The Panthers took the football world by storm, winning their first 14 games before losing to Atlanta. Looking back at those wins, none of them really stood out as blowouts until we hit the win at the lowly Titans. Now, the previous sentence is obviously selling short the work that the offense has done all season. When the season began, there was talk about how the Panthers were doomed because they lost Kelvin Benjamin, the rookie who caught over 1000 yards receiving last season and replaced him with…..well, Ted Ginn Jr.? Really? This guy couldn’t make the special teams on Miami and Arizona, and you’re thrusting him into the starting lineup in Carolina? Reeked of desparation in my opinion, but that’s why I’m typing this from my computer at home and they’re preparing for the Super Bowl. Ginn would catch 10 touchdown passes this year and amass over 700 yards, thanks in part to his ability to run routes, hold onto the ball and speed by everyone. Another major reason to the offensive success was the health of Jonathan Stewart, who, for years, found himself on the injury report with varying ailments. This year, after having lost longtime Panther DeAngelo Williams, Stewart stepped up and was solid. The rest of the offense was amazing as well, with a large thank you to Cam Newton, who really elevated himself to the face of the NFL. With 3800+ yards passing, 600+ yards rushing and 45 total touchdowns, where Cam went, the Panthers went, and it’s little wonder that they are in the Super Bowl. he has really made a name for himself as one of the league’s premier players and it’s most valuable. On the other side of the ball, the Panthers were definitely a team to be feared. They surrendered the 6th fewest yards to their opponents and under 20 points per game. Pretty impressive, but their real strengths come individually. Luke Kuechly was as dominant as anyone else at the LB position this season, missing few tackles and reading the plays like no other. His 4 interceptions rank 2nd on the team, next to Kurt Coleman in the secondary. However, Coleman isn’t even their best player back there, as that distinction goes to Josh Norman, the shutdown CB who was able to make any and all WR who came his way look like hockey players. Overall, it was a tremendous defense that paralleled the intensity of the offense.
Denver came into this season with the expectations of being great. Everyone thought that last year’s playoff flop would result in a resurgence like no other. And….well, they’re here, let’s put it that way. Offensively, this team has never been a juggernaut, despite its big name talent. One of the best QB of all-time, Peyton manning, held the NFL lead for most interceptions thrown in a season, finally surrendering that position to Blake Bortles. He threw for over 300 yards in a game only twice, and was later benched for Brock Osweiller. After Brock failed to impress, despite the big wins, Manning was re-inserted and threw for 69 yards in a win, propelling him back to the starting job. As a result of his misfortunes, unfortunately, so did the WR on Denver, as both big name guys experienced low numbers. Both Demariyus Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders dropped about 300 yards in receiving with far fewer touchdowns scored. That said, every closed door opens a window, and the running game took over as a focal point. The two headed monster of Ronnie Hillman and CJ Anderson really opened up opportune opportunities to capitalize. Both men rushed for a combined 1500+ yards and 12 touchdowns, which is impressive, given their offensive line woes. Defensively, for every stat the Panthers excelled at, the Broncos were seemingly better, being first in yards allowed and points allowed. They were rock solid from top to bottom, with the likes of Von Miller pulverizing quarterbacks and an entire secondary that shutdown any and all receivers they saw, all while covering each other for any blown coverages. It truly is amazing to see how well they have adapted and applied Wade Phillips’ defensive schemes.
So now that leaves us with how the two teams stack up. Carolina has the better QB, but Denver has the smartest. Carolina has the best RB, but Denver has the most depth. Denver has the better WR, but Carolina has the most opportunistic group. Carolina has the better TE, but Denver has a QB who knows how to find a TE better than almost anyone else. Denver has the better secondary, but Carolina has the more opportunistic one. It’s a tie with their LB and defensive line core, as picking one over the other is splitting hairs. Even their kickers are awesome. The difference makers here are the offensive linemen. The war will be won by which team protects the quarterback and gives him the better opportunity to do what he does best, either scramble and make yards (Newton), or see the field and find an open receiver (Manning). At the beginning of the season, the talk around Denver was the worrisome offensive line and how things and players were shuffled. They have seemingly come together this year, but they will be facing an extremely tough test against the Panthers. And while Manning will be able to recognize things that Newton won’t, and subsequently make adjustments, what he can’t do is scramble out of the pocket and create opportunities, and that, I think, will be his and their downfall. Either with bad passes or fumbles, Manning will cough up the ball a few times, and the blood thirsty defense of the Panthers will give Newton great opportunities to win.
I predicted a 20-17 Carolina win months ago, so I see no reason to switch anything here, although I could see the Panthers scoring more than 20.