6:30 PM EST, CBS – Line: Panthers -5.5, Over/Under: 45
Finally, it all comes down to this. After months of highs and lows, the culmination of the 2015 season is upon us as the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos meet in Super Bowl XLX at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California. The top two seeds from their respective conferences, these two teams represent the past, present, and future of the league, as one side you have the Broncos, who are competing in their eighth Super Bowl, led of course by Peyton Manning, who owns a record five NFL MVP Awards, in what is widely expected to be his final game as a professional. On the opposite sideline are the upstart Panthers, who hot off the heels of the franchise’s best regular season finish, look to obtain their first Lombardi Trophy, led by Cam Newton, who in all likelihood will be named 2015’s MVP himself, en route to redefining the future of the position. Given the sheer amount of uncertainty swarming from their facility in the Offseason, nobody expected the Panthers (15-1, 1st in NFC South) to be in this position. Fresh off a lukewarm 7-8-1 campaign, Carolina faced the daunting task of defending their division crown without the services of emerging sophomore Receiver Kelvin Benjamin (Torn ACL), longtime Left Tackle Jordan Gross (Retirement), and polarizing Pass Rusher Greg Hardy (Released), without the benefit of filling the sizeable void left by said players. Or so we thought… Ron Rivera’s charges resembled a juggernaut that ran through the regular season like a hot knife through butter, leading the league in scoring (31.2) behind the exploits of Newton, who put it all together in a whirlwind campaign in which he accounted for a staggering 4,473 total yards from scrimmage (636 rushing) and a whopping forty-five touchdowns (ten rushing). Indeed, this unit has proven to be greater than the sum of it’s parts; the oft-traveled Ted Ginn posted a career-year with 739 yards and ten touchdowns, while Greg Olsen became a force at Tight End with seventy-seven receptions for 1,104 yards and seven touchdowns of his own, with Jonathan Stewart shaking off a couple of injury-riddled seasons to lead the team with 989 rushing yards and a half-dozen touchdowns. Speaking of Stewart, he and Newton spearheaded a physical rushing attack that ranked second overall, averaging 142.6 yards on a league-high 32.9 rushing attempts per game. However, it’s the other side of the ball where Carolina has really made an impact. Rivera’s defense is fast, athletic, and aggressive, and above all else opportunistic. Simply put, no defense was better at turning over their opponents than the Panthers, totaling a healthy thirty-nine takeaways (1st Overall), including a league-best twenty-four interceptions. Josh Norman (4 INT, 18 PD, 2 TD) has emerged as a shutdown Cornerback on the perimeter, while Linebackers Luke Kuechly (118 TKL, 4 INT, 10 PD, 2 TD) and Thomas Davis (105 TKL, 4 INT, 7 PD) might be the best pair of coverage ‘Backers that the league has seen in a long time, with Safety Kurt Coleman taking advantage of all the chaos logging a team-high seven interceptions. And we’d be remiss if we failed to mention Defensive Tackle Kawaan Short who has evolved into a wrecking ball in the trenches, leading all players at his position in sacks (eleven). For further evidence of this unit’s capabilities, just scope out the devastation left in their wake from the NFC Championship Game against the Cardinals; the hosts dismantled arguably the most explosive offense in the league, permitting just fifteen points on 287 total yards, forcing SEVEN turnovers in a 49-15 demolition. Carson Palmer will be seeing these guys in his sleep for months, as the Arizona Quarterback was sacked three times, with two leading to lost fumbles, along with four interceptions, with one returned by the aforementioned Kuechly for a touchdown. Hopefully, Manning is doing his homework on these guys, for the veteran Quarterback’s seventeen interceptions were a league-high before he was benched back in Mid-November, with Denver’s season total of thirty-one good for fourth-most in the NFL.
Meanwhile, as improbable as their counterpart’s prospects were of advancing to this point back in the Offseason, there were many an occasion where it was unfathomable to think that the Broncos (12-4, 1st in AFC West) would once again be representing the AFC on this stage. With a new Head Coach that struggled all season to implement his preferred schemes, an Offense that rarely resembled a cohesive unit at any juncture, an aging Hall of Fame Quarterback beleaguered by injuries and eventually replaced by a promising young upstart only to wrestle his job back in the season finale, Denver was nothing short of interesting in 2015. Then again, all those imperfections have made their trek to a second Super Bowl in three years all the more remarkable. At the center of everything has been Manning, who in what is universally expected to be his Swan Song, has never appeared more vulnerable, or for that matter, more human. The NFL’s all-time leader in Passing Yards, Passing Touchdowns, Victories by a Starting Quarterback, and a host of other categories, who has at times resembled a fledgling rookie opposed to an eighteen-year veteran. In just nine starts, the fourteen-time Pro Bowler completed just 59.8% of his passes for 224.9 yards per game, a scant nine touchdowns to seventeen interceptions, including a dreadful QBR of 44.86, with each of those statistics representing career lows dating back to his inaugural campaign back in 1998. With that said, he still proved capable of providing flashes of his former self, with a quartet of Fourth Quarter Comebacks, including the Regular Season Finale when he replaced an ineffective Brock Osweiler to rally his team to victory over the Chargers, which ended up sealing the No. One Seed, and Home Field Advantage in the AFC. The question of course, is does he have enough left in the tank for one more game? Against longtime nemesis Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, the 39-year old managed to do enough to win, completing 17-of-32 passes (53.1%), for a modest 176 yards, a pair of touchdowns and most importantly no interceptions, in a 20-18 defensive slugfest. Now the oldest starting Quarterback in NFL history (replacing his boss John Elway), No. 18 will be out to erase the memories of Super Bowl XLVIII, in which he and his teammates were utterly crushed by the Seattle Seahawks in a 43-8 debacle. However, he’ll have quite a bit of help this time around, as Denver’s Defense figures to keep things within striking defense for the aging passer. Simply put, if not for Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips and his subjects, the Broncos don’t even get close to this point. End of story. Throughout the season, you’d be hard-pressed to find a unit more effective than these guys, who led the league in a number of significant categories, including Total Yards Allowed (283.2), Passing Yards Allowed (199.6), Net Yards per Pass (5.1), Yards per carry Allowed (3.3), and Sacks (52). Under Phillips’ guidance, the Pass Rush has become absolutely hellacious, with six different players accounting for at least four sacks, with Outside Linebacker Von Miller leading the way with eleven. In addition to the four-time Pro Bowler, youngsters Derek Wolfe (5.5 Sacks), Malik Jackson (5.5 Sacks), and Shaquil Barrett (5.5 Sacks) have emerged as playmakers, with the veteran presence of four-time First Team All-Pro DeMarcus Ware (7.5 Sacks) providing the Broncos with a litany of options in attacking opposing Quarterbacks. And if that wasn’t enough, their set of Cornerbacks, Aqib Talib and Chris Harris, are as good as they come, with the pair accounting for five interceptions, nineteen deflected passes, and three touchdown returns. Though Manning gets the glory of beating the Patriots once more, what the defense managed to do to Brady and Co. should go down in the annals of history; Denver sacked Brady four times, pressured or knocked him down on at least another dozen snaps, and completely disrupted New England’s prolific offense throughout the day, not to mention shutting them down twice on Fourth Down, along with the game-ending failed Two-Point Conversion.