For over a decade and a half, the name Peyton Manning has been associated with high powered offenses and lots of points. Now, it seems as though old and age and injuries have finally caught up to the sheriff. Struggles from the quarterback to the offensive line to the backfield have all caused the Broncos offense to sputter throughout various points in the season. That includes this postseason, as the Broncos have totaled just the 9th most yards per game out of the 12 teams that have played in the playoffs. The one thing Denver has done better than they did in the regular season is take care of the football. After turning the ball over 31 times in the regular season, the Broncos have just one giveaway in the postseason.
Taking care of the football has to be a priority for the Broncos going up against this Panthers defense. The team that finished with 6 more takeaways than the second most turnover-producing team has managed to up its game in the playoffs. Through two games, the Panthers have forced an astonishing 9 turnovers against two very good offenses. It's not unwise to predict that they'll be able to force a couple more against the quarterback with by far the highest interception rate in the NFL this season.
Peyton Manning is one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game. He sits atop the list of all time career passing yardage and passing touchdowns while sporting the 5th best career passer rating. Unfortunately for football fans, it looks like his illustrious career is coming to a close. Old age and injuries have sapped any zip from his passes. His lack of arm strength limits the area the Broncos offense can attack and prevents Peyton from fitting the ball into tight windows.
He's taken better care of the ball in the playoffs. In the Broncos' two playoff games, Peyton has tossed 2 touchdowns and hasn't turned the ball over. However, he's still clearly a shadow of his old self and has taken on the title of "game manager." Coming into the Super Bowl, the soon-to-be 40 year old has completed just 55.1% of his postseason passes for a meager 5.77 yards per attempt and 199 yards per game.
Manning is anything but mobile. If the Panthers get push up front, he'll go down very easily. Also this season we've seen Manning make some very questionable decisions over the middle of the field. Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis have a chance to snag a few errant throws across the middle.
Panthers Secondary vs. Broncos Wide Receivers
The Broncos probably have one of the better wide receiving units in the NFL. Unfortunately it's been somewhat overshadowed by shaky quarterback play. Regardless, both receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders went over 1,100 yards receiving during the regular season. Thomas is the physical specimen that can house any pass from anywhere on the field, assuming he catches it. Sanders can wreak havoc out of the slot, which may be the biggest concern for the Panthers.
This isn't the first explosive receiving corps the Panthers have faced in the playoffs. In the NFC Championship game, the Panthers completely shut down what many believed to be the best wide receiver group in the NFL in the Arizona Cardinals. They'll be looking for a repeat performance on Super Sunday. All Pro Josh Norman will probably line up across from Thomas on most every play. With Thomas likely to be held in check by Norman, the rest of the team can focus on limiting Sanders and the rest of the Broncos depth at wide receiver.
Panthers Linebackers vs. Broncos Backs and Tight Ends
Tight end Owen Daniels was the recipient of both of Peyton Manning's touchdown passes against the Patriots. Those also represented his only two catches of the game. Manning likes to use his tight ends in the passing game, but none of the tight ends on this Bronco roster are above average playmakers. They are largely used in the redzone and to occasionally move the chains.
The backfield is shared almost evenly by CJ Anderson and Ronnie Hillman. In the postseason, Anderson has been the more effective of the two and has out-touched Hillman 36 to 28. Anderson has been steady on the ground, averaging 4.6 yards per carry compared to Hillman's 2.0 in the postseason. Both are capable receivers out of the backfield, though Anderson has been utilized more in that capacity in the games leading up to Sunday.
The Panthers have a dynamic duo of their own in this matchup. All Pros Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis make up the best linebacking tandem in the NFL. Their speed and instincts have been causing nightmares for opponents all season long. Davis has been practicing fully, so it appears his broken arm won't be much of an issue come Sunday. As is the case every week, this pairing alone is enough to limit the opponents backs and tight ends in the passing game and the running game. Even still, they are bolstered by the presence of Shaq Thompson when in the base 4-3. The rookie out of Washington has really come into his own and filled in extremely well for Davis after the latter went out with his arm injury against the Cardinals. This is the best linebacker group in the NFL. You know they'll do their jobs.
Panthers Defensive Line vs. Broncos Offensive Line
This is where things get really shaky for the Denver offense. The Broncos front line has struggled all season long. Left guard Evan Mathis has played well and center Matt Paradis hasn't been terrible. The rest of the line though, not so good. They've struggled to open holes in the running game and haven't pass protected well either. If Peyton Manning is forced to hold the ball for any amount of time, he's going to feel a lot of heat.
On the other hand, the Panthers defensive front has turned it up. In their two postseason games, the Panthers have registered 8 sacks. That hasn't come at the expense of the run defense either. Neither the Cardinals nor the Seahawks could maintain a strong running game and were frequently stuffed at the line of scrimmage. Going up against a team that has struggled to block all season, the Panthers front four should be able to make a lot of noise.
The Panthers defense has a clear edge over the Broncos offense. There isn't much one can say to debate that point. Aside from letting Thomas or Sanders break free, there's no reason to expect the Broncos to be able to consistently move the ball against what has been the best defense in the playoffs. If the Panthers defense keeps up what they've been doing, the Panthers will be returning to Charlotte with the Lombardi Trophy for the first time in franchise history.