On Sunday at approximately 3:30 p.m. PST, Super Bowl L will kick off featuring the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers. About three and a half hours (and one strange Coldplay-filled interlude) after that, a new champion of the NFL will emerge. Here are some keys that will decide how those hours will go.
Denver’s pass rush
This isn’t exactly a revelation, but the Broncos beat the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game largely off the strength of their prolific pass rush. Denver got to Tom Brady 20 times, the most any quarterback has been hit in a game since 2006. If the Broncos’ combination of Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, along with Derek Wolfe — whose impact in that game was underrated — can get to Carolina’s Cam Newton like they got to Brady, Denver would be favored to win.
But the Panthers are unlikely to be as vulnerable to a pass rush. For one, Carolina’s offensive line, anchored by Ryan Kalil, Trai Turner and a resurgent Michael Oher, is better-equipped to holding off defenders. Newton’s mobility will also help him elude pass-rushers and can help him punish blitzes. A more overlooked factor will be the impact of the Panthers’ running game, which ranked sixth in the NFL in DVOA, according to Football Outsiders. Unlike New England, which was down two starting running backs and passed on nearly every down, Carolina’s combination of Newton and Jonathan Stewart gives them a running threat the Broncos will have to look out for. Instead of knowing they can ignore the run and only worry about getting after the passer, the linebackers and defensive line will need to be ready to defend the run as well, which could slow down the pass rush just enough for the Panthers to take advantage.
Denver’s offense struggled with turnovers this year as it gave the ball away 31 times, tied for third most in the NFL. Peyton Manning, especially, proved to be a consistent source of interceptions, getting picked off the second most times of anyone in the league despite playing in only 10 games. Meanwhile, Carolina took the ball away 39 times this season, including corralling 24 interceptions, both good for most in the NFL.
So the Panthers should be able to take it away at least a couple of times, right? If trends from the regular season hold up, then yes, and Carolina will be at a huge advantage. But the Broncos won’t necessarily be the turnover machine they were in the regular season — they’ve only turned it over once in the playoffs, so they’re not necessarily screwed.
But, the Panthers have forced nine turnovers in their two playoff outings, and Denver’s offense has very nearly given the ball away more than just that one time.
Can Carolina’s receivers get open?
Carolina went 15-1 this year despite a receiving corps lacking any stars. It lost Kelvin Benjamin before the beginning of season due to an ACL tear, and ever since then, it has been without a star receiver who can beat corners of the caliber of Denver’s star duo, Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr.
The Panthers’ best wide receiver may very well be Ted Ginn, who only had 44 receptions this season, and is best utilized when running go routes every down to best take advantage of his speed. His hands, however, aren’t great and he isn’t the type of player to consistently beat Talib or Harris.
So will Newton, the likely NFL MVP, have anyone to throw to at all? And does it even matter given Carolina’s aforementioned prolific rushing attack?
Well for one, Carolina has Greg Olsen, who may have been the NFL’s second-best receiving tight end this season. He will look to exploit a Denver linebacking group that’s more known for getting after the passer than for coverage. More importantly, the Broncos’ safeties aren’t healthy, and this is something Newton and Olsen can exploit. If they do, the Panthers will hold the advantage in every aspect of the game, and Super Bowl L could look a lot like Super Bowl XLVIII, when Denver lost by 35 to Seattle.
Score prediction: Carolina: 27 Denver: 16