Photo Credit: nfl.com
By Jason Sharpe
After their blowout NFC Championship victory the NFC top-seeded Panthers host the top-seeded AFC Championship-winning Broncos on Sunday at 6:30 P.M. in Santa Clara, C.A. for Super Bowl 50 – the “Golden Anniversary” – with the Lombardi Trophy on the line.
SANTA CLARA, C.A. – We made it. The Carolina Panthers are now “the worst” 17-1 team in NFL history to make it to the Super Bowl. Coming off a blowout victory in the NFC Championship game, the NFC top-seeded Panthers host the top-seeded AFC Championship-winning Denver Broncos Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, C.A. for Super Bowl 50 – the “Golden Anniversary” of the Super Bowl. This way things are predicted to shape up on-the-field make this Super Bowl matchup out to be an instant classic.
Last week’s victory over the Arizona Cardinals for the NFC Championship was nothing like I have ever seen before. Everything was clicking for the Panthers, and the Cardinals just didn’t show up to play. Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer was rattled from the start, and couldn’t recover, only leading to him playing increasingly horrendously over the course of the game, with the Panthers’ defense taking full and complete advantage of it. With so much going the Panthers’ way on both sides of the football, I kept asking myself, “Is this real life?” I honestly thought I was dreaming. I think I speak for the Panthers and all fans when I say that the NFC Championship game was absolutely glorious.
However, I expect things to be a very different this week. Both teams will be running out onto the field with something to prove. The Panthers will take the field still trying to prove themselves, as many people still doubt them. It just absolutely baffles me why there is still doubt and disdain among many NFL analysts and fans, given their historic season and their current position in this year’s postseason – the Panthers are playing for the Lombardi Trophy today. Where is your team? Each player will be sitting on their couch on Sunday, watching the Super Bowl on TV…not running out on the field at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, C.A. And yet, as I have still heard this week, “The Panthers haven’t really played anyone this year.” Coming off a wild, blowout NFC Championship victory, the Panthers cannot be overconfident with that game at the back of their minds. Hopefully they left the NFC Championship victory back in Charlotte, N.C. This is a completely different opposing team, on a completely different stage, with their entire season, their reputation and credibility – the doubt from every NFL analyst and fan, and the Lombardi Trophy on the line.
The Broncos will come onto the field looking to prove they are better than they have been given credit for all season, but in a very different way from the Panthers. They’ve had a lot of close wins, including their AFC Championship victory to punch their ticket to the Super Bowl. They are trying to prove that their second half of the regular season and path to the Super Bowl wasn’t a fluke, given their quarterback situation and correlating offensive struggles each game. The Broncos also have another task at hand – to send future first-ballot Hall of Famer Peyton “The Sheriff” Manning out on top with a Super Bowl victory. Manning holds so many NFL records, and has nothing else to prove to anyone, however, with heavy speculation that his retirement is pending and this being his last game, everyone wants to go out on top, and the Broncos will leave everything on the field to help sendoff their legendary quarterback riding off into the sunset, with the Lombardi Trophy in hand. This game is important to both teams, for very obvious reasons, it’s the Super Bowl. It will be an all-out defensive fight to the death.
The Broncos and Panthers are both led by and rely on their defenses, but the Panthers pack more punch on offense. With the Broncos having the top defense this season and the Panthers having the top offense this season, this should be a defensive matchup, and a close game. To sum up what to look for in this matchup, be ready for a defensive game. A Super Bowl 50 victory for both teams are their defenses being able to get the job done, and their quarterbacks – whether or not Newton or Manning can handle the pressure of the opposing defense. Pressure being both when forced out of the pocket – having to read the field while scrambling and make a good decision on the fly – and the pressure of time, remaining cool, calm and collective until the clock hits 0:00 in the fourth quarter. The difference in this game will come down to matching opponents’ scoring drives and clock management while putting together scoring drives. I wouldn’t be surprised if Super Bowl 50 is decided by the last offensive drive, either by a touchdown or a field goal, or a defensive stand by the opposing team, stopping an potential game-winning drive, to get the Lombardi Trophy.
Keys To The Game
- Limit turnovers. No turnovers would be nice. Any opportunity gifted to Peyton Manning often ends up with points on the scoreboard.
- Set the offensive tone early. Mix up offensive play calling from the get-go to establish the ground game. Very simple, the Panthers must be able to pick up yards by grinding it out in the trenches. Look for the Panthers to try and established the run game via read option plays, which has constantly kept opposing defenses guessing, which Jonathan Stewart and company have taken advantage of when Cam Newton lets them keep the ball and find the hole for the medium to long gain on the ground. With the Broncos’ defense expected to bring heavy pass rush on most plays to put pressure on Newton, the Panthers can take advantage of this via read option plays, keeping the Broncos’ defense guessing.
- Expanding on the aforementioned pass rush, the Panthers must hand the ball off to Jonathan Stewart often. The Broncos will be looking to pass rush on most downs, and nothing leads to big gains on the ground like finding the perfect hole in the pass rush to create an open running lane. If Stewart can establish the ground game early, it will put the Broncos in a quagmire when calling defensive plays. This will give the Panthers more offensive freedom in play calling, being able to keep the Broncos’ defense from predicting Panthers’ offensive plays and establishing a defensive rhythm.
- Pick up the pass rush. If the Panthers’ offensive line can pick up the pass rush on passing plays, it will allow Newton time to establish himself in the pocket – even just giving him a few more seconds before taking a hit after releasing the ball – to find opportunities downfield for big plays downfield with the Panthers’ speedy, skilled route-running WR targets and TE Greg Olsen.
- Don’t let Peyton Manning get into a rhythm. The defense must break through the offensive line, on every play. The Panthers’ defense must use their pass-rushing prowess to break through Broncos’ offensive line, wearing them down over the course of the game. This will lead to being able to rattle Manning more and more throughout the game.
- The “X Factor” – The Broncos’ defensive is the best in the NFL this year, with their anchor on the defensive line being DeMarcus Ware. The Panthers’ offensive line will face a tough challenge in stabilizing the pass rush to give Newton time in the pocket. The key matchup today will be Michael Oher versus Ware, in protecting Newton’s “blind side.” Oher turned his lackluster career around in his first year with the Panthers, so let’s hope he continues playing in the form we’ve become accustom to this season.
- Generate turnovers. Specifically, force Cam Newton out of the pocket for him to make a split-second decision when throwing on the run. Newton has used better judgment this season when the pocket collapses on pass plays and he is forced to scramble and/or throw on the run. However, there is still the chance that Newton will try to force a big play in a tightly covered area, which has historically led to interceptions. This could be an even bigger factor given the pressure and expectations being placed on him since it is the Super Bowl.
- Stop the Panthers on third down, specifically on third and long pass plays when Newton sees nothing down field, and decides to tuck it and run. During these situations, Newton has been a huge factor this season for the Panthers to continue drives in close games.
- Be able to contain Newton when the pocket collapses and he makes the decision to tuck and run. The Broncos must utilize their loaded and experienced defense to recognize the collapsing pocket a few seconds in advance and adjust to bring Newton down by quickly.
- Be able to quickly sniff out and adjust to the read option plays, and shut them down. Newton and Jonathan Stewart and company have become extremely synchronized in running the read option. When they establish the ground game early through Newton handing the ball of to the running backs in the read option, it normally leads to medium to long yards gained on the ground. Essentially, be cautious on while relying on the pass rush.
- Set the tone defensively. Go all-out on defense. Put heavy pressure on Newton via the pass rush, and spread the field in the secondary. The Broncos have the best defense in the NFL this season for a reason. They must utilize this advantage, and set the defensive tone early to take away the Panthers’ offensive confidence from its first drive. The Broncos’ must have full confidence in their the defense and rely on it from the get go to prevent the Panthers’ offense getting into the groove early.
- The “X Factor” – The offensive line must give Manning time in the pocket to utilize his accuracy and football IQ. With the many talented receivers the Broncos possess, Manning must have the time to look down field. Manning must have the extra few seconds to establish his presence in the pocket, set his feet, and read the defense to find the open receiver downfield or be able to create a play through the air for one of the Broncos’ wide receivers to adjust and go up and snare it. If the offensive line can achieve this, Manning will be able to establish his rhythm, and when this happens, he is able to pick apart the opposing secondary all day.