Experience or exuberance? High-pressure defense or high-scoring offense. You can split the teams any way you like, but when it all boils down Super Bowl 50 will be decided by one key question: can the Denver Broncos stop the Carolina Panthers’ all-conquering quarterback Cam Newton?
And if they can’t, can they get enough out of their own leader Peyton Manning to give themselves a chance?
As the biggest day in American sport approaches, we weigh up each team’s weapons and weaknesses as they bid for victory in California.
Carolina Panthers $1.45
Denver Broncos $2.83
Close your eyes for a second (or maybe squint so you can keep reading). Imagine you’re picking your Super Bowl lineup. You can have either the guy who’s about to be crowned the league’s MVP, with his 45 touchdowns for the season, his team’s average of 31 points per game and his 15-1 record, or you can have the beat-up almost 40-year-old who chalked up almost twice as many interceptions (17) as he has touchdowns (nine), was injured for a decent chunk of the season, coughed the ball up four times in one game and was benched for a kid who’d barely set foot over an NFL sideline.
On paper, it’s hard to see how Broncos QB Peyton Manning ($1.87 to throw for more than 229.5 yards) will get anywhere near being able to match what Panthers quarterback Cam Newton could do on Monday morning. Newton has turned in one of the top 10 quarterback seasons of all time, and no one else in that top 10 has come anywhere near matching the 10 rushing touchdowns he’s scored on his own. His almost 3900 yards of total offense for the season and 99.4 passer rating tell you all you need to know about how destructive he’s been. But you don’t become the NFL’s all-time passing leader by chance, and Manning’s been here before. You could argue that Super Bowl experience counts for jack, given Manning has played in three for just one ring – successful at his first attempt in 2006 but then missing out in 2009 and 2013. But you can’t discount a champion, and the way in which Manning wrestled back the starting job from Brock Osweiler just in time for the post-season, then led his team past both Pittsburgh and Tom Brady and his Patriots, proves you’d be folly to write him off.
THE PASSING GAME
It’s a shame that younger NFL fans or recent converts will likely only remember Peyton Manning as a middling quarterback, prone to being hurried and turning balls over more often than a Powerball lotto machine. No one will ever forget his outing against Kansas City, when he completed five passes from 20 attempts, threw four interceptions and was lucky not to have a fumble land in the Chiefs’ hands. But his two finals performances have been nothing if not a return to some sort of consistency. He might not have put up the huge numbers of yesteryear (his 17-for-32 stats line against the Patriots likely won’t be enough this weekend) but to see the 39-year-old make a rare scrambling run for a first down in the third quarter against the Seahawks proves there’s life in the old dog yet.
The Broncos managed just 19 touchdowns through the air during the season, 15 of which came from receivers Demaryius Thomas (six), Emmanuel Sanders (six) and former Ravens and Texans tight end Owen Daniels (three), who’s found a playoffs rapport with Manning and was on the end of both of his touchdown passes a fortnight ago against the Patriots. If Sanders and Thomas (both $2.20 to score a touchdown) have a bad day, it’ll be curtains for Denver.
The Panthers unleashed a wealth of receiving options in the passing game throughout the regular season, spreading their 35 passing touchdowns amongst eight players, with tight end Greg Olsen ($11 for first touchdown) netting seven and Ted Ginn ($15) collecting 10 from just 44 receptions. Importantly this season, Newton has found the right balance between piercing defenses with leather tracer bullets, and trying to put Warner Bros-style holes in his receivers’ torsos or shear off their limbs. That restraint has made all the difference, with a career-low 10 interceptions, including just two in his last 10 games.
THE RUNNING GAME
You know those times when you do a long interstate drive and then have to spend three hours scraping unlucky bugs out of your grille and off your windscreen? That’s what Mondays have been like at Panthers headquarters this year, courtesy of Newton. While the Panther’s offensive line isn’t the greatest, even when opposition defenses do get a read on Newton’s ($1.87 for over 38.5 rushing yards) runs, he barrels through them regardless. Running back Jonathan Stewart ($2.00 to score a touchdown) has done the bulk of the grunt work and has been prolific in his team’s two playoff wins, peeling off two touchdowns and 189 yards, including a 59-yard run on the very first play of the game that set the tone for his team’s NFL Divisional playoff win against Seattle. But Newton’s 12 touchdowns to this point of the season didn’t happen by accident, and he’ll need only a handful of chances to add to his tally.
If the Broncos hope to get anywhere near the Panthers by the final whistle, they’ll need to get something going on the ground to take the pressure off Manning. Their young running back core of Ronnie Hillman ($3.30 to score a touchdown) and C.J. Anderson ($2.40) both had their moments throughout the season, finding the end zone 12 times off a combined 1583 yards, but they’ve both played significant stretches where they’ve been downright lousy. Anderson had just 180 yards from his 67 carries in the first six games of the season, but after Hillman took over the starting duties he turned in just 3.21 yards per carry from his 68 attempts between weeks 12 and 16. And now they face a Panthers defensive line that allows the fourth fewest rushing yards in the NFL, led by defensive tackle Kawaan Short, who made a habit of stuffing running backs this season while also grabbing 13 sacks in 18 games. It could be a long day for Denver.
Depending on which metrics you use, the Broncos could be the best defense in the NFL. They’ve kept opposition teams to the fewest number of yards (283.1 per game) and are the only team to restrict their opponents to an average of less than 200 passing yards. Watching DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller terrorise Tom Brady with three sacks and 11 of their team’s 20 quarterback knockdowns in the AFC Championship was something special (the 20 knockdowns was the most by any team in any game this season). The Panthers have been masters at inventing ways to find space with their rushing game, and this battle presents as potentially the decisive factor of this Super Bowl. The Broncos have been particularly effective in the postseason on third downs, where they’ve stopped all bar four of the 27 attempts they’ve faced. Coming at them is a Panthers’ offense that is running at more than 50 per cent on third down conversions in the playoffs, which stands to reason after their 49-15 rout of Arizona two weeks ago.
The Panthers’ defense hasn’t quite reached Denver’s lofty heights, but it’s been more than serviceable. And against a Broncos quarterback who’s been tossing up an average of almost two intercepts every game, they’ll have plenty of chances to make big plays count. Free safety Kurt Coleman added another two interceptions to his season tally of seven when Carolina took on Arizona in the NFC Championship game, including a ridiculous aerial effort in the Cardinals’ end zone late in the second quarter. In the first half alone the Panthers defensive line delivered two sacks, four quarterback hits, seven knockdowns and caused four turnovers. If they dial up that kind of heat against a sometimes shaky Broncos offensive line, there’ll be more orange on the ground than in a junior footy half-time huddle.
This might be the first time in Levi’s Stadium’s short history that people will actually want to go there. The locals hate it, given it’s a dog of a place to get to and cost a lazy $1.2 billion to build, but the corporate out-of-towners who blow in for their one game of the year probably wouldn’t care if it was played on the moon. Peyton Manning will have no such qualms, either, with the Broncos having routed the 49ers 34-0 there in the stadium’s debut during the 2014 preseason. It’ll be Newton’s first trip to Santa Clara.
THE CRYSTAL BALL
Picking a Super Bowl winner can be risky business, but when a team has put 38 points or more on the board in six of its last nine games, including 49 in its most recent outing, it’s hard to go past them when the team they’ll be facing is a Broncos outfit that’s scored 30 points just twice in the entire season. They say defense usually wins Super Bowls, but not this year.
Pick: Panthers -3.5 and total points over 43.5 double – $3.00