It's for all the marbles this weekend when the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos clash in Super Bowl 50 on Sunday. For nearly two weeks, the public has overwhelmingly backed the Panthers at the betting windows, which has forced the line up to Carolina -5.5 and possibly -6.0 by game time.
As in any football game, there are a few key matchups whose outcomes are likely play a deciding role in the overall outcome. With that in mind, here are three of the biggest matchups to watch for in Super Bowl 50.
Peyton Manning vs. Panthers Secondary
For the Broncos to have any chance, it is mandatory Manning protects the football. He's done a good job of it so far this postseason as he's yet to throw an interception, but in an injury-shortened regular season he coughed up 17 picks. That was second in the NFL behind Blake Bortle's 18. However, for perspective, Bortles had nearly twice the pass attempts of Manning. With his diminished arm strength, Manning's throws often look like interceptions just waiting to happen. Unfortunately, now he faces Josh Norman and one of the NFL's most ball-hawking secondaries.
The Panthers were No. 11 against the pass during the regular season with 234.5 yards per game allowed. While that's certainly acceptable, Carolina's real strength on defense is with takeaways. The Panthers had 24 picks during the regular season to top the NFL, and have since added six more in two playoff games. They intercepted Carson Palmer four times in the divisional round and Russell Wilson twice more in the NFC Championship. The Panthers have to be licking their lips after watching tape of Manning's flutter balls for two weeks.
The good news for Denver? Manning's best games this season have all come with additional time off. His only two 300-yard passing games during the regular season came following an extended break of at least 10 days. Perhaps the two weeks off will help with Manning's arm strength and overall physical capability.
Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware vs. Panthers offensive line
We noted in our look at the key matchups for the AFC Championship game that the Patriots had to find a way to slow Miller and Ware. It didn't happen. Brady was harassed all afternoon, and that was widely attributed as being the difference in the game. The same applies here for the Broncos. Obviously, Cam Newton is much more mobile and tougher to bring down then Brady, but the Panthers offensive line still must find a way to slow Miller, Ware and the Broncos pass rush.
Perhaps it can happen. The reason is, more than any other team in the NFL, the Panthers use max-protection on pass plays. The reason for this is the aerial game is predicated off the run. Rather than send five out into the pattern like the Patriots, the Panthers use play-action and will keep eight or nine in to block, while sending just one wide receiver deep on the outside and Greg Olsen over the middle. This wall of blockers makes it tough to get to Newton.
Most believe this Broncos' defense is one of the best we've seen in years. But can they get to Cam? It remains to be seen, but it won't be easy given the Panthers offensive style.
Broncos Special Teams vs. Panthers Special Teams
Most believe if the Broncos are to win, it will come in a close contest. Few envision a Denver blowout. If that's the case, this one could come down to whose better on special teams. Neither Denver's Brandon McManus (7-for-7) nor Carolina's Graham Gano (3-for-3) has missed a field goal or extra point this season and both ranked among the league's most accurate kickers during the regular season.
As for the punters, Denver's Britton Colquitt is one of the best in the business at flipping field position. In two postseason games, he's planted seven punts inside the 20-yard line while averaging 47.0 yards per boot.
For the Broncos' special teams, the most critical issue will be to not allow any big plays to the Panthers. All season, Carolina has had a penchant of forcing special teams turnovers, or getting big returns that set up excellent field position. The Broncos can't allow any big plays on special teams if they are to have any chance.
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