Super Bowl 50
Carolina Panthers (NFC Champions, 17-1) vs. Denver Broncos (AFC Champions, 14-4)
Sunday, 6:30 pm ET, CBS
Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, CA
Favorite: Panthers by 5
The biggest sporting event in the American culture (and arguably the third biggest in the world behind the World Cup and the Olympics) is tonight, and while Super Bowl storylines generally are not hard to find, this year’s golden anniversary edition seems to have even more of an abundance than normal.
Perhaps the biggest is Peyton Manning. The surefire first-ballot hall of famer-to-be has led his Denver Broncos team back to the Super Bowl, just two years after being humiliated by the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII, 43-8. Many around the game believe Manning could be retiring after the Super Bowl, so the story of whether or not the 39-year old will or will not retire, and whether or not he can finish his illustrious career with a storybook ending of a second Super Bowl title, has been a major talking point for the last two weeks leading up to the big game. Manning will be the oldest quarterback to start a Super Bowl, and is the first starting quarterback to ever lead two teams to multiple Super Bowl appearances. Manning is in his fourth season with Denver after a remarkable 14-year stretch with the Indianapolis Colts.
Manning was not even starting for Denver just a few weeks ago, sitting on the bench behind up-and-comer Brock Osweiler after a foot injury, before coming into Denver’s game in Week 17 against the Chargers and leading the Broncos to victory to secure home-field advantage in the AFC Playoffs. After defeating the Steelers, 23-16, and the Patriots, 20-18, Manning and the Broncos are back in the Super Bowl for the eighth time in their rich history (tied for the most appearances ever), as they look for their third title.
The Broncos opponent, the Carolina Panthers, do not quite have the history of their opponents, as they have only appeared in the Super Bowl once, a loss to the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII, after coming into the league as an expansion team in 1995. The Panthers have amassed a strong recent history, as this season marked their third straight NFC South Division title (prior to this streak the division had never been won by any team in consecutive years since its inception in 2002).
A big part of the reason for that is quarterback Cam Newton, the NFL’s Most Valuable Player for the 2015 season. Newton, who won a Heisman Trophy and a BCS National Championship at Auburn, is trying to become just the second player ever to win a Heisman, a collegiate national title, an NFL MVP, and a Super Bowl in a career (Marcus Allen, running back for USC/Los Angeles Raiders). Newton is the first Heisman winner to start a Super Bowl since Jim Plunkett in Super Bowl XVIII, and just the third ever. Newton was the first overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, and this Super Bowl is the first in which both quarterbacks are former #1 picks (Manning was picked first by Indianapolis in 1998), as well as the first matching up the top two picks from the same draft, as Broncos linebacker Von Miller was picked second behind Newton in 2011.
Newton has improved each season, and has now led this Panthers team to the brink of the franchise’s first championship in his fifth season. This season, Newton threw for 35 touchdowns, and rushed for 10, becoming the first player in NFL history to throw for 30 or more and run for 10 or more. His 45 total touchdowns were the most by any player in a single season since, ironically enough, Peyton Manning in 2013 (56 total; 55 passing, 1 rushing).
Opposite the quarterbacks in this game will be a pair of very stellar defenses. In fact, Super Bowl 50 features the top two teams in the league in defensive efficiency, with Denver 1st and Carolina 2nd. Each unit leads the league in multiple statistical categories.
The Broncos made franchise history this year by leading the NFL in total defense (yards allowed) for the first time. The league leader in total defense is 9-2 in the Super Bowl, although one of the losses was just last year by the Seahawks. Denver allowed the fewest rushing yards per attempt (3.28) and the third least rushing yards per game (83.6). The defensive front led the league in sacks (52), while generating pressure on 35 percent of dropbacks, which also leads the NFL.
The Panthers lead the NFL in takeaways (39), turnover differential (+20), and points off turnovers (148), as well as interceptions (24). These stats do not include the postseason, in which the Panthers have forced nine turnovers, including six interceptions. Carolina is one of two teams (Bengals) to have more interceptions than allowed touchdown passes this season. Carolina has also allowed the sixth least yards, and the sixth least points, although Denver leads and is second in the two categories, respectively.
It’s safe to say it isn’t likely either defense will be what keeps their team from winning the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
The Denver defense is, however, facing, the best offense they have seen all year, as the Panthers are the highest-scoring offense in the NFL (31.3 points per game), which would tie them for the fourth highest-scoring offense to win a Super Bowl. Teams to lead the NFL in scoring are 10-9 in Super Bowls, although such teams have lost four of their last five appearances (the 2009 Saints, who beat Peyton Manning and the Colts, are the exception). The Panthers offense, with Newton and his supporting cast of characters including running back Jonathan Stewart, tight end Greg Olsen, and left guard Michael Oher (of The Blind Side fame), is a very efficient well-oiled machine, leading the league in scoring despite ranking only 11th in yards gained, although they were second in rushing yards despite the lack of a 1,000-yard rusher.
The Broncos offense has been less efficient, averaging just 22.2 points per game. However, four of the last six teams to reach the Super Bowl with that low of a scoring average have won. The Broncos are 14th in passing yards and 17th in rushing yards (out of 32 teams), and only 19th in points per game. However, Brock Osweiler started seven of the Broncos’ 16 regular season games, and Manning has been very efficient since his return. Manning has not thrown an interception in the playoffs, making this his first postseason of two games or more without an interception. Denver has not had to score a lot of points to be successful this season due to their stingy defense, a point evidenced by their two playoff wins with 22.5 points per game, almost exactly equaling their regular season average, with both of those games coming against top five offenses in the Steelers and Patriots.
One storyline in this Super Bowl that is not getting as much attention as it probably should is the coaching matchup. While we have been spoiled with the coaching matchups in recent Super Bowls, including Bill Belichick vs. Pete Carroll last year and John Harbaugh vs. Jim Harbaugh just three years ago, and while the resumes of these two coaches don’t quite match those of other recent Super Bowl coaches, both are still among the best in the league.
While Broncos coach Gary Kubiak and Panthers coach Ron Rivera are both in their first Super Bowl as a coach, neither is a stranger to the big stage of the Super Bowl, as both appeared in Super Bowls as a player, making them the sixth and seventh men to play and coach in a Super Bowl. Kubiak is the first to do so with the same team, however, as he was on the Denver Broncos roster when they lost Super Bowls XXI, XXII, and XXIV, as the backup quarterback to John Elway. Rivera played on the winning side of Super Bowl XX as a member of the legendary 1985 Chicago Bears, and was the Bears defensive coordinator in 2006 when they lost to Peyton Manning and the Colts in Super Bowl XLI. Rivera is the 2015 NFL Coach of the Year.
Ironically enough, the last coach of both teams before Kubiak and Rivera is the same man, John Fox. Fox led both franchises to a Super Bowl, losing Super Bowl XXXVIII with Carolina and XLVIII with Denver. Fox parted ways with the Broncos after last season, before Denver hired Kubiak, who has reached the Super Bowl in his first season with the team (but not his first as an NFL head coach after his stint in Houston). Rivera, like Newton, is in his fifth year with Carolina, who fired Fox after a 2-14 season in 2010 that resulted in Newton being picked first by the Panthers in the 2011 Draft.
The milestone Super Bowl marks the return of the NFL’s championship match to the San Francisco Bay Area for the first time in 31 years, since Stanford Stadium hosted Super Bowl XIX in 1985. Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, the home of the San Francisco 49ers since 2014, hosts its first Super Bowl. Since the first outdoor Super Bowl on the West Coast in 13 years will begin at 3:30 local time, the first half of the Super Bowl will be played in daylight for the first time since Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego, which was also the last Super Bowl played in California. Coldplay will perform the halftime show, while Lady Gaga will sing the national anthem.
As I mentioned, there are no shortage of storylines in this Super Bowl, but the story of the MVP and fresh new face of the league reaching the Super Bowl and going against the legendary veteran in what could be his final game is the biggest, and could also come into play in determining who wins. While the Broncos defense is statistically the best in the league, they can and will be matched by the Panthers defense, with neither team’s defense giving them an advantage in the game. That being said, while the Broncos offense is statistically average, the Panthers offense has been tremendous all year. While, because of the strength of both defenses, I don’t expect a lot of points from either side in this game, I do expect the Panthers offense to reach the end zone enough to outscore the Broncos, who will struggle offensively against the Panthers defense.
Panthers 24, Broncos 13.