It has become a national holiday, and is the most watched television event every year. And this year is even more special, considering it is the 50th installment. From the Green Bay Packers’ victories in the first two to last year’s thrilling victory by the New England Patriots, the Super Bowl has been the biggest sporting event of the year for a half a century and has become a very important event in American culture. This year’s matchup between the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers figures to be another doozy, as the teams’ contrasting offenses and similar stingy defenses combine to form a very even matchup. Here is what we can expect from the big game.
Carolina Panthers (15-1 record, No. 1 seed NFC) – Carolina has been the NFC’s and the NFL’s most dominant team this season, steamrolling opponents to the tune of the best record in the league by two games. The only blemish on this team’s sterling resume is their one-touchdown loss in Atlanta against the NFC South rival Falcons. Looking for a reason as to why this team has been as successful as it has been? Look no further than quarterback and NFL Most Valuable Player Cam Newton, a dual-threat athletic specimen who has improved his passing to the point of posting stellar numbers despite losing No. 1 target Kelvin Benjamin at the beginning of the season to a torn left ACL and playing with a largely unheralded crop of receivers. However, he has had the privilege of throwing to one of the game’s best tight ends, Greg Olsen. In addition, the running game, which is known for its downhill style and bruising nature, is led by Newton, running back Jonathan Stewart and fullback Mike Tolbert. This trio combined for 1,881 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns during the regular season, and has been, along with Newton’s deft passing and the team’s lockdown defense, the driving force behind the team’s overpowering run through the playoffs.
Carolina has gotten to the Super Bowl in a dominant fashion over three halves. The Panthers blew out the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship game from start to finish (final score of 49-15) and completely stymied the Seattle Seahawks in the Divisional round game in the first half. However, they would not score in the second half, and Seahawks quarterback and playoff magician Russell Wilson led his team to a monumental comeback that just fell short after Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis recovered an onside kick, 31-24.
The Panthers enter the Super Bowl as the favorites because of their dominant nature throughout the regular season and playoffs, and the play of Newton, the powerful running game plus the stout defense led by All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly are the reasons why the Panthers will win this game.
Denver Broncos (12-4 record, No. 1 seed AFC) – While the Panthers have been annihilating opponents, the Broncos have been masters of close games and have shown poise and moxie through adversity in the regular season and in the playoffs. Like Carolina, Denver got off to a torrid start to the season at 7-0, and that concealed the underwhelming play of future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning, who threw nine touchdown passes against 17 interceptions in the first nine games. That pick total was so staggering at the time that it actually led the league until the last week of the season. In addition, he suffered a torn plantar fascia in his left foot during that ninth game that forced backup and protégé Brock Osweiler into action, and he responded well, leading the Broncos back from a two game losing streak to a run in which the team went 4-2. However, Manning was available for the last game of the season against the San Diego Chargers, and Osweiler struggled to the point of Manning being re-inserted. The 39-year-old legend appeared rejuvenated, and led them to a victory in that game that allowed them to clinch home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs. The Broncos definitely used playing in Mile High to their advantage.
The Divisional round game pitted Denver against the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were coming off a controversial road playoff win over AFC North rival Cincinnati. Despite many dropped passes by Broncos receivers throughout the game, a late touchdown drive engineered by “The Sherriff” (Manning) put the Broncos up ten points late, and they held on for a 23-16 victory. This set up another, and possibly final, matchup between NFL legends Tom Brady and Manning, as the Patriots knocked off the Kansas City Chiefs in the other AFC game. The Broncos took an early lead, got pressure on Brady all game, and dominated for the most part. However, they had to stop a two-point conversion attempt to seal the game after a last-minute miracle drive by Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski, 20-18.
Despite entering as underdogs, the Broncos have a chip on their shoulders, as this could be Manning’s last season as an NFL quarterback. Denver would like to send him out a winner, just in case retiring is what he decides to do. In addition, one can never count out a team that ranked at the top of the league in yardage defense and possesses arguably the best pass defense in the league, both with rushing the quarterback (Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware) and in the secondary (cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Chris Harris).
PREDICTION: Broncos 21, Panthers 17 – While Carolina appears like the better team on paper, the Broncos are a much more experienced playoff bunch and have been itching to get back to the big game since the Seahawks throttled them two years ago. In addition, it appears as if Manning has found one last stretch of elite play at the most important time, and even though the Panthers have the best scoring defense in the league, Manning appears determined to knock off anyone in his path right now. In addition, if there is one defense that can contain the lethal Cam Newton, it is the Broncos, with those edge rushers and solid defensive line. This is a matchup in which experience trumps talent, and, therefore, the Broncos win Super Bowl 50 and possibly send Peyton Manning out a winner the same way they sent former quarterback and current team general manager John Elway out in 1998, when he won Super Bowl MVP in a victory over the Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII (33). In fact, Elway finished his career with two consecutive rings, as the Broncos upset the Packers one year earlier in Super Bowl XXXII (32).