We knew the formula for stopping Tom Brady entering the AFC Championship: apply intense pressure with four or fewer rushers and play bump-and-run coverage on his top receivers Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski. The New York Giants featured Justin Tuck, paired with either Hall of Famer Michael Strahan and an able-bodied Jason Pierre-Paul, as the cogs of a pass rush that held Brady in check enroute to two Super Bowl victories. Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips had the scheme and personnel to follow the blueprint and it worked to perfection. Premier edge rushers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware terrorized Brady for a combined three sacks, eleven knock downs and an interception that gave their offense a red zone opportunity which they cashed in. It was the worst beating any quarterback took all season and the Patriots QB had no time to scan the field. Tackles Sebastian Vollmer and Marcus Cannon were simply overpowered and their offensive line as a whole was held together by duct tape, a short-passing attack, and the quickest release in the NFL. The No. 1 ranked defense per DVOA, an all-encompassing measurement of efficiency designed by Football Outsiders, will have a much tougher time in the trenches on Super Sunday.
Power | Carolina’s Offense vs. Denver’s Defense
A common thread among great teams is robust play at the line of scrimmage. Each snap of the ball reenacts a half dozen car crashes and having bulldozers up front to tame the people eaters chasing the ball is essential. The Broncos can field five first round picks, a pedigree rarely seen. Having led the league in sacks and forced fumbles, their talent on the line and in the secondary engenders trust in the players matched up in man coverage on this play versus the Pats. Ware and Malik Jackson run an inside-out stunt: the end and tackle trade places as the play develops. Ware guides Vollmer away to clear the path for Jackson to threaten the QB. The press coverage gives Brady no other option but to throw a jump ball which is snagged by safety Darian Stewart.
The gameplan against Carolina will be similiar: have two guys cover their elite tight end and line up in single coverage on their less-than-stellar receivers. Cornerback tandem Chris Harris and Aqib Talib will have to contend with the speed of Ted Ginn Jr, but they are more than capable of doing so. They are not too shabby against the run either, holding opposing teams to a 3.3 yds/rush, lowest in the NFL. But facing a stationary Brady is nothing like quarterback Cam Newton and the Panthers.
Carolina entered the season with free-agent signee Michael Oher penciled in at left tackle after a shaky year in Tennessee saw him lose his job. A connection with Newton in the offseason eased the path for the 2013 champion to build chemistry with his new teammates. All-Pro center Ryan Kalil is an institution in the Tar Heel state, Trai Turner and Andrew Norwell fill out the interior protection, leaving Mike Reemers to man the right side of the line. They have coalesced into elite blockers, paving the way for Panthers’ rushers to amass the 2nd most yards per game in the regular season and tops in the postseason. In their 31-24 drubbing of the Seattle Seahawks, Carolina overwhelmed the league’s third best run defense with a diversity of play calling.
Here the Panthers execute a counter run to perfection. Turner (70) pulls from his right guard position to block the D-end as Oher diverts his attention to the inside tackle, partnering with Norwell to neutralize the rush. Stewart patiently follows fullback Mike Tolbert behind the scrum as he blows up a defender and by that point, Norwell is five yards ahead of the ball engaging 2014 MVP finalist Bobby Wagner, resulting in a 59-yard scamper on the game’s first play from scrimmage. They may be 300 pounders, but boy are these guys agile.
Two plays later they punch it in the end zone with a read option run. This time Kalil and Reemers maneuver into the second level of the defense with tight end Greg Olson more than holding his own against Michael Bennett. Its mano-a-mano football and the Panthers win across the board.
Their offensive line is the engine, but Cam Newton provides the fuel. His 2015 was not too far off from his previous years of production, with the exception being a career-high 45 total touchdowns, 35 passing and 10 rushing. Nevertheless, his consistency from Week 9 versus Green Bay on (throwing 24 scores to just three interceptions the rest of the way) and a 15-1 record added AP Offensive Player of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards to his long-list of collegiate and professional accomplishments. Most impressively, he compiled those stats with his best wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin out for the year recovering from an offseason ACL tear. A C-list roster touting Olson, an brilliant receiver, drop-happy Ginn Jr., rookie Devin Funchess, Corey Brown, and Jericho Cotchery were thought to be the weak link of the team. But offensive coordinator Mike Shula put his mediocre talent in positions to thrive. Not only has Newton elevated his game, no other quarterback willingly thrusts himself into the action.
You were probably not watching the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship with the game out of hand, but head coach Ron Rivera kept the foot on the gas pedal in response to the near comeback by Seattle a week earlier. No other team would call a designed QB run on 3rd and 10 with a 19 point lead unless the 6-foot-5-inch, 245 lb Newton was their signal-caller. The Arizona Cardinals were aligned in man coverage against the four receivers. Olson, lined up in the slot, runs towards the flat to drag his defender away from the play in conjunction with the other pass-catchers heading straight up field with Kalil not far behind itching to pancake someone into oblivion (note: this would be an ineligible-receiver-downfield penalty if a pass was attempted instead). Newton charged barely contested for the first down as the Panthers steamrolled into the Super Bowl.
The Broncos need to do what no one has yet to and contain the Panthers’ onslaught of different looks if they want to keep it competitive.
Verdict | Panthers by an inch
…Like its Super Bowl 48 | Carolina’s D vs. Denver’s O
Peyton Manning throws ducks. Peyton Manning throws interceptions (17 in 10 regular season games). Peyton Manning throws ducks for interceptions. Carolina creates interceptions. Done deal, right? Well…
Probably. Denver’s offense has been inept since the start of the season. New head coach Gary Kubiak tried to implement his rushing attack with a zone blocking scheme, meaning Manning had to be under center performing bootlegs and putting his mobility to the test. He failed miserably, even after a gradual shift in approach put Manning back behind the center to give him more time to probe the defense. Neither CJ Anderson nor Ronnie Hillman were much help to Manning. Out of 44 rushers, both ranked in the bottom half in Effective Yards, meaning they performed worse than the eye-test would indicate. It was especially brutal against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 10. In the game that he became the NFL’s all-time passing leader, Manning was 5-for-20 for 35 yards, four picks and an unceremonious trip to the bench in favor of Brock Osweiler.
The Sheriff returned to the field Week 17 to much fanfare by commentators Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, but had a minimal impact besides some amazing audibles at the line. However, it’s gonna take a godly effort to dissect the Panthers. Their front seven mirrors Seattle’s with Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei blocking the sun and middle linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis (who is somehow playing with a broken forearm) removing intermediate throws from the playbook. Josh Norman shadows top receivers, headlining a secondary of cagey veterans.
Without the threat of the vertical passing game, they can anticipate quick routes and dump-offs. The Broncos typically take a shot downfield early in the game to set the tone, but tends to flutter and drop for an incompletion. Even as Manning started the AFC title game with two touchdowns in the first 16 minutes of game time, he was held out of the end zone in his last nine drives, seven of them resulting in punts.
If Carolina is able to disturb Manning in the pocket, disrupt his timing with receivers and shut down the backs, he will have a severe case of PTSD.
Verdict | Chicken Parm You Taste So Bad
Dance-Off | Cam Newton vs. Von Miller
Get ready to form a hype circle with your friends because its about to get nasty.
The reigning champ:
Verdict | MILLER SWAG LEVEL: TOO TURNT
Outcome | Keep Dabbin’
Experts and Vegas are expecting a Panthers win and so am I. Carolina has that “team-of-destiny” feel, the MVP, the vaunted defense and the charisma. Raising the Lombardi trophy would cap a historic 18-1 season for Rivera’s coaching staff, Newton’s offense and Kuechly’s defense. It would also leave Manning with one win in four Super Bowls and a losing postseason record. The Broncos D has to play out of their minds like they did two weeks ago, their offensive line must give Manning time in the pocket and clear gaps for Hillman/Anderson, and their special teams needs to win the field position game. The contrarian in me wants to pick Denver, but its dabbin’ season.
Panthers 23, Broncos 13