In previous playoff weeks, this column discussed fantasy football plays in a “tiered” format for daily games and playoff fantasy leagues.
Now that NFL DFS and playoff fantasy leagues are over, I’ll instead go position-by-position looking at decisive statistics ahead of the Broncos-Panthers Super Bowl showdown on Sunday.
Let’s hit it.
One of the main matchups in the game will be Denver’s defensive line -- and the pressure they can force -- against Cam Newton. While Newton hasn’t been infallible against pressure-heavy teams this year, he’s really picked up his play against the blitz over the past three months.
Per Pat Thorman of Pro Football Focus Fantasy, Newton has completed 72.1 percent of his passes for 9.1 yards per attempt and a 16:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio against the blitz since Week 10.
In Week 1-9, Cam Newton completed just 47.2 percent of his attempts and posted a 0:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio when pressured. After Week 9, Newton completed 54.1 percent of his passes and threw 6 touchdowns to just one interception against pressure. Week 10 and beyond marked an obvious drastic improvement from the league’s Most Valuable Player against pressure.
On the opposite side of the line, Denver was one of the most blitz-heavy defenses in 2015, sending five or more defenders 37.8% of the time, the sixth highest clip in the league. The Broncos will send pressure and try to get to Newton -- Tom Brady was under pressure on 49.2 percent of his attempts in the Championship Round -- but Newton’s improvement over the course of the season against the blitz and under pressure may be the lynchpin for a Panthers win in San Francisco.
A trend that started late in the season and continued all of the way into the playoffs in January is the fact that C.J. Anderson sharply out-played Ronnie Hillman over the past three months. Any way you slice it, Anderson has been more effective than his teammate in Hillman.
Since Week 10, Anderson has 549 yards on 95 rush attempts (5.8 yards per carry, 3.3 yards after contact per attempt) versus Hillman’s mediocre 533 yards on 142 attempts (3.8 yards per carry, 2.0 yards after contact per attempt).
Taking this one step further, per Pro Football Focus, since Week 10 Hillman has forced a missed tackle on just 13.4 percent of his rush attempts while Anderson has forced a defender to miss on 21.1 percent of his carries.
If Denver is going to pull out a win as 5.5-point underdogs they will have to rely heavily on their run game and their best running back, C.J. Anderson. Over that same span since Week 10 we’ve been using, Anderson has cleared 50-plus percent of the Broncos snaps in a game once. Denver needs to feed Anderson early and often against a Carolina front-seven that has quietly allowed 123-507-4 (4.12 yards per carry) over their last six games.
While Peyton Manning can no longer throw deep with strength or accuracy any longer, he still has two receivers that are very capable at dominating the middle of the field.
I have seen some chatter and expectation that Josh Norman will shadow Demaryius Thomas, but to me, that seems unlikely. Carolina plays mainly Cover 3 and Cover 4 and rarely breaks scheme just for Norman. For example, Norman has traveled into the slot to cover a receiver on just two percent of his snaps this season. Even if an offense moves their best receiver into the slot, Norman does not follow them.
Another reason to not expect Norman on Thomas all game long is for performance reasons. Simply, Thomas has been outplayed by Emmanuel Sanders as of late. Over the Broncos last five games, Sanders has accumulated 31 receptions, 511 yards, and two scores on his 51 targets while Thomas has 33-384-3 on 66 targets over that same span.
The point is, both Sanders and Thomas will see a good deal of Josh Norman and will benefit when the other runs routes at the Panthers right cornerback, Robert McClain. McClain has coughed up receiving lines of 7-63-1 and 7-80-1 against Seattle and Arizona receivers in his last two starts filling in for the injured Charles Tillman (ACL).
Owen Daniels and Broncos' tight ends have only accounted for 16.5 percent of Peyton Manning’s total targets in the 2015 regular season and playoffs, while Greg Olsen has garnered a massive 25.1 percent target share from Cam Newton.
By comparison, receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders have combined for 54.8% of the Broncos targets with Peyton Manning at quarterback while Ted Ginn, Devin Funchess, Corey Brown, and Jerricho Cotchery have shared 59.2% of Newton’s targets on the season. The Panthers passing attack runs through Greg Olsen.
Denver’s cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Bradley Roby should have no trouble erasing Ted Ginn and Corey Brown on the outside while Chris Harris Jr. will man-handle 33-year-old Jerricho Cotchery in the slot. The main battle will be how the Broncos linebackers cover Greg Olsen. Denver was just recently lit on fire by Rob Gronkowski for 8-144-1 in the Championship Round and permitted the ninth most receiving yards to tight ends during the regular season (57.2). Olsen will be the Broncos’ main focus on defense. During the regular season, 25.8 percent of Denver's total passing yardage allowed came against tight ends. That was the third highest mark in the league, behind the Saints (27.1%) and the Giants (26.4%).