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The Broncos enter Super Bowl 50 as the undeniable and understandable underdogs. The Carolina Panthers have rampaged through the NFL this year, losing only once all season.
Yet despite that gaudy record, no one seems to be rushing to anoint them as one of the greatest teams ever, possibly because they lack the maniacal defense of the 1985 Bears or the lights-out offense of the 2007 Patriots.
The Panthers are, however, very good on both sides of the ball. That lack of mystique—Carolina isn’t exactly rich with NFL lore—may provide the window through which the Broncos can pull off the upset. Here’s what to watch for as the game unfolds.
Well, duh. The point here is that the Broncos scored 30 or more points only twice all season, including playoffs. The Panthers topped the 30 mark 10 times and surpassed 40 three times. The Broncos’ best hope for victory will come if they can keep the score down, hang around until the end, and get their defense to make a game-changing play. (The team is 11-3 in games decided by seven points or less; the Panthers are 6-1.) If the Panthers have 17 or more points by halftime, it could be a long day for the orange and blue.
Brandon McManus versus Graham Gano
Eight of the past dozen Super Bowls have been decided by a TD or less, and a close game obviously makes the kickers that much more important. The additional wrinkle this year is the longer extra point; the league changed the rule last spring, so now the point-after requires a 33-yard kick rather than a 19-yarder. Gano missed three of 59 XPs in 2015 and McManus missed one of 36, and a hiccup early can change the math and the strategies later in the game. (See: The Broncos’ AFC title-game win over the Pats.) Gano and McManus have similar field goal percentages, but McManus has slightly longer range, although that could be neutralized by this one being played at sea level.
Peyton Manning threw 17 interceptions in nine games before injuries set in, by far the worst in the league to that point. But he hasn’t thrown any since his return in week 17. The Panthers’ defense had 39 takeaways, easily the most in the NFL. This doesn’t mean a single turnover will doom the Broncos; it only means that they’ll need at least one takeaway for every giveaway.
The Running Game
The Broncos’ backs were a mixed bag all year, but three of their four losses featured some of their most abysmal rushing totals. They’ll need to establish at least some kind of running threat to give Manning some breathing room—no easy task, as Carolina’s rushing defense is every bit as good as the Broncos’. Surpassing the 100-yard mark for the game would be nice; surpassing 150 could change everything.
Cam Newton’s Jersey
The multitalented QB runs a lot, so he’s going to get dirty. The key will be whether his mud and grass stains are on his front rather than his back. If it’s more of the latter, it means the Broncos’ pass rush and containment are doing their job. Which leads us to…
Where Newton Lines Up
When Newton takes the snap under center, his running attack ranks 30th in the league this year; when he’s in the shotgun, it’s third. (The split for the season between these formations was almost exactly 50-50, which begs the question of why they don’t just stay in the shotgun.) Having Newton several yards back from the center gives Carolina the read-option, uh, option, which is where they—particularly Newton—are most lethal. The key word for the Broncos’ edge rushers in this situation will be discipline; if Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, and others over-pursue Newton, it will free him up to wreak all kinds of havoc.
Every Receiver Not Named Demaryius Thomas
The Panthers will assign Josh Norman, probably the best cornerback in football this year, to shadow Thomas for much of the game, so any production the Broncos get from him will be gravy. The rest of Carolina’s secondary is banged up and far less formidable, which could open the door for someone like Emmanuel Sanders, Owen Daniels, or TBD to steal the show. (The last three wideouts to win Super Bowl MVP honors weren’t superstars, and the game’s history is full of pass-catchers who went from no-names to legends because of a single pivotal play.)
Wade Phillips’ Creativity
The most important person in the stadium on Sunday might not set foot on the field. The 68-year-old Phillips dialed up a brilliant game plan against the Patriots that saw the Broncos beat the holy hell out of Tom Brady time and again. If Phillips’ scheme this time, against a completely different type of QB, can disrupt the Panthers’ momentum, the game could come down to this one final factor:
Gary Kubiak’s Patience
This goes way beyond whether the Broncos’ head coach will stick with the running game if it struggles early. The bigger question is, what if Manning coughs up the ball a few times or simply doesn’t move the offense? Standing near Kubiak will be Brock Osweiler, no longer too inexperienced and the likely Bronco QB of the future—i.e., the guy they think can lead them back to the Super Bowl—once the team re-signs him this offseason.
Manning has more than earned this start because he’s as healthy as he can be at this point, and because his legendary track record deserves the nod. Seeing him go full Elway with a ring and a sayonara would be one of the great sports stories of this era, and if Osweiler were to step in and lead the Broncos to victory, Manning’s second Lombardi Trophy would come with an asterisk. But the guess here is that Denver fans will accept a W by whatever means necessary.
Follow 5280 editor-at-large Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad.