Who IS Darth Vader Anyway?: Super Bowl 50 Preview & Prediction
By Ha Kung Wong
So here we are with only one game left in the 2015 NFL season, Super Bowl 50.
We have Peyton Manning versus Cam Newton. One will be going to the Super Bowl for the fourth time and may be in his last game of his career helming a team that may be drastically different next year. And the other is in his first Super Bowl, just at the beginning of his career, on a team rife with talent with much more to come in the future. In fact, Manning and Newton have the greatest age disparity between starting QBs in a Super Bowl ever. But we know that age isn’t everything.
Of course, this legendary matchup reminds me of another legendary matchup, perhaps one of my favorites from a kid. Which matchup, you ask? Well it’s the Empire versus the Rebel Alliance from Star Wars, of course! What? That wasn’t the first thing you thought of? Well, hear me out for second.
In some ways, we like to think of Peyton Manning and the Broncos as the underdog Rebel Alliance. They were basically written off during the regular season once Manning was injured and Brock Osweiler showed his true colors by falling apart in basically ever second half that he ever played. And in fact, according to Vegas, the Panthers are favored by 5.5 points, so the Broncos truly are underdogs. Plus, with Manning being the legendary nice guy (though his Papa John’s commercials are beginning to become annoying, to say the least), most people want to see him ride off into the sunset with a legendary Super Bowl win. So, the Broncos are the Rebel Alliance, right?
Well, if you think about it some more, there are more parallels to be drawn between the Rebel Alliance and the Panthers. Peyton Manning, after all, is a representative of the old guard. He’s had a Super Bowl win (where he was the MVP), 4 AFC Conference Championships, and 14 Pro Bowl appearances. He’s dominated the NFL for so long, that it’s hard to remember a time before Manning was in the league. Kind of like how the Empire dominated the galaxy. Well, at least a long time ago in a galaxy far far away. But I digress.
Cam Newton, on the other hand, is representative of the new guard. He’s young, he’s had a breakout year passing and running the ball, he carried the Panthers to a 15-1 regular season, and heck, he dabs (which, by the way, originates from Atlanta rap groups, not Clemson coach Dabo Swinney).
Cam just dabbing pic.twitter.com/kSXO58BVwc
— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) October 18, 2015
Cam is awesome and fun. And not in a “I hum Nationwide theme songs to cool jingles” sort of way (which, by the way, I really do like), but a “kick down the door and let’s party” sort of way (hopefully without any Dannon Oikos Yogurt). Like I said, this is the largest age gap between starting Super Bowl QBs in the NFL ever. And if you go back in time to the beginning of the season, the odds makers had the Denver Broncos at 9-to-1 to win the Super Bowl, good for 6th overall. And where were the Panthers? All the way down at 23rd with 60-to-1 odds, behind teams like the Dolphins, Lions and Rams. Kind of like the Rebel Alliance. I’m pretty sure they were at best 60-to-1 odds at beating the Empire in Star Wars. At least until that whiney Luke Skywalker finally decided to go get some training and stop loitering with his friends looking at power converters at Tosche station. On the other hand, Vegas also had the Eagles at 5th for winning Super Bowl 50, so hey, what do they know anyway, right?
My point is that depending on what side you’re on, Darth Vader can be on either team. It really depends on how you look at it. But the regardless of which side you’re on, this will definitely be a “Return of the Jedi” sized showdown. Notice I skipped mentioning the Star Wars prequels? Yeah, that was entirely intentional.
Carolina Panthers vs. Denver Broncos
Sunday, February 7, 2016 at 6:30 PM ET
Keys for the Broncos
As we discussed for the Conference Championship, the key for the Broncos is their defense. During the regular season, the Broncos defense allowed the LEAST passing yards per game (200.0), least yards per attempt (6.2), and had the most total sacks (52) while also allowing the 3rd least rushing yards per game (83.6) and least rushing yards per attempt (3.3). Against the Patriots, DaMarcus Ware turned back time and Von Miller demonstrated why he was the second overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft as they relentless pressured Tom Brady throughout the game, knocking him down a record 23 times. But perhaps just as important is making sure the offense doesn’t sputter too badly.
After the Broncos barely moved the ball against the Steelers in the Divisional Round, who allowed the 3rd most passing yards of any team in the NFL this season, they surprisingly did just enough to win against the Patriots 20-18. Most impressively, Peyton Manning completed 17 of 32 passes for 176 yards, 2 TDs and, most importantly, no INTs. That’s two straight games without an INT for a QB that threw more INTs than TDs during the regular season. There was a questionable fumble based on a overruled lateral, but otherwise, the Broncos took good care of the ball.
Regardless of their recent performance, Denver’s offense is not particularly good. They had the 14th most passing yards per game (248), 5th least passing TDs (19) and most INTs in the league (23) during the regular season. But although they had the 16th least rushing yards per game (107.4) behind an underperforming CJ Anderson and inconsistent Ronnie Hillman, they were at least tied for 11th most yards per rush (4.2), so there is a little hope. And Anderson showed additional signs of life against the Patriots to the tune of 4.5 yards per carry on 16 carries. Unfortunately for Anderson and the Broncos, the Carolina Panthers defense has allowed the 4th least rushing yards per game this year (88.4), and managed to almost completely shut down David Johnson and Andre Ellington to the tune of 60 total rush yards in the NFC Conference Championship. In fact, if you take Johnson’s 23 yard run out of the equation, the Cardinals were just 2.46 yards per carry. A tough pill to swallow for the Broncos, who beat the Patriots with an almost completely balanced attack (30 carries to 32 pass attempts).
I’d expect the Broncos to again attack with a balance offense, so as to control the clock, control field position and give their defense as many breathers as possible. But for this to be effective, Anderson and Hillman will need to find some space to run. In addition, the Broncos will have to be creative about moving Demaryius Thomas around. They can ill afford to let Carolina take Thomas out of the game like New England did in the AFC Conference Championship (where he was limited to only 2 receptions for just 12 yards). Assuming no INTs, and creative use of offensive formations, the Broncos do have a chance at beating the best scoring offense in the NFL.
Keys for the Panthers
But let’s not forget that the Panthers truly are a juggernaut. Not only are they the best scoring offense in the league this year, but the Panthers defense had the most total INTs and had the best turnover ratio (+20) during the regular season. LB Thomas Davis, who had a breakout year with 5.5 sacks and 4 INTs this season, broke his right arm during the Conference Championship, but had surgery the following day and vows that he’ll be able to play in the Super Bowl. Although his absence would be a blow to the Panthers defense if he doesn’t play, I won’t be too concerned as long as Luke Kuechly is in. Clearly, he’s the heart and soul of that defense.
On offense, Cam Newton is clearly the master of ceremonies. He was unstoppable dismantling the Cardinals defense with 335 passing yards, 2 passing TDs, 47 rush yards and 2 rushing TDs. He managed to get the dynamic Cory Brown more involved with 4 receptions (one of which went to the house on 86 yards), peppered his old safety blanket Greg Olsen with 6 receptions for 113 yards, and spread things around, handing off to Ted Ginn Jr. for a TD and throwing to Devin Funchess for a TD. In addition, Jonathan Stewart followed up a strong Divisional game against the Seahawks (106 yards and 2 TDs) with another strong effort against the Cardinals (88 total yards). And there was no letting up on the Cardinals as they did against the Seahawks the week before, as they absolutely annihilated the Cardinals 49 to 15.
As we’ve discussed before, regardless of the fact that Cam Newton is now practically synonymous with “Panthers Offense”, it’s clear that Jonathan Stewart is important. A tweaked ankle held him out of practice prior to the Conference Championship, and continued to hold him out of practice all last week, but no one seems to be worried. It’ll be important for him to suit up against the tough Broncos run defense, if for nothing else, to give Newton more options to move the ball.
And I don’t mean simply handing the ball to Stewart, as Newton has been very efficient running the ball himself, particularly when Stewart was also present. Newton had 636 total rush yards, good for best among QBs, and 10 rushing TDs, tied for 5th among all NFL players. Only RBs DeAngelo Williams, Adrian Peterson, Jeremy Hill and Devonta Freeman had more rushing TDs (11). And although the Panthers have had the 9th least passing yards per game (224), don’t let that fool you, as they’ve actually tied for 3rd most total passing TDs (35).
Cam Newton will have to continue to be careful with the ball, but he’s much improved in the second half of the season. In fact, over the last 10 games, including against the Seahawks in the Divisional Round and against the Cardinals in the Conference Championship, Newton has only thrown 2 INTs. And that’s compared to 10 INTs over the first half of the season.
Football Outsiders has the Panthers ranked 4th in total DVOA and the Broncos at 8th. I don’t have any particular love for Peyton Manning, seeing as how his only Super Bowl ring came against my beloved Bears, but I have to admit, winning Super Bowl 50 would make for one heck of a career. And I’d very much like to see that, as I believe Newton is going to have many more chances in the future to collect Super Bowl rings.
The most interesting match up in the game for me is Cam Newton versus Von Miller, aka, the 1st and 2nd picks of the 2011 NFL draft. Newton has been arguably the best offensive player in the NFL and Miller has been arguably one of the best defensive players in the NFL this season. But Newton is much more mobile than Tom Brady, so seeing how Miller and Ware adjust to contain him will be very interesting.
But with that said, it’s tough the see the Panthers offense coming out flat here, especially after running so efficiently throughout the regular season and the playoffs. We’ve seen hot teams derailed in the Super Bowl before (I’m looking at you, almost undefeated Patriots who lost to David Tyree’s “helmet catch”), but I’m hard pressed to see that happening to the Panthers. Winning this game would put Cam Newton is some impressive company, as he will join Joe Namath and Joe Montana as the only two QBs to start and win the top prize in both College and the NFL. And I think he’ll do exactly that.
Carolina Panthers 24 – Denver Broncos 20