Jesse Pantuosco (@JessePantuosco): When all the cool kids were making their Super Bowl picks six months ago, I hopped on the Green Bay bandwagon and picked the Packers to beat New England in Super Bowl 50. Clearly I was wrong about that but the good news is, so was pretty much everyone else. No one expected Carolina to be this good and after Peyton Manning’s midseason collapse, I bet no one expected Denver to make it this far either. But here we are in Santa Clara with two polar opposites, the up-and-coming Panthers and the veteran-led Broncos, vying for the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Let’s go around the circle and make some predictions. I’m going with Carolina in a game that will mark the beginning of a new dynasty and the end of Peyton Manning’s incredible career. This won’t be the blowout we saw when Seattle mopped the floor with Denver in Super Bowl XLVIII. Denver’s defense stifled Tom Brady two weeks ago and I think they’ll hold their own against Cam Newton as well.
The difference is that Cam can make plays with his feet and Carolina’s running attack is much better than the non-existent ground game New England featured in the AFC Championship. Manning hasn’t made many mistakes this postseason (his only turnover came on a backwards pass to Ronnie Hillman) but Denver’s conservative offense isn’t meant to score quickly and I think that will hurt them in this game. The Panthers have a habit of getting complacent when they have a big lead but they changed that narrative by throttling Arizona in the second half two weeks ago. Denver’s defense will keep it close, but it’s Cam’s time now.
Raymond Summerlin (@RMSummerlin): Like Championship Week, this game will come down to Denver’s defense. The Broncos have proven they have a drive or two in them each game, but there is little chance Denver scores more than 21 points on offense without Carolina turning the ball over multiple times, which they did in just five games this season. That means the defense needs to either create points themselves or hold the Panthers under 20 points. Carolina has scored less than 30 just once in their last nine games and scored at least 20 in all but one game this season. They scored 24 offensive points against the Seahawks (4th defensive DVOA) in a half and 42 offensive points against the Cardinals (3rd defensive DVOA). The Broncos’ defense is great, but the Carolina offense is great as well. Carolina wins.
That said, I will put some money on Denver and the under if the line moves to a touchdown or more. Denver has shown the ability to keep games close all season, and Peyton Manning has done a great job limiting turnovers since regaining the starting quarterback job. This could easily be a game Carolina dominates everywhere but the scoreboard. I can see a 20-13 game that is never really in doubt.
Jeff Brubach (@Jeff_Brubach): I am certainly looking forward to this matchup and I think Super Bowl 50 should be an exciting game. When looking at both of these teams, there are many aspects that stand out but I can't get the AFC Championship Game performance of Denver's defensive line out of my head. The Patriots were completely flustered by the defensive pressure that Denver put on Tom Brady and I think they can do the same thing to Cam Newton on Sunday. A defense of this quality won't likely be blown out and I think Denver can hang in this game and pull out a close win. Of course Cam and the Panthers are rolling, and Carolina's defense is solid as well, but I'll go with the Broncos and will definitely take the points. I'll go Denver 17-14 in a close one as Peyton hits Disney World on his way to the retirement home.
Rich Hribar (@LordReebs): I really don't believe the NFL could have asked for a more perfect game in regards to narratives and the actual on-field matchup. It's cliché, but the start of this game for Denver will be the most critical element as the two most likely scenarios are either Carolina rolls or it stays tight throughout. It's unlikely Denver scores heavily, so the start is critical. The Panthers led the entire league in first half scoring at 17.8 points per game and have outscored their opponents on the season by a ridiculous 193 points in the first half, something that has rolled right over into their two postseason games.
Denver's defensive line will be the group tasked with preventing that. They completely wrecked New England, forcing them into a ton of third-and-long situations and did so without blitzing. Cam Newton feasted on the blitz this season, so they are going to have to take a similar track in not giving him one-on-one reads. Newton was dreadful as a passer on third-and-long situations, completing just 51.9 percent of his passes on third-and-six or longer with only 29 of those 81 pass attempts (35.8 percent) resulting in first downs. That's a tall task since Carolina runs so much of the offense from similar alignments, but I think it’s Denver’s only path to keeping the score close.
In the end, I just don't see Denver scoring enough points to win this game unless they get some cheap points set up from their defense. The one ray of sunshine with a Denver loss is that if Peyton Manning doesn't play well in what we can assume will be the final game of his stellar career, it will be a perfect opportunity to add new meaning and a symbolic sendoff to the Crying Jordan meme forever.
Patrick Daugherty (@RotoPat): The Broncos are obviously a great team coming off a monumental defensive performance, but I just don't see the Panthers losing. When I think of reasons the Broncos might win, my brain keeps resorting to emotional issues like "they'll come to play in Peyton's last game." There's no doubt Denver's defense should prevent a repeat of Super Bowl XLVIII, where the Broncos got absolutely steamrolled, but the Panthers' offensive line isn't vulnerable the way New England's was. Denver had basically the perfect defensive day in the AFC Championship Game. Can they really repeat that against the 17-1 Carolina Panthers? Carolina has so few weaknesses. There's a reason they're 17-1, and a reason they just destroyed two teams that were arguably as good as the Broncos this season. Carolina has the best team in the NFL and its best player in Cam Newton. I think they'll win Super Bowl 50.