The end of the 2015 NFL season is finally here, and we are lucky to have a matchup that’s compelling and bound to be interesting in several levels. On one hand, we have the happy-go-lucky Panthers and their fun approach towards football, and on the other we are probably seeing Peyton Manning’s final game as a pro, with his mission of leaving on the highest possible note. Denver’s quiet approach is a stark contrast to its rival’s, but they still share several traits on the field that should become apparent on Super Sunday.
The Panthers have been placed as sizable favorites for this game, and so far have received most of the public support, according to Vegas sportsbooks. The line has moved around enough to make Carolina almost a touchdown favorite, with most people assuming that their season-long dominance will be enough to counter Peyton Manning’s uncertain status and Denver’s vaunted defense.
After already taking a look at some of the most intriguing prop bets for this Sunday, it is time to sink our teeth into the big prize: picking against the spread. This will be the first Super Bowl since Super Bowl XLIII to feature a point spread above 5 points (Steelers -7 over the Cardinals), so the books are counting on a somewhat uneven contest. Will that be the case on Sunday? Will Manning end his career as a hero or as a perceived playoff failure? It’s time to figure this out.
The last time these two teams met came in 2012, when the eventual 13-3 Broncos manhandled the Panthers in their home turf by a score of 36-14, with Manning throwing for 301 yards, while Cam Newton was limited to 241 with a couple of picks. It is amazing how things have changed for these franchises since, with the Broncos navigating Manning’s twilight years to a Super Bowl loss, division titles every season, and now a second appearance in the final game. Meanwhile, the Panthers went through bumps and bruises with salary cap management, a GM switch, and the evolution of Newton and Coach Ron Rivera to now be on an amazing 21-2 streak that could be crowned with the team’s first title.
Their respective runs through the playoffs have shown just how contrasting their styles are, with Carolina storming to a couple of big leads to advance to this stage, while the Broncos needed their strong defense to hold on in a couple of low-scoring games. While Denver was only able to score a combined 43 points in its two playoff contests, the Panthers almost doubled that amount with a total of 80. At this point, the elder Manning has showed that he is really on his last legs, relying mostly on guile and his unparalleled football IQ to manage games and allow his defense to do most of the work. The Panthers are in full force, with Newton leading the charge despite a roster full of cast-offs and question marks.
For the second straight season, we are getting a matchup between #1 seeds, and in what is a strange coincidence, it looks eerily similar to Super Bowl XLVIII, when the Broncos arrived with the league’s best offense against Seattle’s top defense. In a twist of fate, Denver now is the world-class defensive team, with their status as the 4th-best in the league in terms of points allowed, and the top dog in terms of yardage. Meanwhile, the Panthers are the league’s highest-scoring squad, also featuring a top-10 offense by yards, and with the twist that they also finished sixth in scoring defense. In previous Super Bowls in which the top defense faced the top offense, defense has mostly prevailed, going 6-1. The only occasion in which offense took home the trophy came in Super Bowl XXIV, with the 49ers taking down John Elway’s Broncos by a scandalous 55-10 score.
Watching Denver’s defense completely dominate Tom Brady in the AFC Championship evokes a certain level of confidence in the Broncos, but there is a reason why the Panthers are laying close to a touchdown in this game. While the Broncos have won a record 11 games by 7 points or fewer, the Panthers led the NFL with a +192 point differential. Carolina also has a penchant for stealing the ball, with their +20 turnover margin also being the league’s best. In a nutshell, the NFC Championship game showed what the Panthers are able to do when the opposition makes mistakes, as they are certainly the best team in the NFL when it comes to scoring fast and often.
If the Broncos are to have a chance in this game, they will need to play almost a perfect game, while also relying on Manning’s previous Super Bowl experience to quickly get over the jitters and establish Denver’s preferred pace. While Ron Rivera has become one of the league’s elite coaches, the same can’t be said for Gary Kubiak, who owns a suspect history in decision-making and clock management. However, he has the perennially underrated Wade Phillips setting up the defensive game plan, now with two weeks to prepare his players for the type of offense that is rarely seen.
In players like Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, the Broncos own an enviable array of talent in defense, but Carolina can counter with Josh Norman and Luke Kuechly to stop Manning and his crew. Newton is almost expected to become the game’s star, so all the focus will be on how he can unwind in the biggest game of his career. While he is vying to become only the second player in history with an NCAA title, Heisman trophy, NFL MVP (at this point, he is a lock), and a Super Bowl ring, he still has to prove that he can perform in the league’s highest stage.
In the end, it took me a while to make a choice in this game, but I’m leaning towards taking the points. In my mind, it looks like just the second part of Denver’s past game, when all the money was on the Patriots and their seemingly unstoppable attack. Now the Broncos are getting even more points, and with its defensive masterminds able to prepare a proper game plan to counter Newton and the Panthers. I expect a grueling, low-scoring game in which either team can win, but it will come by a low margin and with the winning points coming in the final minute.
While it is going against the masses, I like Manning to say goodbye in more than decent manner.
The Pick: Broncos +6