For a change, I am not spending a big chunk of my Saturday to write a really detailed Super Bowl preview on here, because I already contributed to one on Football Outsiders yesterday with Vincent Verhei. Please read that.
I did a lot of the intro, outlook and the section on Carolina’s offense vs. Denver’s defense in that one. I also wrote three other pieces this week in preparation for Super Bowl 50:
- Film Room: Big Pass Plays and Super Bowl 50
- Solving the Peyton Playoff Puzzle: Part I
- Solving the Peyton Playoff Puzzle: Part II
How much more really needs to be said? A seemingly record number of people are expecting Carolina to win anyway. While last year’s Super Bowl was about as 50/50 as it gets, both in the pre-game buildup and the actual outcome itself, this year is heavily slanted towards Carolina winning its first Super Bowl.
While Carolina should be the favorite and it feels like the Panthers should win, I still can see Denver pulling it off. Defense wins championships, right? The only problem is while Denver may have the best defense, Carolina is right behind them, and the offense is better. Every version of the Denver offense this year, whether it’s with a healthy Peyton Manning, Brock Osweiler, an injured Manning or a conservative Manning at QB, has not been good. Yeah, there was a great game against Green Bay, but I’m talking about the overall picture. Now when you make this offense play the best defense it has seen all season, that’s a tough task. Carolina has more flexibility in ways to win this game, but greater upsets have happened before.
Key to the Game: Turnover Battle
From my Super Bowl XLVIII preview: “Turnovers are always huge in the Super Bowl. This is an area that strongly favors Seattle, which is +20 in turnover differential this season compared to 0 for Denver.”
Welp, not much has changed two years later. Carolina is a league-best +20 in turnover differential and Denver is minus-4. I cannot see Denver winning this game without winning the turnover battle. At most, the Broncos can afford one turnover in this game (assuming it’s minimal damage), which is probably going to happen since Carolina leads the league in takeaways. Whether it’s a random fumble or forcing Cam Newton into mistakes via pressure, the Broncos have to get the ball in some good field position for the offense. The offense absolutely cannot put the defense in bad spots with turnovers. That is what Carolina feasts on as it led the league in points scored off turnovers. The Panthers had the second-best starting field position in the league. This is not a legit No. 1 offense, but it can definitely score in the red zone (one area where Denver is nothing special) and take advantage of your mistakes.
A bad start for Denver and the turnovers could come in bunches to make this a rout, but I really think this is a different team than the 43-8 disaster from two years ago.
But the easiest way to get a repeat of that game is to have turnovers. That is why a conservative approach to start the game may not be such a bad thing. Just getting the first snap off correctly this time would help. Two years ago, the Broncos were down 2-0 before even getting to run a real play. They were down 5-0 before Manning registered his first dropback. They were down 8-0 before he threw an incomplete pass. They were down 15-0 after his first mistake of the game (interception after quick edge pressure). They were down 22-0 after the second big mistake (the pick-six play after another quick edge pressure). Throw in Percy Harvin’s kick return TD to start the third quarter and the game was already over.
Denver needs to weather the early storm here, even if it means two three-and-outs to start the game. No early turnovers.
If Denver’s Offense Has a Chance…
More often than not, your team’s weaknesses bite you in the playoffs. For Denver, that would be the offensive line getting overwhelmed, stalling the run game and hurrying Manning into mistakes and sacks.
Carolina has a fast defense with studs up front, at linebacker and Josh Norman in the secondary. This is a really tough matchup, but I do see three reasons for hope that Denver can play a decent game against this unit.
Everyone always compares Manning with Tom Brady on everything, but pressure is one area where I think people get it wrong. “You have to get interior pressure on Brady; he hates it the most because he can sidestep edge pressure, but he can’t step up in the pocket with guys in his face.” Fair enough, but for slow-footed quarterbacks, any quick edge pressure is still going to be a problem. You saw Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware converge on Brady at times in the AFC Championship Game.
I can give you an encyclopedia-like recall of Manning’s big losses when pressure was a problem, and it was essentially always quick edge pressure. We know he can get rid of the ball quickly, but when those guys are coming off the edge, even he can get sacked, or worse, hit as he throws for an interception. That happened to him three times in 2013 alone: 4QC attempt in Indy, 4QC attempt vs. San Diego and the aforementioned pick-six in Super Bowl XLVIII. Do you want more? Try Willie McGinnest unblocked on opening night in 2004. In 2005, it was San Diego’s Shawne Merriman and Pittsburgh’s Joey Porter causing the biggest problems off the edge. In 2007, Merriman beat Tony Ugoh at LT on a crucial fourth-and-goal play in the playoffs. In 2008, Tim Dobbins got around Gijon Robinson (forgot the snap count) to sack Manning on a 3rd-and-2 that could have ended the game.
It’s always the edge pressure, but Carolina does not have that great edge rusher. Jared Allen started 12 games this year, but he only has 2 sacks. This is not vintage Jared Allen, who is expecting to play after a recent injury.
Carolina’s best rush comes from the defensive line, and it’s defensive tackle Kawann Short, who had a breakout year with 11 sacks. You saw Short and the interior force Russell Wilson into that early pick-six a few weeks ago. But Denver’s strength up front is the interior guards with Evan Mathis and Louis Vasquez. If center Matt Paradis can hold up too, I don’t think Short is going to dominate this game like he could against a team like Seattle. Again, when has interior pressure owned Manning? I simply can’t recall it. It’s always the edges, which are not immune here, but that’s not where Carolina’s strength is this season. There isn’t a Julius Peppers on this defense.
Dictate Matchups in the Secondary
Josh Norman talks a big game and has backed it up with a breakout year. However, what bugs me about these corners is when they don’t shadow receivers all over the field. You move a guy into the slot and Norman treats it like a high-radiation area in Fallout 4. He stays away. That is why I think Denver can dictate its matchups against this secondary, which isn’t very good outside of Norman.
Norman can only cover one of Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders at a time to begin with, but Denver should always be able to get their guy away from Norman by putting him in the slot, unless Carolina breaks tendency and has Norman shadow. On each play, I would have one of Sanders or Thomas in the slot. I don’t think Manning will challenge Norman a ton, but he’s not going to pull a 2010 Jets and just throw one pass to his main guy like he did to Reggie Wayne that night against Darrelle Revis. I think it’s a mistake to just submit to that matchup. Norman is not unbeatable, and I think Thomas’ size and Sanders’ speed can give him some problems. Thomas has been very disappointing this season, but maybe he lives up to the big contract with a memorable Super Bowl. It doesn’t even need to be 10-150-1, but just one big touchdown play like Julio Jones made in Week 16 against Carolina could be the difference. I said Denver should copy that game’s formula: shrink possessions by running a lot, do well on third downs and play great pass defense against Cam and challenge these receivers. Jones’ big play was the difference. Thomas can make that play if he plays up to his talent level.
Still, Sanders would be my main target (10+ times). If they can find ways to match Sanders up with Robert McClain (targeted like crazy since he was unemployed recently) or Cortland Finnegan, then Denver could be in good shape.
Then again, this secondary just held Arizona’s prolific trio of Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown and Michael Floyd to 9-of-23 for 90 yards. How much of that was Carson Palmer shitting the bed? Hard to say, but Wilson found some receivers wide open the week before once pressure calmed down. Manning has overthrown the deep balls all year, but he needs to hit one or two here.
Denver has tried to get everyone involved in the playoffs. Manning targeted 10 receivers against Pittsburgh and 11 against New England. I still like Bennie Fowler as the WR3, but it could be Jordan Norwood, Cody Latimer or Andre Caldwell at this point.
If there is a concern with this matchup, it would be throwing over the middle should that pressure up the middle come. Manning may get picked by Luke Kuechly, who has been great at that this year. But on the edges and seams, Denver should be able to dictate things better this week.
Bye Week and Health
Manning obviously needs all the rest he can get at this point of his career. His best game of the season was after the bye week against Green Bay. If that Manning shows up, Denver would be the favorites, but that was like a one-night thing this year. He also looked very sharp against Pittsburgh after the bye week, but 7-9 drops from his receivers hurt the stat line. If the receivers are catching what they should and Manning’s sharp again, then Gary Kubiak can open up the offense a bit more. I feel they play extra conservative at home, relying more on the crowd noise and defense.
On the other side, Thomas Davis (broken arm) is probably the big injury heading into this one. You can’t have a Super Bowl without a player trying to play with a serious injury. Those teams usually tend to lose too, because you need your best players healthy. Davis is the second-best linebacker on this team, but definitely a big part of the defense’s success. What’s going to happen if he whiffs on a tackle of C.J. Anderson or can’t pick off a pass that hits him? That arm could be a factor.
Denver should stick with the run regardless of effectiveness (target: 30 carries for 100 yards). Challenge Davis physically and see what happens if it’s still close in the fourth quarter. That’s what the Broncos need to do: get this one to the fourth quarter with a shot to win.
I would be a little surprised if this game was not competitive in the late stages. The only loss this year for Denver that was a blowout was Week 10 vs. Kansas City. Manning was injured and shouldn’t have played, and the same can be said for Sanders. Aqib Talib was suspended for his stupid eye poke the week before. Ware was out. Not to make excuses, but that game has no predictive power for Sunday night. It was the worst game of Manning’s career, but it was health related and KC pressured him over 50% of the time, which is unheard of. Since returning in Week 17, Manning has looked healthier and more capable of moving in the pocket, playing from under center, doing a rare bootleg, etc.. Otherwise, Denver lost to Oakland in a 15-12 game. That would not happen with a healthy Manning. He’s undefeated in games he finishes when his teams allow 0-16 points. There was the loss in Indy where the Broncos rallied from 17-0 down to a tie before losing 27-24. Then the Broncos blew a 17-point lead in Pittsburgh in a 34-27 loss. Again, not to make excuses, but Denver’s top three safeties were out and David Bruton played 70+ snaps with a broken leg. You saw the Patriots start to hit some plays down the field in the fourth quarter when Darian Stewart and T.J. Ward were both out with injuries. Their healthy returns for this SB are big. Safety play killed Arizona against Carolina, so Denver is going to need those guys to make a difference and not get fooled by watching Newton in the backfield.
Comebacks are rare in the Super Bowl, but both of these teams have erased multiple double-digit deficits this year, including three Denver wins after trailing by 14 points.
Peyton Manning’s Legacy
I had to go back and read what I said two years ago when Denver was in the Super Bowl. I even had the same section heading before getting to my final prediction. At that time, I was definitely thinking more about what I wanted to see instead of what I expected to see from that game. I knew the only reason the Broncos were favored to beat Seattle was because of the season Manning had. The Seahawks were the better team. Denver didn’t have Von Miller or Chris Harris active. They never really breathed on Wilson that night. Manning needed to play a perfect game to win, and everything went off the rails from the first snap.
While a win and superb game that night would have been the ultimate way to retire on top, I don’t think retirement was as necessary for Manning two years ago. He could still play at a high level, as he did for the first half of the 2014 season. But watching the end of that season and this season, it is evident that Manning should retire after this game, win or lose. He hasn’t said it yet, but it just feels like such an obvious decision. His body cannot handle the grind of a full season anymore. The physical limitations are too much on the field now, and that’s why he’s needed this great defense to get to this point. I don’t think Kubiak’s done him a ton of favors by changing the offense, but Manning simply cannot do what he’s always done so well at a consistent level.
So more than ever I’m going into this game wanting to see him win, but knowing it’s an unlikely outcome. Carolina is favored for good reasons this time, and the ineffectiveness of this Denver offense is one of them.
It’s too Hollywood for Manning to have one last vintage performance and become the oldest quarterback to win a Super Bowl, then promptly retire at midfield. It’s possible though, just not probable. And it feels like the few people picking Denver are picking them for this reason (well, this and that defense). It’d be a great story.
It would also be a great way to further prove how winning Super Bowls are about team play. Manning could win a ring after having the worst season of his career. Sure, it may take a great Super Bowl performance from him to ultimately earn it — and he will have earned this ring– but he is never at this point without a full team effort, from the defense right down to backup Brock Osweiler keeping the team at a winning pace.
People want to compare this to past Super Bowls, I say look at the 1997 Broncos vs. Packers. Brett Favre was shooting for his second ring after his third MVP and was the hottest QB in the league. John Elway was old and still looking for his first ring as a huge underdog in the big game. Elway did not even play a good game by any means, but we all remember the helicopter spin he did, and how Terrell Davis carried the offense with an MVP performance. Denver pulled off the upset, and that might be the way to do it again this week. Have someone like C.J. Anderson step up as the MVP. Let Manning just manage the game instead of putting everything on his shoulders like his past Super Bowls.
Getting a second ring, a winning playoff record (14-13), maybe another game MVP award, and becoming the first QB to win Super Bowls with different teams would all be an outstanding way for Manning to walk away from the game. However, he’s probably best equipped to get those things by doing less and getting more from his teammates. Doing less should not enhance your legacy, but that’s the kind of odd situation we arrive at when it comes to rings.
If anyone ever deserved a break in the playoffs and a win on the backs of his teammates, it’s Manning.
I just want to see a good game, but I’m not overly confident about that.