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Cam Newton's polarizing personality embraced by Panthers teammates
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Cam Newton's polarizing personality embraced by Panthers teammates
Tuesday January 26th, 2016

The AFC champion Broncos finished the regular season with the NFL’s No. 1 defense. The Panthers featured the top scoring offense. Not surprisingly, the level of talent on the field when those two units match up on Feb. 7 will be staggering. There is enough talent to go around when the roles are reversed, too, no matter how much Denver’s offense might be scuffling right now.

How does all the talent stack up? Our latest Power Rankings try to sort that out, picking player by player through the offensive and defensive starters for both teams.

The rankings are based on the depth charts listed on Carolina’s and Denver’s team sites, where there are some notable omissions from the starting lineups—Kony Ealy, C.J. Anderson, Jerricho Cotchery, etc. Those players are not included here, though there remains ample time to pick through the remainder of the rosters before Super Bowl Sunday.

For now, let’s rank the starters, the specialists and the coordinators, as the Broncos and Panthers prepare for Super Bowl 50.

Offensive starters

1. Cam Newton, QB, Panthers: It would be stunning if anyone else took home MVP honors this year. Newton has been the most electrifying player in football almost from the get-go—Week 1 against Jacksonville was a bit of a struggle. Since Week 9, he has 24 passing touchdowns to just two interceptions, plus another seven rushing scores.

2. Trai Turner, G, Panthers: The Carolina O-line may have been the NFL’s best this season and Turner, a third-round pick in 2014, was the driving force. He allowed just one sack all season, per Pro Football Focus, and was even more dominant in the run game.

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3. Emmanuel Sanders, WR, Broncos: Demaryius Thomas is the (much) higher-paid and slightly more productive Denver receiver, but Sanders has been more reliable on a week-to-week basis. It’s no surprise Peyton Manning turned to him when the Broncos needed a play last Sunday.

4. Greg Olsen, TE, Panthers: Save for Rob Gronkowski, Olsen probably is the toughest cover among NFL tight ends. He is by far Newton’s favorite target, with 77 catches, 124 targets and 1,100 yards receiving this season. No other Panther caught more than 44 balls.

5. Ryan Kalil, C, Panthers: A rather deserving member of the PFWA’s All-NFL team, Kalil also recently notched his fifth Pro Bowl berth (he won’t play because of the Super Bowl trip) and could add his third All-Pro nod soon. The Panthers’ offense demands a versatile center. Kalil is that.

6. Demaryius Thomas, WR, Broncos: He has been almost nonexistent in the playoffs thus far, with six catches for a combined 52 yards against Pittsburgh and New England. We’re still talking about an elite receiver and a true No. 1. He now has topped 1,300 yards for four straight seasons.

7. Jonathan Stewart, RB, Panthers: A spectacular fit alongside Newton, Stewart has bounced back from a late-season injury to average 5.0 yards per carry in the playoffs. The eight-year vet is a load in the hole at 235 pounds, with enough quicks to bounce outside.

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8. Evan Mathis, G, Broncos: The Broncos slow-played Mathis into the playoffs, starting Max Garcia multiple times so the banged-up Mathis could rest. They need him badly given their offense’s limitations. When Denver runs, it’s often behind Mathis.

9. Ted Ginn Jr., WR, Panthers: Ginn still struggles with drops, and he caught just 44 passes this season. He also scored 10 times and averaged 16.8 yards per catch, proving to be an explosive option—not all that long after his NFL career seemed like it might be over. His 22-yard rushing touchdown against Arizona offered further proof of his impact.

10. Ronnie Hillman, RB, Broncos: If we’re going to be honest about this, Hillman is Denver’s second-best back. C.J. Anderson has provided more impact on the ground (4.7 yards per carry to Hillman's 4.2) and through the air (7.3 to 4.6). So, this spot is his with an asterisk.

11. Andrew Norwell, G, Panthers:
12. Owen Daniels, TE, Broncos
13. Mike Remmers, T, Panthers
14. Peyton Manning, QB, Broncos
15. Matt Paradis, C, Broncos
16. Mike Tolbert, FB, Panthers
17. Louis Vasquez, G, Broncos
18. Ryan Harris, T, Broncos
19. Corey Brown, WR, Panthers
20. Virgil Green, FB, Broncos
21. Michael Oher, T, Panthers
22. Michael Schofield, T, Broncos

Let’s talk about Peyton. One could argue that he deserves to be higher based on his mental acuity alone. He has not been good, per se, in Denver’s two playoff wins, but lesser quarterbacks would have imploded with reduced physical capacity (See: Palmer, Carson).

There also could be a case to push him lower. His two touchdown passes to Owen Daniels on Sunday aside, the Broncos have to win almost in spite of him right now. He can’t connect on anything downfield and has struggled to maintain his accuracy. Consider his ranking a compromise.

Norwall might deserve a top-10 spot over Ginn and Hillman. While Turner and Kalil garnered all the attention along Carolina’s interior line, the undrafted Norwell shined in his second season, too.

You’ll find the weak spots at the bottom. Schofield and Oher have been exposed at times this season—the former more than the latter. Same for Harris.

Defensive starters

1. Luke Kuechly, LB, Panthers: Kuechly won the AP Rookie of the Year in 2012 and Defensive Player of the Year in 2013 ... and somehow, he seems to be getting even better. He covers with the range of a safety but finishes like the otherworldly linebacker he is.

2. Von Miller, OLB, Broncos: What Kuechly is to the Panthers, Miller is to the Broncos. In other words, everything positive that happens on defense usually starts with him, as it did against New England last weekend. Miller and Oakland’s Khalil Mack are Nos. 1 and 1a among 3–4 outside linebackers.

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3. Kawann Short, DT, Panthers: Do people realize how good Short has been this season? If not, his performances against Seattle and Arizona likely did the trick. He posted 55 tackles, 11.0 sacks and 53 hurries this season. Heads up, Peyton.

4. Josh Norman, CB, Panthers: A Defensive Player of the Year contender himself, Norman allowed the lowest QB rating on passes thrown his direction (54.0) of any cornerback this season. He regularly looks like he knows what route is coming his way, then manages to run it better than the receiver facing him.

5. Derek Wolfe, DL, Broncos: The Broncos just handed Wolfe a four-year contract extension worth upwards of $36 million. Wolfe sure earned it, coming back from a PED suspension served over the first four weeks of the season to wreak havoc. The Patriots had no answers for him.

6. Chris Harris, CB, Broncos: Is Harris the league’s best cornerback? He’s up in the ranks, and is at least the top slot defender—Denver has the benefit of being able to use him there without hesitation. That ever-present chip on Harris’s (injured) shoulder serves him well.

7. Danny Trevathan, LB, Broncos: Take your pick between Trevathan and Brandon Marshall. They’re both crucial presences up the middle for Denver’s phenomenal defense. Even though Trevathan lost snaps to his ILB counterpart, especially early in the season, his coverage skills bump him up the ladder here.

8. Thomas Davis, LB, Panthers: Still getting it done in his 11th NFL year, Davis’s steady veteran presence might be worth even more than his reliable 100-tackle production. If he can’t go on Super Bowl Sunday because of the broken arm he suffered vs. Arizona, the Panthers will feel his absence.

9. Malik Jackson, DL, Broncos: Jackson has been a sensational fit in Wade Phillips’s defense, but he was a standout in Jack Del Rio’s similar attack before that. He has shown the ability to be effective from just about any spot, from lined up over the center to a five-tech role.

10. DeMarcus Ware, OLB, Broncos: The 33-year-old Ware plays limited snaps and doesn’t contribute much against the run. And ... so what? As the Patriots were reminded during the AFC title game, Ware still has enough in the tank to take over games off the edge.

11. T.J. Ward, S, Broncos
12. Brandon Marshall, LB, Broncos
13. Roman Harper, S, Panthers
14. Aqib Talib, CB, Broncos
15. Shaq Thompson, LB, Panthers
16. Charles Johnson, DE, Panthers
17. Star Lotulelei, DT, Panthers
18. Kurt Coleman, S, Panthers
19. Darian Stewart, S, Broncos
20. Jared Allen, DE, Panthers
21. Sylvester Williams, DT, Broncos
22. Robert McClain, CB, Panthers

Just look at the rest of these names. Is it any wonder that Denver boasted a top-ranked defense and Carolina lingered just a bit behind? Outside of possibly McClain, who signed late in the season (along with Cortland Finnegan) as Carolina dealt with significant injury woes, every player here would start for most teams in the league.

Ward’s free-agent signing prior to the 2014 season continues to pay dividends for Denver. He and Stewart will be key in the Super Bowl, as the Carolina offense puts heavy pressure on opposing safeties for 60 minutes.

Thompson will be an X-factor, particularly if Davis cannot go or is limited. The rookie keeps getting better and better.

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Specialists

1. Brandon McManus, K, Broncos
2. Graham Gano, K, Panthers
3. Ted Ginn Jr., PR, Panthers
4. Emmanuel Sanders, PR, Broncos
5. Britton Colquitt, P, Broncos
6. Brad Nortman, P, Panthers
7. Omar Bolden, KR, Broncos
8. Fozzy Whittaker, KR, Panthers

Both McManus and Gano missed more than they would have liked this season, each failing on three attempts in the 40- to 49-yard range. Gano also shanked three extra points; McManus missed one. Neither Denver nor Carolina would hesitate to trot its kicker out in a clutch moment, though. Don’t expect many kickoff returns, either—Gano bombed a league-leading 69 touchbacks, while McManus had just 28% of his attempts returned.

The fireworks could occur instead on punt returns. Colquitt and Nortman were rather average this season, ranking in the league’s bottom half for yards per punt and net yards per punt. That leaves the door open for Ginn or Sanders to make a play.

Coordinators

1. Mike Shula, OC, Panthers
2. Wade Phillips, DC, Broncos
3. Sean McDermott, DC, Panthers
4. Rick Dennison, OC, Broncos

Shula’s four-year stint (2003–06) as Alabama’s head coach was an abject disaster. Hard to find fault in what he has done with the Panthers, though, ever since being named offensive coordinator prior to the 2013 season. His run scheme is brutal to prepare for, and it is expertly crafted around Cam Newton’s skill set. That he also managed to find a passing game without the injured Kelvin Benjamin speaks to his brilliant work.

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Phillips’s coaching career also has been dotted with ups and downs. He was canned as part of the Texans’ house-cleaning—a situation which eventually led Gary Kubiak over to Denver. But his AFC title game work against Tom Brady & Co. was praiseworthy. The Broncos obviously have loads of talent on D, but Phillips has maxed out their production.

And then there’s McDermott, who was viewed as a potential head-coaching candidate headed into January. The Panthers play with ridiculous speed under McDermott’s watch.

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