The storylines will be plenty leading up to Super Bowl 50 on Sunday, Feb. 7.
Is this Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning’s last ride? How will the Panthers’ Cam Newton play in his first Super Bowl?
Carolina’s No. 1 offense vs. Denver’s No. 1 defense: Who will break first? Are we seeing a changing of the guard at quarterback from Manning to Newton?
While these storylines are fine, they will have no effect on the game. That will be played on the field and not in the interview rooms.
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So if the Panthers want to beat the Denver Broncos to win their first Super Bowl, here are five things they’ll have to do.
Stay opportunistic on defense
The Panthers led the NFL in takeaways this season with 39, six more than the second-best team. They stayed hungry in the postseason with seven takeaways against the Cardinals in last week’s 49-15 win in the NFC Championship Game.
In Manning, the defense will face a quarterback who hasn’t thrown an interception this postseason, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t interceptions to be had.
With multiple neck surgeries and almost 40 years old, Manning isn’t the quarterback he once was. He never had a particularly strong arm, but Manning’s velocity has declined in recent years. Instead, he relies on his knowledge of the offense – and the opponent’s defense – to locate open receivers.
Manning threw 17 interceptions to just nine touchdowns in this injury-shortened season. Of the 35 quarterbacks since 1970 who have thrown at least 17 interceptions and no more than nine touchdowns, only three (including Manning) had a winning record.
Why is that? Look no further than the defense.
Be smart when assigning help to offensive tackles
Denver’s defense is the best Carolina will have seen all year. The Broncos have it all: great pass rushers, solid linebackers and a defensive backfield that rarely makes mistakes.
What makes Denver’s defense go is the pass rush – specifically the defensive ends.
DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller form one of football’s best pass-rushing duos. Both are outside linebackers in coordinator Wade Phillips’ 3-4 scheme and will chase the quarterback when called.
For whatever reason, New England coach Bill Belichick rarely offered help to his offensive tackles in last week’s 20-18 loss to Denver in the AFC Championship Game. Ware and Miller combined for 11 of Denver’s 17 quarterback hits and three of the four sacks on Tom Brady.
The Panthers have a much stronger running game than New England, and those running backs know how to pass protect. Jonathan Stewart and Fozzy Whittaker can do it as tailbacks, and fullback Mike Tolbert also excels at it.
Throw in a chip block or two from either tight end Greg Olsen or Ed Dickson, and the Panthers can help left tackle Michael Oher against Ware and right tackle Mike Remmers against Miller, who lines up about three-quarters of the time against the right side of the offense.
Clearly the Patriots believed they could release the ball quickly enough to negate the pass rush. But Denver’s coverage was too good, and Miller and Ware were too fast, and the plan backfired. The Panthers can’t roll the dice there.
Vary the snap count
Another reason Miller and Ware were so effective against the Patriots was their speed at the snap of the ball.
It was as if they knew the snap count. And even if they were slow getting off the ball, the interior of the line wasn’t and didn’t allow Brady to step up into his throws very often.
To avoid that, Newton must change up his snap count. He has one of the best cadences in the NFL – something that goes unnoticed. Last week, the Cardinals were flagged twice for neutral-zone infractions and once for encroachment.
The offense, and most importantly the offensive line, has the advantage at the snap because it knows the count. But they can’t let the defense know it, too.
Get Josh Norman on Demaryius Thomas
Thomas has been an outstanding receiver for the Broncos since 2012, catching at least 90 passes for 1,300 yards in each of the past four seasons.
Meanwhile, Norman has been one of the league’s best cornerbacks. According to Pro Football Focus, an analytical website, only one pass was caught every 14 times when quarterbacks targeted Norman, who’s had his hands on several passes but no interceptions since Week 4.
Norman will have the task of defending against Thomas, who is 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, but Norman (6-0, 195) has faced big receivers before. He made a name for himself against the Falcons’ Julio Jones last year, and he’s continued this season against the likes of the Cowboys’ Dez Bryant and the Buccaneers’ Mike Evans.
Thomas is coming off his worst postseason performance. He had two catches for 12 yards last week against New England, the second-fewest receiving yards he’s had in a game since 2012.
It’d be tough for Manning to endure another game where his top target is essentially erased.
Run Cam Newton
The Broncos have not faced a quarterback like Newton all season.
Of course, it’s not like there are a bunch of Cam Newtons, but they haven’t even been tested by someone close to his size (6-5, 245), strength and speed.
The closest the Broncos came to that this year was Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith, who rushed nine times in two games for 48 yards, an average of 5.3 yards per carry.
Newton is one of the best running quarterbacks in NFL history, averaging 5.3 yards per carry for his career with 43 regular-season rushing touchdowns.
But that kind of success hasn’t been duplicated in the postseason. In five playoff games, he’s averaged 3.6 yards per carry, and his two rushing touchdowns last week against Arizona were his first rushing scores in the playoffs.
Newton will force Denver’s defense to be honest. The Broncos can’t devote an extra defender to coverage like last week against Brady; they have to watch Newton.
A successful running game with Newton will mean two things: You can wear the defense down physically and mentally, and you don’t have to throw the ball as much into a very good Broncos secondary.