The big game is just over a day from now and for this special anniversary in San Francisco I wanted to do a little preview. So I determined the keys for both teams offensively and defensively, predicted the final score and the game’s MVP. As a bonus I added a bold prediction.
Keys for a win for each team:
1. Run downhill early and often
If the Broncos abandon the run early on, they won’t have a chance against that Panthers defensive front. You can’t make them play the pass first or they will kill you with Kawann Short & Co.
They also have excellent linebackers who play downhill and they create too much penetration up front to mainly run zone and stretch plays. Denver has to surprise them early and shove it down their throat. Especially C.J. Anderson is a key factor in the ground game, because he is a big, physical back who can set the tone and keep the Panthers D from taking this game over like Seattle’s did two years ago.
2. Exploit secondary outside of Norman
Josh Norman has been the top cornerback in 2015. I don’t care what the stats say, I don’t care about what anybody shows me on film, he has been the reason this defense has become much more complete. Still, this secondary is vulnerable. I’m a big fan of Roman Harper and I don’t want to disrespect anybody else in their defensive backfield, but I don’t think they have somebody who can cover Emmanuel Sanders in the slot. If the Broncos get a solid ground game going, they can start to use play-action to make Luke Kuechly and those linebackers move up and then throw it over their heads to find success. I’d also like them to occasionally spread the defense out and create one-on-one mismatches.
3. Keep Peyton upright
The stats show Peyton struggles when he gets hit often. That’s a fact. Outside of his injuries, the loss of Ryan Clady and the overall decline of the Broncos offensive line has been the biggest reason for Manning’s worst regular season ever. The problem is the Panthers have an excellent pass rush, especially on the interior, to make him move off of his spot. So it’s really up to those guys up front to keep the old man clean. To help them out, Gary Kubiak should call some quick reads to get the ball out before the pocket can be pushed. Also C.J. Anderson will have to be supreme in stopping blitzers at the line of scrimmage.
1. Make Cam beat you from the pocket
Cam has been spectacular all season long and he has been great from within the pocket as well, but he truly kills you on scrambles. That’s why this has to be a collective effort from the entire defensive line of the Broncos. They have to put pressure on Superman while also staying in their lanes to not give him a chance to escape. Still, Cam has shown the ability to make things happen with guys all over him, so Denver should always keep a spy on him. And they don’t necessarily have to give up a man in coverage, they simply have to ask Danny Trevathan or Brandon Marshall to stay in the middle of the field and read everything up front. If Cam wants to run, that player has to step up and I think the Broncos are good enough to give that spy some freedom to sometimes decide to rush.
2. Lock their receivers down on the outside
Aquib Talib, Chris Harris Jr. and Bradley Roby excel in man-coverage. They have to be physical and make Cam throw into small windows. That guy can throw it however and wherever he wants to because of his strong arm, but if there has been one flaw in his game it’s been his accuracy. As I already said they have to do this as a unit, but if those defensive backs can disrupt the Panthers pass catchers and give this outstanding pass rush a chance to get home, they have a very good chance to get the MVP to struggle.
3. Confuse Cam
This is obvious for every defense. You always want to confuse the opponent’s signal caller, but I think what Wade Phillips did with his players two weeks ago against Tom Brady has been remarkable. Tom has pretty much always found a way to take over the game with his mind and accuracy to carve up defenses, but the pressure they applied to him and the different things they did in coverage even got one of the greatest of all time off of his game. In this game in particular they also have to confuse Cam on read-options. It seems like no matter if Cam or Jonathan Stewart has carried the ball, when they got that option going they destroyed opponents. I’d like the Broncos defenders to hit Newton early and then let Von and DeMarcus make a decision late to make him hesitant.
1. Establish a physical running game
You always want to be physical and establish a ground game, but I think it’s really important for the Panthers in this particular game to get some production from it on early downs to not give the Broncos defensive front a lot of chances to get after the passer. So they’d be suited best to let Stewart and Cam pound it inside from the get-go and keep the sticks moving, because those guys off the edge can get home as fast as any duo in the league. When the running game has been there, it has usually opened up everything else as well.
2. Run a lot of simple routes to beat man-coverage
As I already mentioned, Denver likes to man up in coverage and take receivers one-on-one. Ted Ginn Jr., Devin Funchess, Philly Brown and those wideouts have played way better than experts anticipated, especially with last year’s rookie phenom Kelvin Benjamin out for the season. Still, this Broncos secondary is one of the very best in today’s game and I don’t think the Panthers receivers will beat them over the course of the game. So the passing game should be built on getting the ball out quickly and beat the coverage with in-routes, slants, maybe some rub plays and if they are successful that way, they can start working some double-moves and go deep. Cam is the best at buying time and completing passes late, but the Broncos have a terrific pass rush and their backfield has proven to be able to hold up against any receiving corp. The one true mismatch-guy Carolina has is tight end Greg Olsen, who has been unbelievable all year long.
3. Attack for 60 minutes
The Panthers’ offense has been the most explosive in the NFL this season and they have embarrassed some of the elite defenses like Seattle and Arizona, but they have tended to let up when they had big leads. We just don’t know which Peyton Manning is going to show up on Sunday, but there’s a reason he holds most of the major records for quarterbacks. That’s why you can’t give him a chance for a comeback once you have a comfortable lead. Just watch what happened against the Seahawks. The 31 points put up in the first half were enough that game, but you never want a second half with zero points. Don’t look at the scoreboard!
1. Don’t let Peyton stand in the pocket
There haven’t been a lot of quarterbacks nearly as good at moving in the pocket as ‘The Sheriff’, but 90% of his game comes from the shoulders up and that’s why he wants to be able to climb up and deliver the ball without being touched. If you want to make him uncomfortable make him move off of his spot. Luckily the Panthers have one of the best upfield penetrators in Kawann Short, but if Thomas Davis is ready to go, he should be a part of the gameplan on those inside blitzes. I’m really interested in if the Broncos backs can pick him up instead of getting run over, which is the case most of the time for TD’s opponents.
2. Disguise coverages and pressures
As I just stated, Peyton’s game in built on his knowledge, ability to read defense and get his team in the right play every snap. That’s why it will be crucial Carolina doesn’t show him what their scheme and play is until late in the play clock. Give him different looks throughout the game – don’t show him your front, show high pressure and then bail out, blitz with guys he reads as coverage players and just don’t give him clear images, because he’s the best at the line of scrimmage in NFL history.
3. Control the middle of the field
Denver has been at their best when they’ve run the ball effectively and let their defense ball out. The Seahawks had the formula two years ago, when they made them one-dimensional and took away Peyton’s comfort area in the middle. Especially when the Broncos use their zone and stretch schemes, the Panthers have to penetrate and not let those plays develop. If they don’t, Kubiak loves to mix it up with play-action passes and catch opponents in situations where they’re out of position. In other words – make Peyton beat you on the outside.
Broncos 17 – Panthers 23
A lot of people think Carolina is the clear-cut favorite in this matchup, but I think Denver’s defense can match up against anybody, even the Panthers and Newton’s heroics. I’m more worried about the other side of the ball. The NFC champs’ defense has been on fire in the playoffs and their front seven has been way better than the Broncos’ O-line. I think Denver’s linebackers will have a big day and keep them in the game, but ultimately I don’t believe they have quite enough to beat a 17-1 team and get Peyton a second ring. They will get to Peyton and he will feel it. But as we all know – anything can happen on Super Bowl Sunday.
MVP: Kawann Short
At the end of the day I think the Panther’s pass rush will be the deciding factor in this game and Short is one of the elite interior defensive linemen. Denver will try to scheme around him and not leave one of their guards one-on-one against him, but if Short Is lined up in the 3-technique and they don’t use one of their tight-ends in protection against the edge rushers, they don’t really have another choice. He will have a big day and drive home in his new car.
Bold Prediction: There will be no 100 yard rusher or receiver on either team
I don’t think there will be any offensive superstar in the game just because both defenses are that good.