The problem with Super Bowl 50 is that both the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos come in with quirks, things that fall outside the box, and not just the tackle-to-tackle one.
The Panthers were No. 6 in points allowed; the Broncos were No. 4. The Panthers were No. 2 in rushing average; the Broncos were No. 1 in rushing defense. That sort of thing. Strengths against strengths. If there’s a startling difference it is Carolina being No. 1 in interception rate defensively, while Denver finished 31st at being intercepted. But even that gets an asterisk, since the Broncos had zero or one turnover in nine of their 18 games, and the early season struggles of Peyton Manning figured significantly into that problem area.
Cam Newton is by definition outside any box. He defies simple typecasting. He is not exactly a running quarterback, more a quarterback who is very good at running, and there’s a difference.
“You’d better make sure you have eyes on the quarterback when you play him,” said Dan Quinn, head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, the only team to defeat the Panthers this season, and former defensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks when they handled Newton previously in the playoffs.
[MORE SUPER BOWL 50: Can Bears find help in Super Bowl 50? A few guys to keep an eye on]
Manning obviously is nothing like Newton as far as mobility. But that’s not his game anyway. It never has been.
In eight of the Panthers 18 games, including the playoff games, Newton carried the football 10 or more times; all were Carolina victories. But in perhaps an indicator of Panthers improvement is that they had lost both previous playoff games in which Newton carried 10 or more times. This year, they win.
What Newton has changed is his ball security. In three previous playoff games, the Panthers lost both in which Newton threw two interceptions. This year he has thrown a total of one interception through two playoff games.
But finding a clear do-this-and-you-win formula for defeating either Carolina or Denver is extremely problematic.
[SHOP: Gear up, Bears fans!]
The Kansas City Chiefs rushed for 147 yards and two touchdowns against the Broncos and lost. The Pittsburgh Steelers (27) and Oakland Raiders (23) had pitiful run games against the Broncos and won. But in the playoffs, Pittsburgh (393) and New England Patriots (336) even out-gained the Broncos and lost.
I expected Manning to be victimized into turnovers vs. the Patriots. But Manning appears to have shed the worst of the injuries and difficulties that turned him into an uncharacteristically interception-prone quarterback earlier this season.
“It’s not necessarily the sacks, it’s the hits when you’re going against Peyton Manning,” Quinn said.
The game will come down to which offense can manage something against the other’s very good defense. The single tipping point will be the Broncos’ abilities on the edges with Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, and not simply their ability to pressure Newton off the edges. Newton is a Brian Urlacher-grade freak athletically. But Miller and Ware are fast enough and savvy enough to match up against Newton. He won’t be able to get outside Miller and Ware whenever he needs to, and they are good enough to take him down if he can’t.
Prediction: Broncos 20, Panthers 16