Prediction: CAR 30, DEN 23 (Line: CAR by 5.5)
Here we are. After 256 regular season and ten playoff games, ends up that the best two teams are the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers. Oddly enough, the Broncos were the underdogs in their Championship game and the Panthers were heavy-money favorites to be playing this week. Consider that the Panthers were all but written off once Kelvin Benjamin went down last summer. And the Broncos were once again a heavy favorite to rule the regular season before blowing it again in the playoffs.
Last season we had the Seahawks and Patriots – two of the less popular teams outside their fanbase. But the Broncos and Panthers are mostly well-liked. Peyton Manning has his storied career ending. Cam Newton is the new league darling, sure to match his enormous salary with commercials and other promotions.
We have two very good defenses. The Broncos offense hasn’t matched past years production but can get the job done. The Panthers offense is like none other – a quarterback equally adept at passing and rushing, a running back who can be good given the chance, a premier tight end and a smattering of wideouts who wouldn’t see the field on most any other team and yet come together for a surprisingly good output that rarely favors anyone.
The best storyline here is for Peyton Manning to hold the Lombardi Trophy and disappearing off into the sunset (other than the thousand commercials) like John Elway did in 1998. But he’s become more than mortal in the past year and making it through the game without injury or interceptions would be a success in itself.
The Panthers are favored for good reason. Their defense is opportunistic and while it won’t always shut down their opponents, they can force them to play a different game than usual since their best players will be well covered. This is a Super Bowl about two great defenses. It is about the changing of the guard for the NFL’s premier position with an aging Hall-of-Fame quarterback versus a wildly talented young quarterback. This should be a fascinating game that could end up a number of ways since it all comes down to stopping Newton or getting the most from Manning.
In the end, defense wins championships and Denver has a much bigger challenge to face.
|News | Statistics | Roster|
|PK||Graham Gano||3 XP||3 FG||–|
Here’s a nifty stat. The Panthers have scored at least 31 points in eight of their last nine games – exception being the mail-in flop in Atlanta. That includes 31 points against the Seahawks and 49 points versus the Cardinals in the two playoff games so far. And it comes all sorts of ways. Cam Newton is certainly involved in most touchdowns but the running backs ran in nine scores this year and the defense added five more. Ted Ginn ran in a score on the Cards. Luke Kuechly ran in a touchdown in each of the two playoff matchups. This will be the big stage though and the Broncos have already been there.
QUARTERBACK : Cam Newton was the top fantasy quarterback this year and a multi-threat with 636 rushing yards and ten scores to add to his 3837 passing yards with 35 touchdowns – one short of the NFL season best (Tom Brady). Newton only managed 161 passing yards and one score against the Seahawks with only three yards rushed because he did not need to do anything more in that first-half points explosion that won the game. Last week he had to work for it and ended with 335 passing yards and two scores along with 47 rushing yards and two more touchdowns. The interception versus the Cardinals was also his first in the last six weeks.
RUNNING BACK : Cameron Artis-Payne had a very slow rookie season but he averaged 4.1 yards per carry and had several nice runs in relief for Jonathan Stewart who finally was given a true full-time back workload. His six rushing scores were a career best since 2009 and he fell only 11 yards short of a 1000 yard season despite missing three full games. Stewart topped 100 rushing yards three times this year and the last was against the Seahawks defense that gave up two scores to him both in the regular season and in the playoffs. Stewart ran the ball 20+ times in almost every game since mid-season.
Stewart was listed as questionable to play but he was last week as well. He’s expected to play.
WIDE RECEIVER : Losing Kelvin Benjamin didn’t kill Newton’s performance. It merely made him use all of his barely-moderate receivers. Ted Ginn suddenly was no longer a first round bust by the Dolphins on his fifth different team getting by as a special teams return man. He dwarfed his second-best season when he caught 44 passes for 739 yards and ten touchdowns. For those heading into fantasy playoffs, he caught two touchdowns and gained at least 80 yards in weeks 13, 14 and 15. But he can disappear as well and only gained 61 yards and no scores in his last three games played. Once defenses got over the shock of needing to cover him, he’s been much more quiet.
Ginn was tops for wideouts. But the other three contributed. The rookie Devin Funchess (31-473-5) had a mostly quiet first year but already has used his 6-4 stature to become a red zone option. He’s only caught more than two passes twice this year and only topped 50 yards in three games. Corey “Philly” Brown (31-447-4) was never better than 59 yards in the regular season but came up with 113 yards and a score against the Cardinals thanks to an 86-yard first quarter touchdown. Jerricho Cotchery (39-485-3) is winding down his career at 34 years-of-age but like the others, he can pop up in any given game with a couple of big catches and a score.
TIGHT END : Greg Olsen was a top five tight end again this year and ended with a career-best 1104 yards on 77 catches with seven touchdowns. Olsen is the primary receiver in this offense. His 124 targets was third best in the league and he’ll no doubt be the biggest concern of the Broncos defense. Then again, that’s been the case in every game this year since the Panthers wideouts have never been better than average overall.
MATCH TO THE DEFENSE: The Broncos have the best defense statistically and only Tom Brady was able to score more than twice on them. But the top three rushing quarterbacks never played against the Broncos this year (Newton being #1 by a large margin). That puts an entirely new slant on how the defense must prepare. The Panthers did just mow down the Cardinals secondary though both passing and rushing and the biggest weakness of the secondary is against tight ends – the biggest strength for the Panthers. They will treat Olsen with more coverage without a doubt but anything added there just means lesser coverage for the “who do I cover here anyway?” sort of receivers of the Panthers.
Other than the Cards, the Panthers never passed that well against a great defense because they almost never met any thanks to playing in the NFC South. Talib Aqib will match on Ted Ginn and that makes the most sense. So the rest of the passing offense will rely on Funchess, Brown and Cotchery – any of which could show up with a notable game. The Broncos only gave up seven touchdowns to wideouts this year and three happened in Week 15 in Pittsburgh. The Week 19 matchup with them never saw any wideout score though Martavis Bryant had a big game. Bottom line here, Ginn is likely out of the equation for the fourth straight game but the others could at least score.
The Broncos were less formidable against the run when away from Denver and allowed nine scores to running backs. But the yardage was rarely that much for any hosting opponent. An interesting player this week is Mike Tolbert who caught three scores this season since the Broncos also allowed three passing touchdowns to running backs this year. Stewart has a decent shot at a running score but his yardage is more likely to remain moderate unless he breaks another long gainer.
I like the chance of a defensive score here. If they can reach Manning and knock him around, this game gets much easier.
|RANKS (1-32, 1 = BEST)||TEAM||QB||RB||WR||TE||PK||DEF|
|Gaining Fantasy Points||CAR||1||27||20||5||2||1|
|Preventing Fantasy Points||DEN||1||14||2||22||7||27|
|News | Statistics | Roster|
|PK||Brandon McManus||3 FG||2 XP||–|
Rather unlike the Panthers, the Broncos have only scored 30 points twice all year and have averaged only 21 points per game since Week 11. Even in the home field playoff games they only scored 23 and 20 points respectively while never winning by more than seven points. The defense has been the saving grace for an offense that ranks below average in every category besides wide receiver. Another factor that cannot be overstated is how differently the Broncos play on the road versus at home. They’ve only played in one road game over the last six games and that was the loss in Pittsburgh when they gave up 34 points. The biggest success factors here will be the ability to run on the Panthers and how well Denver can fare in a road game given the struggles of the offense. This team won’t be nearly as “wide-eyed” as the Panthers may be, but it is bringing in a much more traditional offense that hasn’t been much of an advantage this year.
QUARTERBACK : And now the end is near and so he’ll face the final curtain. My friend, I’ll say it clear, Manning is done, of this I’m certain.
The rumors are naturally rampant that Peyton Manning will be suiting up for the last time and hoping to pull an “Elway”. This is substantially the worst season in his career with only 2249 passing yards and nine touchdowns against 17 interceptions over ten games. After Week 3, Manning was more of a liability through Week 10 when he left with the foot injury. But he returned in Week 17 for a cameo and then played in both playoffs games. He threw for 222 yards and no scores versus the Steelers otherwise soft secondary and then 176 yards and two scores when the Patriots showed up. Most importantly – he had no interceptions though he lost a fumble in the Championship round.
RUNNING BACK : Ronnie Hillman was the better back during the regular season with seven scores and 863 rushing yards plus 24 catches for 111 yards. He topped 100 rushing yards four times but had dramatic variation in his stats from week to week. His role in the playoffs has produced only minimal impact. He rushed for 38 yards on 16 carries against the Steelers and then 16 yards on 11 runs versus the Patriots.
C.J. Anderson started the season as a bitter disappointment coming off a great finish to 2015 but then only averaging 30 yards per game for the initial six weeks. He’s been much more effective later in the season and scored four times over the final five weeks of the season. Anderson added 72 yards and a score on 15 runs in the win over the Steelers during the Divisional round and then 72 yards on 16 runs versus the Patriots.
The concern here is that Anderson scored a total of six touchdowns this year and topped 95 yards as a runner three times. And every one of those scores and big games came at home. Over his eight road games, he only averaged 32 rushing yards.
WIDE RECEIVER : The catches weren’t down that much this year but the touchdowns were. Both Emmanuel Sanders (78-1135) and Demaryius Thomas (105-1304) ended with six touchdown catches when then totaled 9 and 11 scores respectively in 2014. Thomas topped 100 yards three times this year but he only scored once with Manning as the starter. Thomas also has been held to only four catches for 40 yards versus the Steelers and then two catches for 12 yards versus the Pats in the playoffs. Thomas had his high yardage games with Manning but he’s been held mostly in check since Week 8.
Sanders has been much more productive in the playoffs with 5-85 and 5-62 over those two matchups. But Sanders has only scored twice over the last nine weeks and neither came from Manning.
No other Denver wideout totaled more than 207 yards this year. No other wideout gained more than 35 yards in either playoff game.
TIGHT END : Owen Daniels was never threatened by Vernon Davis who has not caught a pass since Week 15. Daniels is mostly just a blocker and rarely catches more than two passes per week. Both receptions against the Patriots went for a score but those were his first in 11 games. The tight ends are of minor consequence in this offense but on the rare occasion will show up.
MATCH TO THE DEFENSE: Short of the Broncos being the first team to figure out how to shut down all the facets of Cam Newton, the Bronco’s fortunes ride mostly on Peyton Manning. Maybe entirely since Manning has to be effective for the rushing offense to work and not give the Panthers the short field. On the plus side, the Panthers are notorious for fast starts and then letting their opponent make it a game again in the second half.
The Panthers secondary has been mostly good but allowed three receivers to have big games. But Manning hasn’t passed for a “big game” since Week 3 in Detroit. He’s been better since he returned in Week 17 but only in terms of not throwing interceptions and not being a liability. The Panthers already recorded 52 sacks this year and eight total against the Seahawks (5) and Cardinals (3). Manning has to hand-off or at least get rid of the ball quickly.
CB Josh Norman matches on Demaryius Thomas who already has not done much in the playoffs. The entire passing game rides on Manning’s arm and if they fall behind much and have to throw, it could be a very bad thing. The Panthers will come after him and force the Broncos to play right into their strengths.
The Panthers are mostly average against the run and allowed six rushing scores over the eight road games. That should get Anderson a nice chance to notch one running touchdown. But his yardage is going to be very sensitive to game situation. His best bet is to let the Broncos play with a lead and run the ball more but that may not happen. The Fairy Tale ending here would be Manning turning in a tremendous game and taking the win. But it is neither a question of his heart or mind. It’s more about what a 40-year-old quarterback who broke down all year can do in his toughest matchup of the year.
|RANKS (1-32, 1 = BEST)||TEAM||QB||RB||WR||TE||PK||DEF|
|Gaining Fantasy Points||DEN||29||26||10||20||11||3|
|Preventing Fantasy Points||CAR||9||19||10||12||2||9|