a season that, at one point, looked as if he would not finish as the starter. He has made the plays he needed to in key situations to come away with the wins. But make no mistake, this teams defense has been the catalyst behind perhaps Manning's final run to the Super Bowl.
KEYS TO THE GAME
There's no secret about the threat of Von Miller, Demarcus Ware, and this Broncos pass rush can have on this game. Something the Panthers do have in their favor here, however, is that Denver's defense has not faced a running attack like the Panthers all season. Behind a well schemed zone read rushing attack with Jonathan Stewart and Cam Newton, the Panthers finished second in the league (142 y/g) in rushing. They led the league for the majority of the season until the final week. Getting Stewart and Newton going in the run game early will be key to keep this great Denver pass rush on it's heels with Newton's ability to pull the ball back from Stewart and keep it when Ware or Miller crash the end to stop Jonathan Stewart.
Denver also has a great second level of defense in their led by Talib, Harris Jr, and T.J. Ward. Newton will have to make good decisions and likely need to squeeze the ball in some tight windows against this group. This secondary held teams to a league best 199 yards passing per game throughout the regular season. Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula will once again look to get guys like Ted Ginn with his speed mismatched with a linebacker or two. Look for this coming off some play action to get over the top of the defense, much like we have seen a lot of this season.
The biggest thing we here at C3 wanted to see improve going into the playoffs was our pass rush from the defensive line. They have answered that call with eight sacks in their two playoff games, including five of those coming against Russell Wilson. This defensive line should have an advantage against a Broncos offensive line who has struggled some this season. Look for Kawann Short to continue blowing up the middle of the pocket of Peyton Manning. If the Panthers pass rush continues the pace it has had through out these playoffs, it could be a long day for Peyton Manning and the Broncos offense. Take away the middle, force Manning to throw long and outside and the Panthers should have some opportunities to force some turnovers.
The Broncos defense has done a tremendous job keeping their team in it and even sometimes winning the game week in and week out. They are the best defense in the NFL this season for a reason. I think the difference here will end up being on the scoring end with the offenses. The Panthers pass rush has been scorching through these playoffs. As I stated above, if they are getting after Manning, it will give Cam Newton and the league's top scoring offense more opportunities. That also means more time on the field for the Denver defense against a second ranked rushing attack that could wear them down.
If Cam and the Panthers offense can protect the football and not turn it over, they should be able to turn some of those aforementioned opportunities into points. Even with Denver's receiving weapons in Thomas and Sanders, it's hard to know if Peyton will be able to exploit Sanders strength of beating defenses deep with his arm strength.
In the end, I see Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, Greg Olsen, Ron Rivera, Dave Gettleman, Jerry Richardson, and the rest of this historic team hoisting Charlotte and the Carolina's first Super Bowl victory. Much respect to Manning and a historic career, but this Panthers team is special. Hope to see us all singing Sweet Caroline one last time this season tomorrow night!
FINAL- Panthers 27, Broncos 23 (Yes, the total score equates to 50 total points.)
By Tripp Morgan
Follow Twitter @TrippMorgan6