Time was, the team with Peyton Manning under centre would be the unstoppable offensive juggernaut, and it would be up to its opponent to open up the bag of tricks to try to keep pace with a high-powered offence. Time was, Manning’s margin for error would be wide, with a mere two-minute drill often all that was required to drop a quick six points on an overmatched defence, then hand the ball back to his counterpart with a “Top that!” smirk.
That time was… at least a year ago. That time is gone forever. But all is not lost.
The Denver Broncos that face the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50 will have an ancient quarterback, the popgun-iest (if you’ll pardon the phrase) offence the Super Bowl has seen in a decade and a razor-thin margin for error. Not much can go wrong for the Broncos and still leave them with a chance at an upset.
But hey—that was the prevailing wisdom going into the AFC championship game, too, and Denver managed to gut that one out.
So here we go, a five-step plan that gives the Broncos a win and a bunch of lucky gamblers a nice payday. But please, I’m not a football coach, just a guy looking at some stats and news reports—and I definitely wouldn’t go betting the house on Denver.
1. Start fast.
The Panthers have crushed their way through these playoffs by burying teams early. Both Seattle and Arizona found themselves forced into desperation mode before halftime. Denver’s offence does not have a desperation mode, because they are just desperately trying to move the football at all. It’s hard enough for them with no deficit and they’re not going to be in a good place if they’re trying to catch up against the Carolina defence.
All that makes an early touchdown or two not just an objective, but a necessity. Despite the assumption he would be little more than a game manager, Manning actually looked downfield early in the AFC title game, racking up both his touchdowns and 124 of his 176 passing yards before halftime, and the Broncos were rewarded with a lead they could defend. That lead forced the Patriots to attempt deeper throws and created time and opportunity for Denver’s dominant pass rush and secondary.
2. Get Von Miller into great matchups.
Carolina has a solid offensive line, sure, but it’s not as dominant as it looked against Arizona in the NFC title game. Newton can be disrupted, and pressured, and sacked. And the most likely man to do it is Miller, who caused havoc against the Patriots and is benefiting from DeMarcus Ware’s return, which forces defences to key on both rushing linebackers. Per Pro Football Focus, Miller rushes from the left side of the line 73 percent of the time, and his 70 pressures from that side are more than anyone else in the NFL.
Defending Newton on that side will be right tackle Mike Remmers, one of the league’s worst O-linemen in pass protection. If Miller can make Remmers into a turnstile, he’ll be in Cam’s kitchen all day, and those deep balls to Ted Ginn and Corey Brown won’t have time to develop. Which is good, because Denver simply can’t keep up in a game of long passes.
3. Win the turnover battle.
Technically this is a key to every single game of football, but it’s even more pronounced on Sunday. Despite having the league’s best defence, the Broncos finished minus-four in turnovers, 20th in the NFL. The Panthers? First, with a plus-20 number. So on that count, it seems hopeless—but wait! Much of the Broncos' negative number was rung up during the first nine weeks of the season, when Manning was playing both a) hurt and b) absolutely horrendously, racking up an NFL-leading 17 interceptions. While his arm strength hasn’t magically returned after his seven-week rehab, Manning has certainly been much more careful with the football since re-taking the starting job.
If Manning can avoid throwing the ball to his opponents (not an easy task, as the Panthers defenders’ 24 total picks led the league by a wide margin), that takes a huge chunk out of what looks like a major deficit on paper. It’s a big ‘if,’ sure, but this whole game is a big ‘if’ for Denver. Don’t cough up the football, make the Panthers work for field position, see what happens.
4. Don’t be fooled in the run game.
Carolina throws more strange rushing plays at their opponents than any team in recent memory. The Broncos were the third-best in the NFL during the season at defending the run, but they didn’t really face many multi-faceted rushing units—Denver’s two division games against Alex Smith were the only times they faced a QB who rushed with any frequency.
Newton and the Panthers—who often use the three-headed monster of Cam, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert in the backfield as a triple option—represent a whole different ballgame. Carolina has been successful when its opponents get suckered into charging upfield to stop a Stewart run, only to realize Newton, or Tolbert, has the ball. Denver has an excellent D-line, as well as fast linebackers who tackle well, and if they can be patient they are capable of neutralizing the Panthers’ tricks. But only if—there’s that word again—they don’t get ahead of themselves.
5. Get big plays from big players.
Sure, sure—another key that would be a key to any game. But the difference is that Denver hasn’t had much of this at all from any of its truly big guns. Emmanuel Sanders had a highlight-reel catch against the Patriots and CJ Anderson broke off one long run, but other than that Denver’s big-money guys have gone missing. Demaryius Thomas: Two catches for 12 yards against New England. Take away Anderson’s 30-yard run and he carried 15 times for 42 yards, or just under three per tote. Hillman was even worse, with 11 carries for 16 yards, and Sanders had just four grabs for 28 yards outside of his 34-yard beauty.
This bookends our first point nicely: Denver needs to be aggressive, because it’s likely going to take at least 27 or 30 points to win this Super Bowl, and probably more. In order for Denver to be aggressive, some of its offensive weapons need to win one-on-one battles. If they don’t, well, Carolina’s overall depth will probably overwhelm them.