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Super Bowl 50: Who will be the X-factor?
1:22 | NFL
Super Bowl 50: Who will be the X-factor?
Sunday February 7th, 2016

The Denver Broncos are in search of their third Super Bowl win. The Carolina Panthers are hunting for their first.

What factors will decide who walks off victorious on Sunday? Before Super Bowl 50 kicks off, our 10 (plus one) storylines break down which factors will play a role, in order of descending importance.

The quarterbacks

The nostalgia over Peyton Manning’s career will have to wait (and/or be relegated to the interminable pregame shows). Manning continues to defer when asked if this will be his last game, and there obviously is quite a bit at stake here for the other 90 or so players active Sunday.

“This is a storyline that’s created by the media, and we don’t really get caught up in that,” Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis said of Manning’s possible farewell. “Of course, everybody wants to see him go out and perform at a high level and kind of ride off into the sunset, but that’s not what we’re trying to do. We’re going out, we’re competing and trying to win this football game.”

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Manning has eased into a so-called “game manager” mode in the postseason, averaging just 199 yards passing in Denver’s two wins but also committing zero turnovers. The Broncos seem to think he could be ready to cut it loose a bit Sunday, though. Coach Gary Kubiak on Thursday told Peter King (serving as the Pro Football Writers’ pool reporter this week) that “This is as good as [Manning has] looked all year long.”

Said wide receiver Demaryius Thomas: “Well, now he’s healthy and you can see a difference. He was able to step through, throw the ball with all his strength. Before, he had foot problems and it was tough to put pressure on it, but now you can see he’s good, he’s able to do everything he wants to do and you can see that difference.”

Manning averaged just 6.8 yards per pass attempt during the regular season, his lowest clip since his 1998 rookie year (6.5). That number is down to just 5.8 so far in the postseason.

He may have no choice but to push the envelope at some point because MVP Cam Newton lurks on the other sideline. Newton accounted for four touchdowns (two passing, two rushing) in the Panthers’ NFC title game demolition of Arizona. The NFC champs also boast the league’s top-ranked scoring offense.

VRENTAS: Falcons’ Quinn shares how Atlanta managed to slow down Cam

“Newton is like a combination of two quarterbacks that were great quarterbacks in this league,” said Denver defensive lineman Antonio Smith. “He’s got the escape ability of a QB like Michael Vick and a body frame like QB Ben Roethlisberger where people are bouncing off of you left and right.”

Will the Broncos be able to formulate a plan that keeps Newton in check? Can Manning match the Panthers’ scoring prowess if they don’t?

Carolina’s run game

The idea that a team can “shut down” Newton is a bit of a fallacy. Even in his worst outings this season, he found a way to make a splash play or two—his skill set allows him to excel outside the construct of the general Xs and Os. Find a way to slow the Panthers’ run game, though, and there will be opportunities to put Newton in third-and-long spots.

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Easier said than done. It is true that Dan Quinn devised an effective game plan when his Falcons beat the Panthers in Week 16, but Jonathan Stewart also did not suit up that day. With Stewart in the lineup, the Panthers boast the NFL’s most dynamic, difficult-to-prepare-for rushing attack in the league.

“First I think you have to stop the run game,” Denver linebacker Brandon Marshall said. “You want to stop Stewart, Mike Tolbert and those guys. Make Cam Newton make the decisions—and I think he’s made a lot of great decisions—but if those guys are running the ball then you can forget about it.”

Carolina has rushed for 100-plus yards in 27 straight games, by far the longest active streak. (Buffalo is second at six games.)

The effectiveness of Denver’s safeties

T.J. Ward suffered a high-ankle sprain and Darian Stewart a sprained MCL in the Broncos’ AFC championship win over New England. Both players took full part in practices on Thursday and Friday after being limited Wednesday.

There is no downplaying the importance of those developments. Against this offense and this quarterback, the safeties must excel.

“Huge, man, our safeties are definitely huge,” said Denver cornerback Aqib Talib. “With those two guys in there, with as much as this team runs the football, they will get a lot of action. You want your guns, you want your top dogs in there when you are playing a team that can run it with multiple running backs, with receivers running reverses, with the quarterback runs ... we definitely enjoy having those two guys out there with us.”

Stewart ranked third on the team this season with 63 tackles, with Ward just behind him at 61.

Carolina notably does not have a conventional No. 1 receiver, but it does have its unique run game, a dominant tight end in Greg Olsen and several wide receivers capable of taking the top off a defense. Stewart and Ward likely will be asked to do a little bit of everything, with their main focuses being Olsen and the Panthers’ rushing attack.

Thomas Davis’s health

“Without a doubt, I will be there playing on Super Bowl Sunday,” Thomas declared on media day (or “Opening Night,” if you prefer) just eight days after he broke his arm against the Cardinals and a week following surgery to repair the injury. That he’s ready to roll vs. Denver is incredible. Should he prove to be his usual self, it would be borderline miraculous.

“It looked like he was moving around fine,” Luke Kuechly said of Davis’s Wednesday practice. “I don’t know if he really hit anyone with that arm, but he looked good, looked like he was flying around out there and looked confident in everything.”

• KAPLAN: Inside Panthers DT Lotulelei’s journey from Tonga to SB50

The questions about Davis’s physical capabilities will linger into the game. Can he wrap up and finish tackles? Can he shed blockers on a blitz? What happens if he tries to jam a tight end in pass coverage?

Carolina could crank up Shaq Thompson’s snap count if need be—he played 54 snaps with Davis exiting early two weeks ago, up from the four snaps he saw against Seattle in the divisional round.

Denver’s running back split

The Broncos are 11–0 this year when C.J. Anderson receives double-digit rushing attempts and just 3–4 when he doesn’t. Might seem like it would be simple enough, then, just to feed Anderson out of the gate. However, the Broncos have stayed committed to Ronnie Hillman, as well—he rushed 207 times to Anderson’s 152 during the regular season.

“Hillman, I think, is more speed, and C.J. Anderson brings a lot of power,” said Carolina safety Kurt Coleman. “The yardage that they have gained this season is almost equal, but what they do is different. They’re very versatile.”

For as potent as Carolina’s front is, it has been worn down at times late in games. Denver doing so Sunday would seem to point more toward Anderson’s more punishing style. He also would be more of a load for a perhaps one-armed Davis to handle, should those two convene somewhere around the tackle box.

Both Anderson and Hillman are capable receivers, having combined for 49 catches during the regular season. Again, though, Anderson was more effective: 7.3 yards per catch to 4.6 for Hillman.

The tight ends

Save for Rob Gronkowski, there is not a tight end in the league who has frustrated defenses quite as consistently as Carolina’s Greg Olsen. “He’s a huge matchup issue,” Denver cornerback Bradley Roby said. “He has good route-running and he has decent speed that people kind of underestimate. ... He is Cam’s biggest target, so he’s going to get the ball.”

Olsen set a career high this season with 1,104 yards receiving, on 77 catches. He then scored against Seattle in the divisional round and hung 113 yards on Arizona.

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Of course, Denver just saw Gronkowski two weeks ago. The Patriots tight end caught eight of 15 targets for 144 yards and a touchdown, but he had to fight for every inch of space he found. Denver’s defense made him a focal point, varying its coverages so just about every linebacker and DB had a crack at it over the course of the game, often with multiple Broncos eyeing Gronk.

The Broncos likely will take a similar approach Sunday, although the Newton/Stewart run combo has a way of drawing focus from Olsen. The Panthers’ play actions are extremely effective at clearing space for their tight end, up the seams as well as into the flat.

Olsen’s counterpart, Owen Daniels, has just 43 yards receiving in the postseason but he scored twice in the AFC title game. Manning trusts him, no surprise given Daniels’ long history in Gary Kubiak’s offense.

“Well, sure I knew Owen was going to be a big part of this team,” Manning said. “I definitely thought he’d have a huge role in this offense, and he was awesome against the Patriots two weeks ago—had two textbook, classic routes, double move-type routes that he executed to a ‘T.’”

Vernon Davis, on the other hand, has not caught a ball since a Week 15 loss to Pittsburgh. The Broncos’ splashy mid-season acquisition has been a disappointment thus far. A surprising Super Bowl showing would change that review.

Carolina’s rebuilt secondary

Much more on this duo here, but Cortland Finnegan and Robert McClain have become unlikely keys to the Panthers’ defense. 

Injuries to Bene Benwikere and Charles Tillman, though, left the Panthers with no choice but to venture outside the organization for help. They found some in Finnegan, who announced his unofficial retirement in March; and in McClain, whom the Patriots cut loose just before Week 1. 

• ​MURPHY: Eugene Robinson shares his cautionary tale with Panthers

Are they up for one more challenge? Assuming Manning tries to avoid Josh Norman, much like he more or less did with Richard Sherman in Super Bowl XLVIII, the Finnegan/McClain tandem will be under pressure. And especially Finnegan, who mans the slot, where Emmanuel Sanders figures to see significant action. 

Manning may no longer be the QB he once was, but he can take advantage if his receivers run circles around Carolina’s late-season cornerback additions.

Bad experience vs. no experience

The Broncos just danced the chaotic Super Bowl dance two years ago, a trip which ended in a blowout loss to the Seahawks. Does merely playing in that game help them better prepare this time around, given that they know what to expect coming in?

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They have an edge there on the Panthers, despite how loose the NFC champs continue to be. Super Bowl week is non-stop and unlike anything else these players face over the course of a season. And it can take a toll if a team’s not careful.

“The description I gave to the players is this is an event,” Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. “This is an event, so when you’re out there embrace the event and become part of it. But I have a friend who said this; be where your feet are."

Those Seahawks rattled the Panthers a few weeks ago, too. After spotting Carolina a 31–0 lead, they stormed back with 24 unanswered points in the second half. Those slip-ups haven’t happened much to Carolina this season, but that near-collapse did remind everyone that even the best teams can play a little tight. The Super Bowl pressure can work in similar vice-like fashion.

The Levi’s Stadium field

Ever since the 49ers’ new home opened for the 2014 season, the playing surface has been an issue. The team has swapped out or resodded the turf multiple times in hopes of getting to the desired quality. But ... ya know ... who can forget Baltimore kicker Justin Tucker missing a field goal earlier this season when the Levi’s Stadium grass collapsed as he planted his left foot?

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The Panthers are no strangers to this sort of topic. Seahawks players slipped all over the place early in that divisional-round game, after a resodding over part of the Bank of America Stadium field.

The NFL has enough issues without having its 50th Super Bowl decided, in some fashion, by a shoddy playing surface.

Riverboat Ron

For all the talk of Rivera’s willingness to roll the dice, the Panthers decided to go for it on just 10 fourth downs all regular season—one ahead of the league low. (Winning most of the time played a role in that tally.)

Where Rivera did gamble a bit this season was in his use of the challenge flag. No coach threw it more (14 times) or won more challenges (nine) than Rivera did this season. By contrast, Denver’s Gary Kubiak challenged five calls, winning twice.

Doesn’t sound all that important in the grand scheme of things, but if a quick challenge trigger is required on a bang-bang play, odds are Rivera will be the one firing.

Bonus: The halftime show

That’s what we’re all here for after all, right? Well, that and the commercials and the Lady Gaga national anthem.

Coldplay will take center stage at halftime, later joined by Beyonce and Bruno Mars—both of whom have headlined their own Super Bowl shows. Beyonce’s mesmerizing New Orleans performance came just a short while before most of the Superdome’s power went out, so hopefully we can avoid a repeat of that.

The extended halftime is yet another element the teams must deal with Sunday, as it tends to run almost double the normal break.

“I was teasing coach (Rivera): ‘You need to let us out early so we can go see Beyoncé,’ you know what I’m saying?” Newton joked earlier in the week. “Nope. Just trying to find any way to stay on rhythm as possible, I think that’s going to be key.”

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