This is it. We have reached the final game of this NFL season, and it’s time for SI.com’s writers and editors to make their picks. Will they go with the favorites and take Cam Newton and the Panthers, or does anyone think Peyton Manning and the Broncos can pull off the upset?
Below are our score predictions for the NFL’s biggest game. (And as a bonus, we pick our favorite Super Bowl 50 prop bets!)
On both sides of the ball, the Panthers’ playmakers have stepped up all season when needed, and I see Cam Newton, Greg Olsen, Ted Ginn, Luke Kuechly, Josh Norman and Kawann Short again answering the bell in the biggest moments of the game. This Broncos defense is simply too good to get blown out 2014 Seattle-style, but Denver’s offense won’t be able to keep pace with a passing game that can’t threaten Carolina deep, and may not be able to run enough to keep the pressure off Peyton Manning’s 39-year-old frame. The 17–1 almost-perfect Panthers clearly enter this game with more pressure on their shoulders, but they’ve proven they won’t blink when the stakes get raised. Manning and the Broncos will keep it close for three quarters, but sentimentality can only take you so far on Super Sunday, as Carolina becomes the first 1995 expansion team to raise a Lombardi Trophy.
Prop bet I like: How many times will Archie Manning be shown on TV during the broadcast? Think about it, the man has watched one of his sons quarterback in the Super Bowl in six of the past 10 years! He’s 3–2 so far, so this is a biggie for him. Let’s let him watch in peace without aiming a camera his way every five minutes, shall we?
Certainly the Panthers, with that running game and physical defense, look formidable and it wouldn’t be a shock if they won in a blowout. But I don’t think that’s going to happen for a couple of reasons. Peyton Manning has been much better this season with rest, and he’s had two weeks to prepare. And the Broncos have a very good run defense and are special enough in coverage, with Aqib Talib, Chris Harris and T.J. Ward, to limit the Panthers’ pass game, which is predicated on max protections and their receivers winning one-on-one. First one to 20 wins.
Prop bet I like: How long will it take Lady Gaga to sing the national anthem? (Under 2:20 is going off at -120.) Had to go to the tape for this one—what else did you expect? Lady Gaga clocked in at 2:10 when she sang the national anthem at the 2013 NYC Gay Pride Parade, and that was with a few pauses. Looking for her to come in around two minutes on Sunday.
While the sentimental side of most football fans will pull for Peyton Manning to win his second Super Bowl and retire, the Panthers are the deeper, more balanced team here. Quite frankly, they don't really have a weakness. Carolina has the better quarterback in Cam Newton, the more explosive offense and a defense that is facing a Broncos' offense that has struggled at times this season. Unless the moment overwhelms the Panthers, or something fluky happens, they’ll do what they’ve done all season—jump to an early lead, take control and hang on to win. And by Sunday night, Newton will have as many rings as Manning does.
Prop bet I like: What color will Beyonce's footwear be when she comes out on stage? (Black +150, gold/brown +250, white +300, silver/grey +500, any other color +500). I’m going black.
I see the potential for another blowout Broncos loss, but I refuse to believe it will happen. Their defense is too talented to let the wheels fall off completely, while their offense has found a way to survive on being cautious and methodical. In the end, though, I think the Panthers just have too significant an edge at QB to assume it won't matter. Eventually, Cam Newton will make a few plays, be it through the air or on the ground. That Carolina defense will pounce, too, if Peyton Manning tries to push the envelope.
Prop bet I like: Cristiano Ronaldo goals scored for Real Madrid vs. Granada/Graham Gano FGs made (-1/2). Love this because it's so utterly absurd. A kicker sport-crossover prop? Roll the dice and take Ronaldo—he hung five goals on Granada in one of those teams' matchups last year.
I think it will go like this: Panthers by four to start, and then I’m adding points to Carolina’s total for every 10 yards under 125 total rushing yards Denver gains. I think the Broncos will do all right in that regard, but the Panthers’ defense will be too much for them. Carolina’s offense will face a stern test from Denver’s defense, but Cam Newton and company know how to get out to an early lead, and I can see them doing that here. The question is whether Peyton Manning has enough left in the tank for a comeback. I don’t think he does. Cam will win MVP, which will provide maximum annoyance to certain closed-minded parts of our fine country.
Prop bet I like: Vegas has CBS analyst and former NFL official Mike Carey as an 11/10 favorite to get a challenge wrong during the telecast. Given Carey’s history as an analyst, I’ll just be happy if he doesn’t start explaining the infield fly rule.
Peyton Manning has been incredibly relaxed this week, and his 39-year old arm has received some much needed rest. But this is the Year of Cam and the Year of Carolina. Carolina doesn’t just boast explosive players on both sides of the ball; it’s also the more complete team, top to bottom. Denver may have the best defense in football, but the Broncos haven’t seen anything like Carolina’s varied rushing attack. I don’t see this as the highest scoring Super Bowl ever, but Carolina will flash enough offense to raise Lombardi on Sunday night.
Prop bet I like: Will Mike Carey be wrong about a challenge? No. I think CBS will be very cautious about Carey’s usage. If Carey is brought on anything ambiguous and subjective I think he’ll be directed not to play his hand.
No one’s surprised to see the Panthers here, following their incredibly dominant season on all sides of the ball. But the situation is the complete opposite for the Broncos; their offense has stalled at times throughout the season, and it was backup QB Brock Osweiler who brought them to the finish line of 2015, going 5–2 in his seven games started. Yes, the Broncos’ defense is rolling, especially after laying 20 hits on Tom Brady in the AFC Championship Game, and I do think that unit will contribute to the Denver touchdown total on Sunday, but the Panthers boast a defense that is nearly as good. Carolina is oozing with confidence right now, and the league’s top-scoring offense, led by Super Bowl 50 MVP Cam Newton, will find a way to exploit the league’s top-ranking defense. I see the Panthers starting fast, just like they’ve done throughout the playoffs, and never looking back en route to the franchise’s first Super Bowl victory.
Prop bet I like: How long will it take Lady Gaga to sing the National Anthem? The line is set at 2:20 right now, and I think that Gaga will certainly exceed that.
I picked the Broncos to win it all at the beginning of this season, and so I feel obligated to stick with ’em all the way to the end. Plus, it may sound misguided, but I do truly think Denver is going to win. When you look at this from all facets, the Panthers are the better team. But if the Broncos get enough pressure on Cam to rattle him a bit, he can actually be forced into making poor throws (he threw a pretty bad pick against the Cardinals at the end of the first half of the NFC title game, but the Panthers were already in such control at that point it didn’t matter). Because Cam can do so much, I see him taking a lot of chances, and I see the Broncos making him pay for some of them with an interception or two. Peyton Manning, meanwhile, will be conservative and take care of the ball against a formidable Panthers defense, and his teammates will do the brunt of the work for him: I think C.J. Anderson will have a big game on the ground, and I can also see Emmanuel Sanders breaking off some screens for a couple of huge gains.
The Panthers’ offense looks like an unstoppable force with a seemingly invincible quarterback. I remember the last time an offense described like that played in the Super Bowl, because it was two years ago, and that team was the Broncos. Unlike last time, this one won’t be a blowout. And unlike last time, Peyton Manning will end his career with his second Lombardi Trophy.
Prop bet I like: My favorite one by far is whether or not Mike Carey will be wrong about a challenge. I went with the non-obvious team in my actual Super Bowl pick, so I’m going to bet on the obvious answer here: Yes.
The Broncos have the best defense in the league and a quarterback who suddenly understands exactly what his role is supposed to be. Peyton Manning has been a happy game manager since he returned to the field, and as good as the Panthers’ defense is, the Broncos’ defense is one of the best in history. The Broncos look a lot like the Seahawks did two years ago; Seattle, remember, was a slight underdog to Denver in the Super Bowl but rode a dominant defense to a blowout victory. I can’t see this being a blowout, but I do see that defense delivering a second Super Bowl win to Manning in his final game.
Prop bet I like: How many times will the Golden Gate Bridge be shown during the broadcast (Over/under set at 0.5). Come on. This is easy money. The NFL and 49ers want to perpetuate the idea that Santa Clara is just a stone’s throw from San Francisco, though that’s only true if you throw a stone onto a moving car that then sits in traffic for nine hours. CBS will happily comply.
I can’t get past the Broncos’ 11–3 record this season in games decided by eight points or fewer. It wouldn’t be too hard to spin that as an intangible in their favor if you wanted to, but there’s no question that record is far better than what they deserved for large stretches of 2015, and now here they are, up against a Carolina team that never wavered all year as other contenders faded. The Panthers are stout enough up front to silence the ground game that Denver desperately needs to get going, and they’re opportunistic enough to put the game out of reach with a couple of big plays even if the offense never finds its top gear. Newton won’t be perfect on Sunday against the league’s best defense, but he’ll do more than enough to give his MVP season a fitting send-off.
Prop bet I like: Three-to-one odds on Peyton Manning throwing a pick-six in the game seems like a sweet deal for the meeting of a quarterback who threw 17 interceptions in an injury-shortened regular season with a defense that has taken interceptions to the house in each of its first two playoff games.