Let the Superb Owl take flight!
Really looking forward to this one. I think it has the potential to be one of the great classics of the game, so long as Denver shows up (unlike two years ago, when Seattle tap-danced all over them). As a storyteller, I can appreciate the various storylines here — the last ride of the Sheriff, the new face of the game, the dabbing.
Plus I’m going to make poutine. (Unless I can’t find the right cheese curds. So important.)
Anyway, without further ado, let’s break this one down and see what could happen.
When Carolina has the ball:
I don’t envy the Broncos defense. Carolina can come at you from any direction, pass or run. Superman is pretty super on his feet, and will take on running chores that’ll make other quarterbacks blanch. They also have a superb tight end in Greg Olsen (a comment on his position, not his posterior) who will make you pay in the middle of the field. So how do you stop ’em?
Thankfully, Denver has a blueprint from what they did to Tom Brady two weeks ago. Remove the center-field option with a good coverage linebacker, then bring the hammer up front and get to the quarterback fast. While Carolina’s line isn’t as suspect as New England’s, it ain’t the Black Gate of Mordor, either. The trick, though, will be to get the edge rushers on both sides of the pocket so that Cam Newton won’t have a way out. And chances are, the Broncos secondary will spend a lot of time in man coverage — not horrible, really, as the secondary is probably better than the Panthers’ receiving corps.
Carolina, on the other hand, is going to have to run hard, especially if Olsen is covered. Don’t be afraid of read-option stuff, and swing it to the outside when you can. If not, straight up the gut for three yards and a cloud of dust. Once they establish the run game, that’s when they can dust off the play-action and see if there’s some opportunities down the field.
Newton is going to feel the heat on pass plays, from both sides. Unlike Brady, though, he’s a dangerous runner. If he’s in a pass play and his first and second reads aren’t there, I’d be telling him to take off down the field. He’s a chore for a linebacker to tackle and nearly impossible for a corner or safety. You know he’s going to rip off at least one 20-yard run here. The only way Carolina will get serious pass yardage is when the Broncos secondary makes a (rare) mistake. It’s on Cam to see it and make them pay.
When Denver has the ball:
You kind of expect the Broncos to run quite a bit, and believe me, they’re gonna do it. Carolina’s biggest flaw is in short-yardage running, and the tag-team of Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson will ideally make that happen. However, you can’t expect four-plus yards each time, and the Panthers are good at negating the longer runs. So at some point, Peyton Manning is going to have to, you know, pass the ball.
I really kind of want to see Manning open the game with a big deep ball that, ideally, has some zip and accuracy on it. Even if it doesn’t connect, you want to send the message to Carolina that he’s willing to throw. Thankfully, Manning has some great targets out there in Emmanuel Sanders (woefully underused of late) and Demaryius Thomas. Getting Owen Daniels and Vernon Davis involved in some two-TE sets wouldn’t hurt either. The good stuff will happen with strong running inside and the eight-to-ten-yard pass plays — again, with a deep ball now and then to keep Carolina honest.
Oh, and stay the heck away from Greg Norman, the Carolina corner who’s probably one of the best in the league. The rest of the secondary only slightly better than average, and will have to step up, but Norman will totally negate whomever he’s covering. Getting someone smart and quick on Daniels will be key as well.
And then, like Denver, Carolina will have to drop the Mjolnir on the Broncos line. They have to keep Manning in the pocket and force him into quick throws — something that he’s been less adept with of late. If Manning has time, he’ll make it work. Force him to throw quick and that’s when you’ll see timey-wimey wibbly-wobbly throws that could result in the turnovers that Carolina thrives upon. I’d keep Luke Kuechly spying for the run and in the short passing zone, because he’s that awesome.
The storyteller in me kind of wants to see Peyton Manning get his ride-into-the-sunset win. He’s been an absolute joy to watch for something like 18 years now. And even with Father Time catching up with him this season, his instincts are just incredible. If he chooses, he’s gonna make an outstanding offensive coordinator some day. Or he can just keep pitching Nationwide’s chicken parm.
So yeah, the heart wants the Broncos to win, and I’ll be rooting for them.
That said, I love Cam Newton. The man has fun doing this stuff. He recognizes that he’s being paid ungodly amounts of money to play a game, one that he loves to play and is very good at. And so he’s having the time of his life. Plus, he does a ton with charity and community as well. If he’s the new face of the NFL, that’s a wonderful thing. He’s going to be around a long time, and this won’t be his last Super Bowl.
If I’m picking with my head, it’s a different story. The Carolina offense and the Denver defense are evenly matched. The question will be whether the Denver offense can hold serve against the Panthers’ defense. And honestly, with all due respect to the Sheriff, that’s a tall order. Pick: Panthers.
Last week’s record: 1-1
Playoff record: 8-2 (.800)
Regular season record: 157-99 (.613)