When the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers play this Sunday in pursuit of a Super Bowl championship, it’s likely this will be the last time that Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning takes the field. Although Manning has not confirmed his retirement, many sources around the league expect that Super Bowl 50 will be Manning’s final game, win or lose.
Despite an up-and-down season from Manning, his Broncos are just one win away from capturing the ultimate prize. In the AFC Championship, the Broncos hounded the Patriots and Tom Brady, forcing Brady to throw before he was ready, and to absorb a beating from the fearsome Broncos pass-rush.
The Panthers have been strong from the start, with only one hiccup all season against the Atlanta Falcons. The NFC Championship was the pinnacle of their season with a huge 49-15 victory over the Cardinals. The Panthers devastated the Arizona offense and special teams by forcing 7 turnovers, while the offense was led by Cam Newton with almost 500 yards.
DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller lead the Broncos on defense, rushing the quarterback with a ferocity that few duos can match across the league. In the regular season, the two combined for 5 forced fumbles and 18.5 sacks, as well as another 4 sacks in two postseason games. The Panthers will need to double one or both of Ware and Miller if they hope to stop them.
The Broncos need their run-defense in top-form if they hope to stop the Panthers. Lead by Jonathan Stewart and Cam Newton, Carolina’s rushing attack was ranked 2nd overall, and has averaged 148 yards/game in the playoffs. Denver, however, held the third-ranked rushing defense, holding teams to just 83.6 yards/game. If the Broncos hope to win, they need to set the edge and control the running game.
On the other hand, the Carolina Panthers finished the season ranked 6th overall in both yards per game and scoring defense. Anchored by linebackers Luke Keuchly and Thomas Davis, the Panthers carry a physical presence that is enforced by Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. On the back end, the secondary boasts one of the best corners in the game in Greg Norman with two strong safeties behind him.
As difficult as it may be for Manning, he needs to take a backseat in this game. As evidenced by his dropping statistics this season as well as Manning’s age and previous health issues, it’s clear that Manning isn’t the same quarterback anymore. But that’s okay! Manning needs to play safe, the way he has since taking the job back in Week 17. No unnecessary jump-balls to Demaryius Thomas, or standing in the pocket too long to take an ugly sack. Short, precise passes, a deep ball here and there, and most importantly, no fumbles.
With two elite offenses and defenses, the tipping point in this game may be special teams or turnovers. Both Brandon McManus and Graham Gano kicked under 86% on the season, but neither have missed in the postseason. Neither team has been especially effective in the return game, so it will be more about which team avoids the bigger mistakes. Regarding defense, Carolina led the league in interceptions and fumbles recovered, but Denver was not far behind.
The Panthers are the early favorites according to this sbnation article, as high as six points. But as we see every week in the NFL, any team can beat the other on any Sunday. It doesn’t matter so much that this is the most important Sunday of the season.
Denver Broncs win 24-21
Statistics provided by: pro-football-reference.com and ESPN.com
Images from NBC Bay Area, BSN Denver, Perform Group, NFL.com, and theWhistle