Super Bowl 50 has the perfect narrative surrounding it: A young, upstart team powered by an MVP candidate and Heisman-winner in quarterback Cam Newton squares off against the tried-and-true, model quarterback for the last two decades, Peyton Manning.
And yet, the game will likely not be centered around offense. When the great Bear Bryant quipped his now-famous line, “Offense Wins Games, Defense Wins Championships,” even he likely couldn’t have foreseen a Super Bowl matchup as intriguing as this one.
Based on ESPN’s defensive efficiency ratings, the Broncos feature the number one defense in the NFL, while the Panthers come in at number two. In that sense, the game has an excellent symmetry to it. The name of the game even has a nice ring to it: Super Bowl 50.
While all may seem well and good for the Broncos, coming in with the number one ranked defense, they have much bigger problems, starting with the man lining up behind center. Behind Manning and sensational backup QB Brock Osweiler, the Broncos have the 23rd-most efficient offense in the league. And much of the heat, rightly so, is directed at Manning. To give context to his truly awful season, even after last week’s divisional contest against the Patriots, Tom Brady had thrown for more touchdowns in 2015 in Denver than had Manning.
During the regular season, Manning threw only a single touchdown pass, with eight interceptions, at home, compared to eight TDs and nine INTs on the road. Of course, you can blame some of that on injury and old age, but the fact of the matter is that the Broncos feature a quarterback on the decline. Manning, in fact, went so far as to tell Patriots head coach Bill Belicheck that this may be his last rodeo.
If you need further evidence, check the blitz statistics: Several years ago, it would have been ridiculous to blitz Manning at a high rate. Indeed, he only saw pressure on 24 percent of his dropbacks in 2013, the lowest rate in the NFL, and still managed to throw the most TDs while under pressure (16). This year, he has seen pressure on 35 percent of his dropbacks, good enough for seventh-most in the league. Doesn’t sound like a winning recipe when your quarterback is in his 18th NFL season and has had four neck surgeries.
Still, the Broncos had to get to the Super Bowl somehow, and indeed their offense has stepped up in the run game of late. In the first six weeks of the season, the Broncos managed to be the 30th-worst rushing team in the league; they managed only four runs of 15 or more yards, which in itself was the sixth-worst in the NFL. From weeks eight through the end of the season, however, they jumped to the most productive team in the league as they ran for 20 runs of 15 yards or more, seven of which were for scores.
As a point of comparison, the Panthers come into this game with the second-most efficient offense in the league. Unsurprisingly, whatever stellar defensive package the Broncos trot out will most likely have to center around containing Newton. To help, here’s a handy guide for what Cam can and cannot do.
First of all, do not let him into the red zone. Newton found a way to get the ball in the end zone a whopping 34 times this season, more than any other player. Ten of his 29 red zone rushes were for touchdowns; you saw all you needed to last week against the Cardinals as Newton put the ball in the end zone twice on the ground.
Secondly, don’t let the Panthers run the ball. At all. Easier said than done, though Ñ they ran the ball more than any other team this season, running on a whopping 46 percent of their offensive carries. Granted, that includes 103 designed QB runs for Newton, which is the most since ESPN began tracking that statistic in 2006. But with a new breed of quarterback standing next to a dangerous back, the Panthers’ run game is anything but pedestrian.
Thirdly, if you can manage it, try not to play the Panthers at all in the second half of the season. Following a subpar first half of the season, in which Newton had a QBR of 50.7, he took better care of the ball (he only threw a single interception in the latter half of the season) and became a more efficient passer (he completed 66 percent of his passes down the stretch), raising his QBR in the second half to 79.8, good enough for sixth-best in the league. Couple that efficiency with a dominant defense, and you seem to have a seamless offense.
That is, until you consider whatever Newton’s receivers are doing deep. Cam loves to throw the long ball; he threw the third-most passes of 20-plus yards in the league, though he completed an abysmal 32.4 percent, good for 22nd-best. His receivers, however, managed to drop 7.4 percent of those passes, which is the highest rate in the league. On the defensive side of the ball, the Broncos allowed the third-lowest completion percentage (23.5), fifth-lowest yards-per-attempt (8.98) and eighth-lowest QBR (49.7) against the deep ball.
All in all, the teams aren’t quite evenly matched. The Panthers seem to have a sizable edge on the offensive side of the ball. That said, Super Bowls are often not won by the better team. Playoff football, as with any sport, rides and dies with momentum. Anyone remember David Tyree’s helmet catch after Eli Manning dodged about a dozen potential sacks? I’m sure the Patriots do, just as they will remember failing the two-point conversion that would have sent last week’s divisional game against the Broncos into overtime (too soon?). Heavy favorites mean almost nothing this time of year. Emotion means everything.