The Panthers have lost one game all season, they very likely have the league’s MVP at QB, and they are six point favorites. A Super Bowl victory seems like destiny. Can Denver become yet another underdog to steal the show?
It’s strange to say after having such low expectations for them, but it seems like the Panthers have it all: a rabid, star-studded defense (Luke Kuechly, Josh Norman) with an eye for the ball (1st in takeaways), a relentlessly physical offense (1st in points scored, 1st in rushing yards), and a QB who can do it all and make it look easy (1st in Cam Newtons). It’s not hard to see them winning the Super Bowl. Unfortunately for them, we’ve seen this movie before (Super Bowl XLII, XXXIX, XXX, etc.). Denver is here for a reason and they have what it takes to pull off the upset.
My focus isn’t special; it’s what everyone else will be watching: Denver’s defense. Wade Phillips dialed up a fantastic game plan to stifle Tom Brady’s machine-like passing offense in the AFC Championship. The Broncos’ D has been incredible all season, widely regarded as the best in the league.
You know what hasn’t been a problem for Carolina? Top-ranked defenses. Carolina ripped through Seattle (2nd in total yards allowed) and Arizona (5th), hanging 31 and 49 on them respectively. If Denver lets the Panthers get anywhere near those numbers, I don’t see them having a shot. My mind just cannot allow me to envision a scenario where Peyton Manning wins a shootout with Cam Newton. Instead, it will take another masterful plan from Phillips and some game-changing defensive plays to keep Denver in it. And believe it or not, we’ve seen it done before against Carolina.
The Panthers’ one loss wasn’t the result of an offensive shootout or an epic comeback. It was a game they never controlled and in an environment that wasn’t their own. The Atlanta Falcons, an average team with an average defense (16th), suffocated Carolina’s high-octane offense in the most simple way possible: don’t let that offense have the ball. The Falcons dominated the time of possession, allowing the Panthers to keep the ball for a measly 24:22. That’s down from an average of 36:08 on the season. They kept drives alive (9/15 on third down) and killed Carolina’s (4/10). A forced fumble on Carolina’s last drive sealed the deal. The perfect season was dead.
Keep Carolina in a low-scoring struggle and the script can be flipped awfully quick. Denver’s defense is vastly more talented than Atlanta’s, but so was Seattle’s and Arizona’s. Can they finally do what the others didn’t and push Cam off the field on third down? It’s not impossible to score without the ball, but it’s sure as hell a lot tougher. Peyton scoring around 20 points on the Panther’s defense? With enough time, that’s not far-fetched at all. I can see a 20-17 result falling Denver’s way.
But, as is tradition when spending an entire post defending one team, my official prediction will fall the other way. I’ve picked against Carolina all season, including their past two games. Each and every week they have made me look a fool and in increasingly convincing ways. Seeing Carolina pluck apart what I thought was the most complete team in the NFL (Arizona) was the breaking point. The Panthers can just move the ball so fast and they dance while doing so. For the guy who has been all smiles, I expect the biggest grin of all when the clock hits triple zeros.
Carolina Panthers 28 Denver Broncos 17