The last time the Panthers and Broncos played was in Week 10 of the 2012 season at Carolina, and Denver cruised to a 36–14 win in then head coach John Fox’s first game back in the stadium where he coached from 2002 through 2010. Peyton Manning threw for over 300 yards (something he's done just once this season but did nine times in 2012), while second-year quarterback Cam Newton threw for two touchdowns and two interceptions. Denver's defense put Newton on the ground seven times, and the entire Panthers team ran for just 52 yards on 21 carries.
Things have obviously changed pretty significantly over the last few years. Heading into Super Bowl 50, Denver’s defense is even better than it was back then, but Manning, now at age 39, is a shadow of the quarterback he was then. It’s Newton who is the more prolific quarterback these days—from Week 9 through the NFC Championship Game, he’s thrown 27 touchdown passes and just three picks—and the Panthers also have a rejuvenated rushing attack.
When two teams haven't faced each other in a while, the best way to project how things will turn out is often to scout them against similar opponents and schemes. After examining the teams each team took down on the way to a conference title, here are four matchups that could turn the outcome of Super Bowl 50.
Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson vs. Trai Turner and Andrew Norwell
We know that the Panthers have the most effective and complex run game in the NFL this season and, in fact, one of the best ground games of the past few years. But Carolina’s offensive line had better be ready for a heavy dose of interior pressure from Wolfe and Jackson, who rank among the best duos of 3–4 defensive ends in the game. Wolfe got a well-earned four-year, $36.7 million contract extension on Jan. 15 as a show of Denver’s appreciation, and Jackson, who is set to enter free agency, might be even more coveted than Wolfe would have been. Jackson has five sacks this season, but that total doesn’t come close to telling the whole story of how great he is. Per Pro Football Focus, only Philly’s Fletcher Cox had more quarterback hurries than Jackson’s 45, and only J.J. Watt had more batted passes than Jackson’s seven.
That much pressure on opposing quarterbacks shows up more on tape than on stat sheets, and it certainly did in Denver's AFC Championship Game win over the Patriots. Tom Brady took 20 hits, and this one delivered by Jackson may have been the most important—it caused an errant throw and Brady's second interception of the game. With left tackle Sebastian Vollmer taking outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware across the pocket and center Bryan Stork chipping up to help as Wolfe crossed his face, it was up to left guard Josh Kline to deal with Jackson one-on-one. That did not go well. Jackson threw Kline to the ground like a rag doll, forcing Brady to release the ball at an awkward angle. Both safety Darian Stewart and linebacker Brandon Marshall had a shot at the ball, and Stewart got there first.
The Panthers’ guards will present a tougher challenge than New England’s. Right guard Turner is one of the best at his position, and underrated left guard Norwell holds up very well in pass protection. In fact, Norwell is working on a shutout this postseason: not a single sack, hit or hurry allowed in 121 total snaps. Turner has allowed just one hurry so far. Add in center Ryan Kalil, who has also given up no pressures in the playoffs, and this battle of strengths between Carolina’s interior offensive line and Denver’s defensive line could decide how often Cam Newton throws under pressure, one of the few things Newton doesn't consistently do well.
Owen Daniels vs. Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis
According to Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted efficiency metrics, the NFL’s two best defenses are facing off in Super Bowl 50: Denver is ranked first, Carolina second. However, no team was better at guarding tight ends than Carolina, and the Panthers get it done with their top-shelf personnel at linebacker. Kuechly and Davis are both absolutely fantastic against the pass, and safety Kurt Coleman has excelled coming down to help with intermediate coverage—that’s one reason he has seven picks, two of which came on throws aimed at tight ends.
One other reason for that high coverage grade, though: The Panthers haven’t faced a lot of teams with dominant tight ends. The most physically gifted tight end Carolina went up against this season is Seattle’s Jimmy Graham. In a 27–23 Panthers win, Graham torched the league’s top defense for eight catches and 140 yards by exploiting the voids in Carolina's zone coverage over and over, sitting down in the areas where Kuechly and Davis hand off receivers to the safeties. This 27-yard seam route with 12:21 left in the third quarter of that game captures Carolina’s zone weaknesses perfectly. Daniels, who beat Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins for two touchdowns in the AFC title game, will certainly take notice.
Daniels doesn’t have the size/speed advantage that Graham brings to the table, but he does have a complete understanding of Gary Kubiak’s offense. Kubiak has coached Daniels in Houston, Baltimore and Denver, and the first touchdown against the Patriots was a great case study in Daniels’s route awareness. Daniels was the inside man in Denver’s three-man formation, Collins got caught up underneath, Daniels threw him a sick inside fake before heading back outside, and that was all she wrote. From a formation perspective, it was much like the play Graham used to shred Carolina’s intermediate zone.
Ted Ginn Jr. vs. Chris Harris Jr.
Yes, Ginn has had issues with dropped passes at times, and he’s flubbed easy touchdowns. But in truth, Ginn has dropped nine passes over the entire season and playoffs, half the total of the NFL leader, Oakland rookie Amari Cooper. Ginn ranks ninth in Drop Rate, with those nine drops on 55 catchable passes (according to Pro Football Focus charting), but he’s also responsible for enough explosive plays to mitigate the damage. On passes of 20 or more yards, he has seven receptions for four touchdowns. To put it simply, he's just the kind of guy where you have to take the good with the bad.
Ginn isn’t just a speedster: He has learned to do just as well with slants, comebacks and quick outs as he has with straight vertical stuff. That makes him a problem for Denver’s defensive backs, as good as they are. Given Ginn’s speed and agility, it’s more likely that he’ll be covered by Harris than by Aqib Talib, though you might see the Broncos corners switching around. Generally speaking, when Denver is facing a smaller, faster primary receiver, they want Harris on him from start to finish.
During Denver’s Week 15 loss to the Steelers, Harris found himself on Antonio Brown quite a bit, and Brown went off for 16 receptions, 189 yards and two touchdowns. It wasn’t all Harris’s fault—there were times when Brown ran crossing routes into other defenders—but Harris was the main cover man on both of Brown's touchdowns, falling victim to a variety of option routes. Harris has turned himself into one of the better cornerbacks in the league, and there's no better player at transitioning from the slot to outside and back again, but Brown showed a couple of weaknesses that the Panthers are likely to try to exploit with Ginn.
On this, Brown’s second touchdown, the Broncos start in a two-deep look, but safety Shiloh Keo comes up to fake a blitz look and cover tight end Heath Miller. That leaves safety Josh Bush with a deep two-way option: He can either help Talib, who is covering Darrius Heyward-Bey, or he can help Harris, who has Brown one-on-one. Brown gets inside position, wins the speed battle with Harris, and catches the ball for an easy score between Harris and Bush.
This week, starting Broncos safeties T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart are dealing with injuries, and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips certainly hopes he has both of his best guys (especially Stewart, in this case) to help deal with Ginn. He obviously isn’t the receiver Brown is, but the vertical speed element could once again be a problem for Denver’s estimable defense.
Peyton Manning vs. Kawann Short
There are times in draft evaluation when you simply have to admit that you were wrong, wrong, wrong. When I watched the college tape of Purdue defensive tackle Kawann Short in 2013, I questioned his motor, his consistency, his ability to beat better linemen ... basically, I put him down as a mid-round talent and moved along. Three years later, Short has become the signature player on Carolina’s disruptive defensive line. His 2015 season and playoffs have been an absolute revelation (14 sacks, 13 quarterback hits and 53 hurries) and he’s propelled himself into the position’s highest echelon. Among 4–3 pass-rushing defensive tackles, there’s Short, Geno Atkins and Aaron Donald at the top, and everyone else in second place.
Why has the 6' 3", 310-pound Short become such a force? Part of it is how he’s deployed. He can play everywhere from one-tech shade to five-tech in three-man fronts. Part of it is the strength he has added as a pro; he'll physically overwhelm blockers in ways he didn’t in college. But the X-Factor is Short’s improved technique, and his feel for when to use what. This is not a defensive tackle who blindly dives into every double-team. You’ll often see him mush-rush and wait for an opening, slip through far more quickly than a man of his size should and disrupt the entire pocket.
The Panthers have a wealth of ancillary pass rushers who are effective in situational roles, but Short is the epicenter of the pressure, and he’s going to be one of Peyton Manning’s biggest problems in the Super Bowl. This has unquestionably been Manning’s least impressive season from a statistical perspective since his rookie season of 1998, when he led the league with 28 interceptions. And Manning is especially vulnerable to pressure these days. In the 2015 season, he’s had 141 dropbacks under pressure (out of 420 total), throwing three touchdowns and eight picks when his pocket has been disrupted. Sure, he hasn’t thrown any picks under pressure in the postseason, but he hasn’t thrown any touchdowns under pressure, either.
Denver’s game plan at this point is for Manning to get rid of the ball at the first sign of trouble, and Short brings all kinds of trouble. Let’s look at this sack of Atlanta’s Matt Ryan in Week 14. The Panthers are playing an over front with Thomas Davis at the line. Short takes Atlanta left guard Andy Levitre one-on-one, and this just isn't fair. Short gets in his area, puts a speed-to-power hump move on the poor guard, à la Reggie White, and blows right by Levitre, causing a Ryan fumble that is recovered eight yards behind the line of scrimmage by receiver Julio Jones.
If this happens to Manning too often, the Broncos are going to be in a lot of trouble.