By Sam Ross
‘Keep pounding’. The Panthers’ motto, originally uttered by ex-player Sam Mills during his battle with cancer, has taken on new meaning this season. Despite winning the NFC South the previous two years, most pundits gave the Panthers little chance of making the playoffs for a third consecutive season.
“Since the Panthers have no running game and no healthy wideouts, [quarterback] Cam [Newton] is essentially being paid to play ALL the team’s skill positions simultaneously. He’ll also be expected to block for himself as well.” –Deadspin, August 2015
While written satirically, this excerpt from Deadspin’s pre-season ‘Why Your Team Sucks’ series pretty much captures people’s thoughts towards this team, especially after star wide receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, went down with an ACL tear, which has sidelined him the entire 2015-16 season. Routinely doubted throughout the season, even after going 14-0 to begin the year, the Panthers now find themselves in the Super Bowl, doubted no more. Led by star quarterback, Cam Newton, likely league MVP winner, and an active ball-hawking defense, the Panthers have a rare camaraderie and belief in each other, matched by no other team in the NFL.
Opening as 5-point favourites with the Vegas bookmakers, the Panthers find themselves in unfamiliar territory, seen as the Goliath of this clash. The David of this story – their opponent – the Denver Broncos.
It is not often, throughout the storied career of Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, that we have called him an underdog. Descended from NFL royalty, Peyton and his brother Eli seemed destined to play football after their father, Archie, played 13 seasons in the league, as a quarterback for the Oilers (now the Titans), Vikings, and, most notably, the Saints. This is Peyton’s 18th year in the NFL. He is a 14-time Pro-Bowler, 5-time MVP, and a Super Bowl champion.
Notice I didn’t say 2-time Super Bowl champion. This is because, despite all of his greatness, there is one glaring weakness on Peyton Manning’s résumé – his playoff record. Coming into this season, Manning only had an 11-13 record in the postseason, including a 1-2 record in the Super Bowl. Known as perhaps the greatest “regular season” quarterback of all-time, Peyton has historically choked come playoff time.
But this year is unlike any Peyton has ever had before. After struggling immensely to start the season, showing visible signs of physical deterioration, culminating in a torn Plantar Fascia, he was benched in favor of first-time starter Brock Osweiler. Osweiler, despite a positive start to his tenure, began having his own struggles down the stretch and was eventually benched in the final regular season game. Now, with Manning back at the helm, the Broncos have found their way into the Super Bowl, thanks, in large part, to their vaunted defense, which ranks #1 in the league this season.
Storylines & Matchups to Watch
- End of the road for Peyton? If you turn on game tape of Peyton Manning from this season and compare it to footage of two seasons ago, you will see a remarkably different player. Father time has caught up to the great quarterback, and this is likely the final game of his career.
- Panthers Offensive Line vs. Broncos Defensive Line. The Broncos beat the Patriots two weeks ago, to reach the Super Bowl, in large part because of their pass rush. Von Miller and Demarcus Ware combined for 11 hits on quarterback Tom Brady. They will likely struggle to replicate this same pressure on Cam Newton, who is known for his elusiveness. Not to mention, the Carolina offensive line is infinitely better than New England’s. The battle in the trenches will be key in deciding the victor of Sunday’s showdown.
- The Chess Match – Kuechly vs. Manning. On the defensive side of the ball, I have already mentioned that the Panthers thrive off of turnovers. Two weeks ago, the Panthers forced 7 turnovers against the Cardinals. That’s an insane number, and if they somehow force 7 turnovers again on Sunday, you can all but hand the Lombardi Trophy straight to them. However, Broncos quarterback, Peyton Manning, is known for his “football IQ” – ability to read and dissect defenses. The battle between Manning, and Panthers inside linebacker, Luke Kuechly (the inside linebacker is the “quarterback” of the defense, making pre-play adjustments based on the offense’s setup), will be exhilarating. Which player will win the play-calling chess match?
As a Panthers fan, it would be sacrilegious for me to pick the Broncos. Two years ago, I wrote Palatinate Sport’s Super Bowl preview, in which I picked the Seahawks to beat the Broncos because they were the more balanced team. Whereas two years ago, it was the Denver offense that was exceptional and the defense that was questionable, this year it is vice versa. A good defense will always keep you in a game, but it is Carolina who I see as the more balanced squad. They combine a strong defense with a dynamic offense, similar to the victorious Seahawks from two years ago.
Unlike two years ago, however, I’m predicting this year’s game will actually be close. I believe it will remain a relatively low-scoring game, but the Panthers will win 23-20 thanks to a late field goal by kicker Graham Gano, giving the Carolina Panthers their first Super Bowl win in franchise history.
Photograph: Levi’s Stadium (setting for Super Bowl 50) from Travis Wise via Flickr