For a team that entered the playoffs as the AFC’s No. 1 seed, the Denver Broncos sure have a chip on their shoulders.
The Broncos, who went 12-4 during the regular season, overcame the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game despite Tom Brady and Co. going into Denver as the favorites. Now, the Broncos will ride into Super Bowl 50 again positioned as the underdogs, with Cam Newton and the red-hot Carolina Panthers ready for war.
It’s been an interesting campaign for the Broncos, who took down the Pittsburgh Steelers in the divisional round before beating the Pats to punch their tickets to Super Bowl 50 at Levi’s Stadium. Peyton Manning was the starting quarterback to begin the season, but Brock Osweiler took over for a seven-start stretch as the 39-year-old battled injuries and inconsistency before ultimately handing the keys back to the future Hall of Fame signal caller. All the while, Denver’s defense has dominated.
But can anyone stop Carolina? The Panthers rolled through the regular season with a 15-1 record and have only looked better in the playoffs, holding off the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round and pummeling the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship Game.
The short answer is “yes” — if the Broncos do the following three things.
COME OUT SWINGING
The Panthers jumped out to a 31-0 lead in the first half of their playoff game against the Seahawks before holding on for a 31-24 win. They then grabbed a 17-0 lead in the first quarter of their conference title game against the Cardinals en route to a 49-15 blowout. It goes without saying that any team would like to start hot, but it’s vital for the Broncos to hit the ground running Sunday, especially since this isn’t a new phenomenon.
The Panthers outscored opponents 266-121 in the first halves of games during the regular season. In the playoffs, they’ve simply kicked things up a notch to the tune of seven touchdowns and two field goals in 13 first-half possessions.
This isn’t the same Broncos offense that gave nightmares to opposing defenses the last couple of years, in large part because Denver’s aerial attack is far less explosive amid Manning’s regression. The Broncos can’t fall behind early and expect to claw their way back, and that’s not even taking into account the mental impact of falling into a big hole while playing the role of underdog.
FORCE CAM NEWTON TO THROW
The Panthers love to run the ball. Why? Because they’re good at it. Carolina’s offensive scheme — centered on read-option plays — is perfectly tailored to Newton’s strengths and has been nearly unstoppable, evidenced by the Panthers’ second-ranked 142.6 rushing yards per game and NFL-best 31.3 points per game during the regular season.
Newton isn’t a slouch at throwing the football, either, despite the Panthers ranking 27th in the NFL with 501 pass attempts. The Broncos had the top-ranked pass defense this season and the Panthers have relied on an underwhelming cast of receivers (outside of stud tight end Greg Olsen), though. Forcing Newton to throw more than Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula would like seems like the best way for Denver’s vaunted defense to stall Carolina’s sizzling offense.
Of course, that’s easier said than done, but Denver has two fantastic edge rushers in Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. So if any team has the horses to pull off such a feat, it’s the Broncos.
RELY ON PEYTON MANNING’S EXPERIENCE
The key to the Broncos’ offensive success might not be Manning’s arm but rather his brain.
Manning no longer can zip the ball around the field. He barely can throw outside the numbers. The 18-year veteran still can read a defense and take advantage of favorable matchups, though, and if the Panthers have a weakness, it’s in their secondary, which has been decimated by injuries.
Also, according to CBSSports.com, 16 current Broncos have played in a Super Bowl whereas just five current Panthers have appeared in the big game. It’s a minor detail, but it’s worth noting as each team looks for a mental edge before kickoff.
Thumbnail photo via Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY Sports Images
Thumbnail photo via Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning
Powered by WordPress.com VIP