Peyton Manning refuses to say for sure, but on the surface it seems pretty clear Super Bowl 50 will be, in Manning’s words, his “last rodeo.”
Regardless, the Broncos quarterback’s legacy already is set, more or less. He’s the NFL’s all-time leading passer, and he led the Indianapolis Colts to a championship nine years ago.
Sunday’s game at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California isn’t about Manning, as he would be quick to remind everyone. It’s about the NFL’s two best teams, the Denver Broncos (14-4) and Carolina Panthers (17-1), meeting in the 50th edition of America’s biggest entertainment event.
How they got here
Carolina’s path to the Super Bowl has been the most impressive. The Panthers became the fourth team in league history to win its first 14 games. After bouncing back from their first loss in the regular season finale, they got off to fast starts in playoff victories over the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals to win the franchise’s first NFC championship in 12 years.
The Broncos’ road was more arduous. After winning their first seven games thanks to a stellar defense — despite Manning’s clearly diminished play — the team lost its next two. A foot injury sidelined Manning, handing the reins to Brock Osweiler. The young fill-in went 4-2 as a starter and played well enough to keep a healthy Manning on the bench. But early struggles by Osweiler in the regular season finale once again opened the door for a Manning return.
Denver has not lost since going back to Manning, grinding out victories in the playoffs against the hobbled Steelers and favored Patriots to claim their second AFC crown in three years.
How they match up
The Panthers, led by dynamic quarterback Cam Newton, averaged 31.3 points during the regular season. That per-game mark leapt to 40 during the postseason against the reigning NFC champion (Seattle) and the No. 2 seed in the conference (Arizona). Their average score in five games against NFC playoff teams, counting the postseason, was 38-21.
The Broncos don’t always win, but when they do, they tend to win ugly. Their average margin of victory during the regular season (3.8) ranked fifth out of the six AFC playoff teams. Denver scored 30 or more points just twice all year, and one of those was an overtime victory against the Patriots.
But Denver hasn’t needed a furious offense thanks to a relentless pass rush boosted by linebacker Von Miller that led the league in sacks and tied for tops in forced fumbles, while holding opponents to the fewest yards per game.
But this isn’t as simple as top offense vs. top defense. Carolina ranked near the top in yards and points allowed, sacks and forced fumbles. The Panthers also led the NFL with 24 interceptions. With All-Pro selections on the defensive line (Kawann Short), in their linebacking corps (Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis) and in the defensive backfield (Josh Norman), Carolina’s defense is just as formidable as Denver’s.
Who will win
One shouldn’t expect Carolina to plow through the Broncos, but it’s easy to see why the Panthers are being picked to win by many pundits and bettors.
Newton, who likely will be named NFL MVP on Saturday, is playing on another level now. He’s scored 50 total touchdowns, including his work during the playoffs, as both a runner and a passer. As great as the Broncos are at making quarterbacks uncomfortable, they haven’t always fared as well against mobile passers like Newton. As one of the best goal line backs in football, he is a handful in the red zone.
Manning, reverently called “The Sheriff,” is a wild card. He seems comfortable lately in his new role as game manager, but at age 40 it’s unreasonable to expect a vintage performance. That may be what Denver needs to keep pace with a Panthers offense that has blown the doors off some great defenses of late.
This will be a changing of the guard of sorts, as Newton should shine in a game that’s Carolina’s to lose. He may be the next great NFL star, and a victory in the Super Bowl will be his coming out party.