By Evan Brown
February 2, 2014, East Rutherford, New Jersey — Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos take the field against Russell Wilson’s Seattle Seahawks. Each team represents the number-one seed in their respective conference. Though Denver is a 2.5 point favorite, all experts agree this will be a close scoring affair.
The experts could not have been more wrong: the Seahawks thrashed the Broncos 43-8 with the Broncos lone points coming in the third quarter.
This year, the Broncos again will head to the Super Bowl to face off against Cam Newton and the shimmering Panthers and will again be obliterated with Peyton Manning’s career likely ending on a low note.
Lets compare the different matchups between the Broncos and the Panthers in order to see why Carolina has the upper hand.
Broncos’ Defense vs. Panthers’ Offense
Last year, the Seahawks boasted the number one defense in the NFL (based on yards given up per game). This year though, the Broncos claim that title. Denver holds their opponents to just 83.6 rushing yards and just under 200 passing yards per game. They’ve got grizzled veterans like LB DeMarcus Ware and youth in their prime like CB Chris Harris, Jr. In the AFC Championship Game, the Broncos’ Defense registered 4 sacks and a multitude of hits on Tom Brady.
But none of this is going to matter.
The Carolina Panthers’ offense ranks 11th in the league — good, not great, until you see how they operate. Technically, they could be considered one-dimensional, as they rely heavily on the run game, but to that run game Cam Newton brings an extra element that Denver has never seen. In fact, the most mobile quarterback the Broncos have seen would likely be Teddy Bridgewater of the Minnesota Vikings and Broncos narrowly escaped that game with a 3-point victory. The Broncos’ Defense held Bridgewater to 3 carries for 23 yards. But Cam Newton is not Teddy Bridgewater though: Cam Newton is to Teddy Bridgewater what a cheetah is to an overfed house cat. Sure, he may only rush for 39.8 yards per game, but he gains 4.8 yards per attempt and scored 10 rushing touchdowns this season. In the NFC championship game against the Arizona Cardinals, Newton became the first player to score three passing touchdowns and two rushing touchdowns in a game. And although Arizona was decimated that game, they were the league’s 5th rated defense.
As for the passing attack, the Panther’s only average 224.3 yards a game. In crucial situations, key TE Greg Olsen steps up to make grabs but otherwise the Panthers bring a freight train, run-you-into-the-ground approach. They’re 16-1 with this run-dominant approach, so they clearly don’t depend on passing the ball to survive, rendering the Broncos’ stellar pass defense moot. And as far as the Broncos’ 4 sacks on Tom Brady two weeks ago? If Cam makes Teddy look like a housecat, he makes Brady look like a dead cat.
Edge: Panther’s Offense
Panthers’ Defense vs. Broncos’ Offense
Carolina’s Defense is not too shabby itself, ranking 6th in the league. Rising talents LB Luke Kuechly and CB Josh Norman make this team a truly formidable force. The Panthers’ defense has given up some points this season — most notably 38 against the Saints and 35 against the Giants. But all in all they hold their opponents to an average 19.3 points a game, which is on par with Denver’s 18.5.
How does the Broncos’ offense stack up? Well, they’re the NFL’s 16th best offense, behind both the Saints and the Giants. That ranking is hard to quantify, though, as the Broncos have started Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler at QB and both have had their highs and lows. Peyton’s TD to INT ration is nearly 2:1, throwing only 9 touchdowns and a whopping 17 interceptions. He and Newton did share the same completion percentage of 59.8 and ranked 27th and 28th, respectively though.
Empirically speaking, it’s becoming more clear with each and every game that Manning is putting everything in to every throw — even the short ones. Quarterbacks tend to plant their front foot and rotate at the hips as they arc their arm during a pass. Lately, Peyton’s entire upper body is convulsing forward along with an accentuated arm propulsion and leg drive to make just a simple 10 yard pass. The Denver receivers have had their own problems though, despite the leadership and contributions of names like Emmanuel Sanders and Demarius Thomas. The Broncos dropped 7 passes against the Steelers and Thomas alone missed 12 of 13 passes in his area against the Patriots. Add that to the Bronco’s shaky run game, and things start to look problematic.
Edge: Panther’s Offense
Panthers’ Special Teams vs. Broncos’ Special Teams
Neither the Broncos nor the Panther’s have stellar special teams. Neither have scored any touchdowns on kickoffs, the Panther’s also have zero punt return touchdowns, and the Broncos only have one. Their average yards per return are also comparable on kickoffs, 21.8 for Denver and 18.3 for Carolina. On punt returns, they’re virtually identical: 9.8 for Denver and 9.4 for Carolina. The Broncos have Emmanuel Sanders returning punts, but that’s about the only thing worth mentioning. Special teams should not determine this game.
Just like Super Bowl 48, the Denver Broncos will lose Super Bowl 50. While their defense may keep the point margin lower than 35, which isn’t saying much, the offensive disparity between the two teams will be the deciding factor. Peyton Manning may be “The Sheriff,” but even the best plans are useless if the personnel cannot execute them. This Denver Broncos team, especially on the offensive end, lacks that personnel.
Peyton Manning will likely end his career in defeat, an unceremonious end to half a lifetime of success, leadership, and teaching.
Though the door will close on one great, it will open for another: Cam Newton has demonstrated the same leadership capability as Manning, although in a fundamentally different way. While Manning was known for carrying the team like no other, his football schematic genius and strategic execution made up for other deficiencies and has brought success to teams that with any other player at quarterback would have certainly fallen short. His quiet calmness, wealth of wisdom, and ages of experience captured the NFL for nearly two-decades.
In his place will arise the vocal and enthusiastic Cam Newton, who is steadily redefining the quarterback position in the NFL. Newton also knows what it’s like to carry a team: his 2015 season is a mirror image of Manning’s 2009 season. The Panthers were counted out early in the season when key WR Kelvin Benjamin went down with injury. But just as Peyton made up for the Colts’ run deficiency, Newton wouldn’t let the lack of a passing game be the end. He focused on his strengths and created a multi-faceted running threat that has yet to be stopped. Peyton carried his team to a 14-2 regular season record in 2009 while Newton has achieved a 15-1 record. But while Manning lost to the Saints in Super Bowl XLIV, Newton will lead the Panthers to victory in Super Bowl 50.
All stats courtesy of ESPN.com and NFL.com
Offensive and Defensive rankings based on yards per game.