Just two years removed from their most recent Super Bowl appearance in Super Bowl 48 which Bronco fans would rather forget took place as their team was dismantled, 43-8 by a dominant Seattle defense, this year's Denver team has been polar opposites of their 2013 selves. Making their way to the big game by way of their offense which was tops in the league and among the greatest in league history just two seasons ago, this year's Broncos team made their way back to the Super Bowl in a very different way, flipping the script if you will, by boasting the league's best defense. With future Hall of Fame QB Peyton Manning and the Denver offense taking a backseat, the 2015 Broncos are a team that has thrived and relied heavily on their defense. Mind you this is the same team that endured a rough patch that saw five consecutive weeks without scoring a single offensive touchdown and often looked better with Brock Osweiler in under center and Manning, one of the greatest to ever play the position, on the bench. While their offense has often been under fire and constantly questioned, the same can't be said for the defense, having allowed the fewest yards per game this season (283) and forcing the most sacks (52) under defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
It's no wonder that this will be Manning's fourth Super Bowl appearance, (frankly, he should've reached this number a long time ago), as he gets set to take the field as the oldest quarterback to ever start a Super Bowl at age 39. And when he does take the field in what could possibly be the last game of his illustrious career, he'll become the first QB ever to make multiple Super Bowl appearances with multiple teams, while also becoming the first at his position to reach four Super Bowl's under four different head coaches. Manning is eclipsed by only Tom Brady and John Elway who have more Super Bowl appearances under their belts. But this game and story line shouldn't be all about Manning even though it most likely will be. The guy simply isn't the player he once was and while his team usually gets to the big game because of him, this year they've made it to the big game in spite of him. That's no knock on arguably the greatest regular season quarterback of all-time, but just further proof that father time waits for no man.
But back to the Denver defense which won them the right to play in Super Bowl 50 with a dominant performance over the reigning Super Bowl champion New England Patriots in the AFC Championship's 20-18 win. Denver's D got to Brady four times for a sack and a heck of a lot more times with quarterback hits mostly provided by Von Miller who had a hell of a game recording 2.5 sacks of his own to go along with one of two Brady interceptions, the hits being the most Tom Terrific has ever suffered in his playoff career. If Manning hoists his second career Lombardi Trophy, one that should help him ride off into the sunset and make stepping away from the game of football a bit easier, it'll most likely be a result of another dominant performance by the defense and not by the potent offenses teams of Manning's Super Bowl past have been known for.
Meanwhile, the Carolina Panthers enter next Sunday's game red-hot and resembling a team of destiny. With a dominant regular season which many believed they could finish undefeated, the lone loss to the division rival Atlanta Falcons in Week 16 is the only blemish on Carolina's 2015 resume. But I was one of the few who believed the Panthers suffering a loss that would disrupt their push for a perfect season would do them more good than harm. And now that they know they could be beaten, they've given it their all and have refused to take their foot off the gas pedal. Well except for maybe that near collapse in the NFC Divisional round meeting where they nearly let Seattle march all the way back from a 31-point deficit in the second half. But Carolina rebounded by not letting a double-digit lead heading into the half of last Sunday's NFC title game get to their head or slip away as the NFC's second-best team in the Arizona Cardinals appeared to be no match for the now 17-1 Panthers who ran away with the 49-15 romp.
Though Carolina's defense is also stellar but isn't quite up to par with Denver's which could cause problems up the middle and get to the quarterback with the best of 'em, it does feature the balance you want in a team on both sides of the ball. With playmakers on defense such as linebackers Luke Keuchle and Thomas Davis (who suffered a broken arm on Sunday but is expected to play) as well as this year's most shutdown cornerback in Josh Norman, just to name a few, Carolina comes in having caused the most takeaways in the league with 39, 24 of which being interceptions which they led the league in. But even then, this Panthers team has been most known for their offensive scoring ability which is tops in the league and none other than their captain in quarterback Cam Newton. With Newton most likely to be named league MVP, an award his counterpart Peyton Manning has won a record five times, the former Heisman Trophy winner would like nothing more than to capture the first Lombardi Trophy in Carolina Panthers franchise history.
What's most remarkable about Carolina's explosive offense and the year they've had, is they've managed to do it all without their best receiver as Kelvin Benjamin has been sidelined all season long with a torn ACL he suffered in training camp. With the second-year wide-out expected to make a full recovery in time for the 2016 regular season, Carolina's offense could very well be just as good if not better next year. But before we get ahead of ourselves, the match-up between quarterback's Newton and Manning is an intriguing one because of the 13-year age difference which will be the largest in Super Bowl history. Not to mention the very different playing styles both QB's posses. Through the air or on the ground, Newton can do it all as he showed in Sunday's win with a pair of rushing and passing touchdowns, whereas Sunday's AFC Championship saw the first rush for a first down by Manning all year -- a 12-yard dash which happened to be his longest playoff run since his rookie season. And then there's the fact that this'll be the first ever Super Bowl meeting between two quarterback's taken first overall in their respective Draft's (Manning in 1998 and Newton in 2011).
By punching their ticket to the big game, Carolina is only the ninth team to enter the Super Bowl with one loss or fewer, joining only the 2007 Patriots to have done it in the last 30 years. It'll also be the franchise's second Super Bowl appearance, still seeking their first victory. As for Denver, it'll be their eighth appearance, tying the Patriots, Cowboys and Steelers for the most all-time, and a win would give them their third. For what it's worth, 10 of the last 11 Super Bowl winners have donned white uniforms. Coincidentally, Carolina's only other Super Bowl appearance was in 2004 and resulted in a loss to the Patriots while wearing their white uni's. This time around they've chosen to go with black, allowing Denver to go with the more popular white uniforms. Superstitious or not, it's something Bronco fans should be ecstatic about considering they won't be wearing the orange uni's that seem to be bad luck seeing as they were demolished in them two years ago and have gone 0-4 all-time in Super Bowl's while in orange.
Prediction: Now for how I think the big game will play out. Super Bowl 50 will be the third consecutive Super Bowl in which both No. 1 seeds reach the big game, proving once again just how important home field advantage is come playoff time. And with this game being played on the neutral grounds of San Francisco at Santa Clara's Levi's Stadium, home of the 49ers, there'll be no home field advantage for either coach Ron Rivera or coach Gary Kubiak. As we've learned in the past and most notably the last time Denver made its trip to the Super Bowl, defense wins championships. With that said, all signs would point towards me taking the defensive-minded Broncos, right? Wrong! I'm not going to claim that the only reason the Broncos are Super Bowl-bound is because of a missed extra-point by the usually automatic Stephen Gostkowski, but the truth is that the missed PAT (ending a streak of 523 consecutive makes) changed the entire complexion of how coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots approached the game, having to go for that failed two-point conversion with just seconds remaining which sealed the Broncos' win and sent New England packing.
I'll also give Peyton some credit for the two first half drives he led the Broncos offense on which resulted in touchdowns, but I'm afraid he'll be asked to put up a lot more points against a high octane offense like Carolina's. Something I don't think he'll be able to do as the opposing team's secondary will once again prove to be his kryptonite. Though I don't necessarily see Newton and the Carolina offense running amok quite like they have in each of the past two games as they'll have a much better defense in front of them come Super Bowl Sunday, I just don't see any offense exchanging punches with Carolina, and certainly not one led by the aging Peyton Manning and a run game that failed to get going until late against the Patriots. But that's not to say Denver doesn't stand a chance. If they can contain Newton and running back Jonathan Stewart on the ground like they did New England's ground attack and apply the same pressure to Newton that doomed Brady, they'll pull off the upset. With that said, it'll be intriguing to see how they approach a QB of Newton's caliber whom possesses arguably the most dangerous duel-threat ability in the game. Regardless, I'm taking Carolina who I think pulls off the 27-17 win with receiver and kick return specialist Teddy Ginn Jr. scoring a late touchdown to seal it for the Panthers' first-ever Super Bowl triumph.
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