The Carolina Panthers have been the NFL’s best team this season. Despite the Panthers winning 14 straight games and finishing the regular season 15-1, few people wanted to acknowledge how good the Panthers are. The Panthers are the betting favourites in Super Bowl 50 for a reason. They are going to win and they are going to win big.
Lead by MVP favourite Cam Newton, and a great defense the Panthers were among the league leaders in points scored and points allowed. In the playoffs the Panthers were more dominate. In their first game the Panthers jumped out to a 31-0 lead eliminating defending NFC champion Seattle Seahawks.
In the NFC championship game, the Panthers dominated the Arizona Cardinals. The Panthers defense forced Carson Palmer into four interceptions and recovered a pair of fumbles. The Panthers won 49-15, punching their Super Bowl tickets.
Cam Newton deserves the majority of credit for leading one of the league’s best offenses. However it is the defense that makes the Panthers a truly special team. The defense is headlined by linebacker Luke Kuechly. The Panthers selected the Boston College tackling machine 9th overall in 2012. Kuechly struggled in coverage early in his career. However, Kuechly has emerged as the league’s best linebacker in coverage, and it’s not even close according to Pro Football Focus. Quarterbacks see receivers being covered by Kuechly and assume that a linebacker covering a receiver is mismatch. It’s a mistake that both Russell Wilson and Palmer made in the playoffs. Both times Kuechly intercepted the pass and returned it for a touchdown. In Denver’s victory over New England in the AFC championship game, tight end Owen Daniels scored two touchdowns on blown coverages. Against Kuechly, Daniels will not be able to create any separation.
Part of what makes Kuechly so effective, is Panthers dominate defensive line that beats opposing offensive lineman and prevents them from getting to Kuechly in the second level. The Panthers built the interior of their defensive line in the 2013 NFL draft. The Panthers selected Star Lotulelei 13th overall and Kawann Short 44th overall. Both have been disruptive forces in the middle of the line. Lotulelei received the major of media hype early on, but it has been Short that has emerged as the star.
Short was named to the All-Pro team after he routinely beat offensive lineman. Short finished with 55 tackles and 11 sacks. The biggest weakest on the Broncos offense is their offensive line, that Khalil Mack dominated for five sacks in a half. With Short and Lotulelei, the Panthers should win the battle in the trenches, limiting any running game for the Broncos and collapsing the pocket on Peyton Manning.
If there is a weakness for the Panthers defense it is the secondary and an injury to linebacker Thomas Davis. Davis broke his arm in the Arizona game but vows to play in the Super Bowl. His replacement is Panthers first round pick Shaq Thompson. Thompson did not see many snaps his rookie season, but maybe a better athlete than Davis. Thompson played both running back and safety at Washington before settling in as a coverage linebacker in the Panthers sub packages. While in the secondary, Josh Norman has emerged from small school obscurity into one of the NFL’s top corners. For most of the season throwing at Norman was no better than throwing the ball into the dirt. Norman will be in coverage on either Demaryius Thomas or Emmanuel Sanders and limit their impact on the game. Outside of Norman, the Broncos could find mismatches with Roman Harper who is a good run stuffer as a safety, but a liability in coverage.
Offensively, the Panthers have to counter a Broncos pass rush that hit Tom Brady a record 23 times. Like the Broncos, the Panthers have a poor offensive line. Blind Side tackle Michael Oher maybe a well-regarded player due to the Michael Lewis book and movie about his life. But Oher has consistently graded as one of the NFL’s worst tackles over the past three seasons. Luckily for Oher, Newton counters any pass rush with his size and speed. Newton is similar in size to both of Denver’s top pass rushers DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller. What makes Newton so dangerous is his ability to break contain, extend the play and pick up first downs.
The Broncos possess a very good run defense lead by Derek Wolfe. The Broncos will certainly limit the production of Panthers’ back Jonathan Stewart, but they will not be able to limit Newton’s effectiveness as a runner. Newton’s ability to run makes him extremely difficult to account for. Wade Phillips knows this and will almost certainly place a spy on Newton. But this will leave the Broncos vulnerable in coverage.
The Broncos have a definite advantage in the passing game. Denver has three capable starting corners in Aqib Talib, Chris Harris, Jr and Bradley Roby. The Panthers’ receivers outside of tight end Greg Olsen, somehow form a functional unit, despite being a collection of players no one really wanted. With no star receiver, the Broncos won’t match a corner up with any receiver. However they will likely match safety T.J. Ward on Olsen. Olsen has been Newton’s favourite target over the five seasons they have played together.
When the game concludes, the Panthers offense will not be the unit that wins them the game. It will be the defense. A defense that will create turnovers and great field position for the offense. Super Bowl 50 could look a lot like the Broncos last trip to the Super Bowl two seasons ago when they lost 43-8 to the Seahawks.