Well everyone, this is it. The moment we have all waited for. The moment few of us, if any thought possible in August 2015. We near the eve of Super Bowl 50, where our NFC Champion Carolina Panthers (17-1) will do battle with the AFC Champion Denver Broncos (14-4). It's been over a week and a half since we last saw the Panthers deliver a brutal dissection of the Arizona Cardinals, though the fun of Super Bowl week has brought the excitement back to its frenzied height.
All of the talk on the numerous media days covering the biggest single day in American sports will come to a head this Sunday evening. The Panthers top ranked offense with Cam Newton at the helm will take on the top ranked defense with Von Miller commanding. Something will have to give, and it will be up to Newton and the offensive coaching staff to deliver this team to the destiny it has been inexorably moving towards all season long.
With that, let's take one last look at the offensive matchup for the 2015-16 season.
Panthers Passing Offense
The Panthers will have their work cut out for them on Sunday. Not only do the Denver Broncos have a nasty pass rush with guys like LB's Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, they also boast perhaps the deepest secondary when it comes to talent in the NFL, especially at CB. QB Cam Newton will have to be extremely careful with the ball, as guys like CB Aqib Talib, Chris Harris, and Bradley Roby will be prowling about in the defensive backfield. All three corners have played extremely well all season, and have been a key cog in the defensive machine that Broncos DC Wade Phillips has been able to create this year. Their pass rush combined with the exceptional coverage ability of the Broncos secondary makes them extremely difficult to play against. New England Patriots QB Tom Brady found this out in the AFC Championship game. Brady was under near constant pressure the entire game, taking four sacks, numerous hits, and being hurried throughout the game.
The key to the pass game will be the Panthers offensive line and how they react to the scheme of the Broncos defense. Many on CSR have noted two key differences between the Patriots offense and the Panthers. A) while he is a prolific passer, Tom Brady is no mobile QB, and as such cannot make things happen with his legs (very often at least) when flushed from the pocket, and B) the Panthers OL, notably our interior guys, are much better than the Patriots OL. The Patriots had a hard time bracing against the interior pass rush of the Broncos front seven. DE's Derek Wolfe, Malik Jackson and DT Sylvester Williams anchor the front three of the Broncos 3-4 base defense, and they have done an excellent job of creating a lot of opportunities for the Broncos LB's to cut into the backfield. While Panthers T's Michael Oher and Mike Remmers will have their hands full on the edge, it will be up to G's Trai Turner, Andrew Norwell and C Ryan Kalil to keep a clean pocket for Newton to step into and out of to make throws. If the strength of our line, the interior, fails to hold up against the Broncos interior rush, it will make anything we try to do through the air nearly impossible. While Newton can make magic happen while on the run, it isn't what our offensive gameplan should strictly be.
I have faith that if our OL can give Newton time that our receivers, mainly TE Greg Olsen will find ways to get open against the Broncos mainly man defense. It will also be key for WR Ted Ginn to stretch the field. Nobody on the Broncos defense has the speed to keep up with him if he gets open on go routes. None of this will mean anything though if the Panthers OL can't keep the pocket clean. If the Panthers can do that and buy Newton time, these receivers can get open and find holes in the man coverage, much like they did against the Cardinals.
Panthers Rushing Offense
This is where things will get interesting. The main strength of the offense will be pitted against the strongest part of the Broncos defense. Through two games in the postseason, RB Jonathan Stewart has 189 yards through two games. The Broncos on the other hand are allowing only 65 YPG through two games. Like I said above, something has to give. Someone will have to win this matchup, and I believe the key once again will be the Panthers OL. The Broncos down linemen are good run stuffers, and have done a terrific job creating opportunities for the Broncos LB's to make a play on the RB. We all know how much of a tough runner Stewart is, and that his second effort can result in 2-3 yards more after initial contact. But the Broncos have done an excellent job limiting opposing teams when it comes to rushing yards. A silver lining to all of this is the Broncos have faced two teams this postseason who have literally nothing of note in the run game. The Steelers were down to a 3rd stringer after former Panther DeAngelo Williams was forced to sit out, and the Patriots were one-dimensional, using a dug up fossil of a RB in Steven Jackson to try to keep the Broncos defense honest. Neither team was able to impose their will on the ground because of those limiting factors.
The Panthers run game is a totally different animal. Not only do the Broncos have to contend with a better blocking OL and TE's, but they have to deal with a terrific north-south back, a human wrecking ball, and Cam Newton. This isn't me trying to say the Broncos rush defense is bad, simply that they have not faced a rushing attack to the likes of the Panthers. This won't be a cake walk, the Broncos have shown during the regular season that they can stop the run. The Panthers have also shown it doesn't matter who their opponent is, they will run the ball down your throat and you will like it. I think the Panthers can impose their will on the ground, and when they do, it will make things much easier in the passing game.
We are almost there folks. I am still having trouble believing we are actually playing in this game. No matter what the result, it has been a tremendous year. We have had, literally nothing but highs since week 1. No matter what, we will always remember this year an amazingly unrealistic dream of a season brought to life before our eyes, and that this 2015 Panthers squad is the best to ever take the turf in black and blue. I believe in this team. I believe they will win this game. Many on the outside believe this is Peyton Manning's game to win, as it might be his last. I might be inclined to think the same if the Panthers weren't his opponent, but since we are, it has given me another angle to consider. This is Manning's 4th rodeo in the Super Bowl. As a franchise, this is only the Panther's second shot (meanwhile this is the Broncos eighth shot, tying a league record). Manning has had his opportunities, and the Broncos as an organization have had too many as it is. This is the Panthers year, it has been since the beginning of this opening week kickoff. We have defied so many odds that it seems impossible we won't go all the way. We are only 60 minutes away from glory, and from this team entering the annals of NFL history as one of the greatest teams the league has seen. Just Keep Pounding for one more game fellas.