The Carolina Panthers may be the heavy favourite against the Denver Broncos heading into Super Bowl 50, but that doesn’t mean Sunday’s championship clash doesn’t offer plenty of intrigue.
I mean, it’s the NFL’s most explosive offence led by a quarterback like none we’ve ever seen before squaring off against the league’s best defence that makes a living off getting to the quarterback.
And that’s what it’s really about, isn’t it? The matchups.
So in the final edition of the NFL Playoff Power Rankings, we’re throwing out team rankings altogether. Instead, we’re going to rank the five most fascinating matchups Super Bowl 50 has to offer.
5) Panthers DTs Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei vs. the Denver offensive line
It didn’t take long to see what havoc the interior of the Panthers defensive line could wreak this post-season. Within minutes of Carolina’s playoffs getting underway against Seattle, Short, Lotulelei and the rest of the Panthers' defensive line embarrassed the Seahawks' offensive line, playing a big role in giving Carolina a quick 14–0 lead.
If the Broncos offence is going to have a chance Sunday night, the offensive line will have to contain this dominant group of defensive tackles. Denver’s offence under Peyton Manning is at it’s best when the run game is gaining ground and—maybe even more obviously—when Manning doesn’t have two 300-lb. men up in his grill.
If the offensive line can't slow down the Panthers up front, Manning will have neither of those luxuries.
4) Broncos receivers vs. Panthers secondary
Yes, the Panthers boast arguably the league’s best defensive back in Josh Norman, but outside of No. 24 Carolina has been forced to put together a rag-tag bunch in the defensive backfield, with Cortland Finnegan and Robert McClain tabbed to line up opposite the all-pro cornerback.
Assuming the Broncos’ run game is mostly stagnant, Denver is going to have to rely on Manning to put points on the board, which is far from ideal given the state of his arm these days. But it can be done. As long as he avoids middle linebacker and coverage dynamo Luke Kuechly, who already has two pick-sixes in two playoff games this year.
Manning has played much better since his return from injury and Carolina’s weaknesses in the secondary have been exposed on multiple occasions this season, giving up 295-plus yards through the air five different times, most recently in the second half of the divisional game against Seattle.
Assuming Norman covers Demaryius Thomas, if Manning looks to Emmanuel Sanders, Jordan Norwood or Bennie Fowler in open space against the likes of Finnegan or McClain, there’s damage to be done.
And don’t sleep on Owen Daniels, who played a crucial role in the AFC title game and could expose Carolina’s safeties—in particular Kurt Coleman, who has a penchant for giving up the big play.
3) DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller vs. Cam Newton and the Panthers' offensive line
The Broncos’ dynamic pass-rushing duo is probably still haunting Tom Brady’s nightmares. When fully healthy, no pair is better at getting after the quarterback than Ware and Miller.
But the matchup against Carolina is much tougher. First off, the offensive line of the Panthers is stronger than the Patriots’—which isn’t saying much considering New England’s front five was in shambles.
It won’t be easy as Carolina’s unit has protected Newton well all season long, giving up just 33 sacks.
Left tackle Michael Oher has unquestionably been a stabilizer in the Panthers’ passing game, as the former Raven and Titan has done a standout job of protecting Newton’s blindside since the quarterback begged him to join Carolina in the off-season.
At right tackle, however, Mike Remmers struggled in pass protection this season, allowing the most sacks and QB hurries of any Panthers lineman. But Carolina has done a solid job of finding ways to account for such weaknesses (keeping a tight end or back in to block), and they’ll need it come Sunday considering that Miller does the majority of his pass rushing off the right side.
2) Panthers receivers vs. Broncos secondary
When sophomore wideout Kelvin Benjamin went down in training camp with a torn ACL, many called it for the Panthers. Outside of tight end Greg Olsen—the Panthers’ leading receiver with 1,104 yards (a career-high total) and seven touchdowns this season—there was no real threat in the pass game.
But instead of struggling, an underwhelming-on-paper group of receivers has emerged to help Carolina’s offence become the NFL’s best. Ted Ginn, Jericho Cotchery, Devin Funchess and Corey Brown have all contributed in their own way to the Panthers’ success, but what they all have in common (except for Cotchery) is an ability to stretch the field and turn big plays into points.
And that’s where this matchup gets interesting, because in Aqib Talib and Bradley Roby, the Broncos have two of the quickest cover corners in the game, and in Chris Harris Jr., Wade Phillips’s unit has one of the best all-around defenders hands down. Not to mention, safeties T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart are both expected to be near 100 percent for Sunday’s clash.
Let’s say Denver’s defence finds ways to force Newton to beat the Broncos through the air. Do his receivers have the ability to find ways to get open when smothered by Denver’s secondary?
1) Broncos front seven vs. Panthers run game
The Panthers have one of the most multi-faceted run games the NFL has seen in years. That’s due to the running ability of Newton, and the fact it often operates out of triple options in which Newton, Jonathan Stewart and one of Mike Tolbert, Fozzy Whittaker or Cameron Artis-Payne could be the ball carrier.
Carolina’s offence obviously thrives off its run game; with 2,282 yards, the Panthers had the NFL’s second-ranked run offence and rushed it more than any other team with 526 attempts.
What makes this matchup so intriguing? The Broncos run defence is equally as impressive as Carolina’s run offence.
Denver allowed 100 rushing yards in a game just six times this season, and five times (including in the AFC title game) gave up fewer than 50 yards on the ground.
According to Pro Football Focus, 10 of the Broncos’ 11 starters graded out as positive run stoppers this season, with Derek Wolfe, Von Miller and Brandon Marshall all ranking in the top-five of their respective positions this season.
This matchup will ultimately decide Super Bowl 50. Book it.