Friday, February 5, 2016

Your Super Bowl 50 Primer

By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

We're finally here.

We have reached the last weekend of the NFL season, and what a long, strange trip it's been. Both of these teams got off to a hot start and never really looked back; they clinched the No. 1 seed in their respective conferences and then took care of business at home in the playoffs. Now we head to San(ta Clara) Francisco for all the marbles.

There are a ton of fun story lines for this Super Bowl, but we won't waste any time talking about them here, especially when we already spent way too much time earlier this week talking about them on our podcast. Here, we'll just worry about the x's and o's.

In our "By The Numbers" sections for these playoffs, we've been posting records (both straight up and against the spread) for how each team performs at home or on the road (depending on where the game is being played). Here, we've designated both teams as being "home." Historically speaking, teams playing on neutral fields perform closer to how they do at home than how they do on the road. I'm not sure why that is, but that's what I read somewhere. So there.

Denver vs. Carolina (6:30 p.m. Sunday, CBS)

Opening Line: Panthers by 4.5
Current Line: Panthers by 5.5

By The Numbers:

Record: 12-4 Overall; 6-2 Home; 8-6-2 Against The Spread; 3-5 Home
Average Score: 22.2 (19th) - 18.5 (4th)
Average Scoring Margin: +3.7 (10th); 9.7 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: -8.8% Offense (25th); -25.8% Defense (1st); +0.7% Special Teams (14th); +17.7% Overall (8th)

Record: 15-1 Overall; 8-0 Home; 11-5 Against The Spread; 6-2 Home
Average Score: 31.2 (1st) - 19.2 (6th)
Average Scoring Margin: +12.0 (1st); 12.1 "Expected" Wins
DVOA: +9.9% Offense (8th); -18.4% Defense (2nd); -2.4% Special Teams (23rd); +25.9% Overall (4th)

Hidden Points: Super Bowl Clunkiness

Think back to the last ten or so Super Bowls. How have the first quarters gone? Do teams jump out of the gate and score quickly? Usually not. The first quarters are usually pretty ugly, with either a lot of punting, or a drive that somehow takes six minutes of game time despite traveling just 30 yards. If history is any indicator, you shouldn't expect either team to hit the ground running and click on all cylinders, or any other platitudes as such.

So, an ugly, low-scoring first quarter (or first half) - which team does that benefit? Probably Denver, right? With as anemic as Denver's offense has been in the postseason, you have to think that their most realistic chance at winning is a low-scoring rock fight. If the halftime score is 6-3, they've essentially tread water for half the game and stood up on the other side smiling. That will be a huge win for them. But if Carolina jumps out to a two-score lead in the first half, the game might be over. Denver just isn't built to play from behind. Peyton Manning can't sling the ball all over the field like he used to, and Denver's pass rush will be largely negated if Carolina just runs the ball to sit on their lead.

The first two or three drives will tell us a lot about how the game is going to go. Even if Carolina pulls out a long drive that eats clock, but Denver holds them to a field goal, that's a very good sign for Denver. The Over/Under for the game is 51, but a Broncos win scenario probably has that line a lot closer to 35. The more field goals and punts, the better chance Denver has.


Hidden Points: Legacies on the Line

I know this isn't really a hidden point of the game, per se, but I think it bears mentioning that there is a ton at stake for many of these players legacy-wise.

First of all, Peyton Manning is obviously going for his second Super Bowl win on his fourth appearance. Just by making it to four big games, Manning has already joined an elite club of six players (Tom Brady, John Elway, Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, Roger Staubach and Jim Kelly), while only Brady and Montana have more appearances. A win here would tie him with Staubach at 2-2 in that club, and make him one of just 11 quarterbacks with multiple Super Bowl wins.

It would also make the Manning brothers the first family combination with multiple titles (as starting quarterbacks), which is nice, and also makes you remember, "holy s#!t, Eli Manning has two titles!"

As for Denver's defense, it has the chance to go down as one of the better unit's in league history. The Broncos led a pass-happy league in total defense, sacks and pass defense, while finishing in the Top-4 in rush and scoring defense.The only stat Denver wasn't historically great in was turnovers forced where, as fate would have it, the Panthers led the league with 39, far better than Denver's 27 (7th in the NFL).

If the Broncos can take down Cam Newton after the season he had, it would be an exclamation point on a defensive season that won't be discussed as the greatest ever, but should be remembered as one of the best modern defenses in league history.

Oh, and that dude Cam. Well, it hasn't always been pretty, but Newton had a Top-10 season in terms of combined touchdowns, as his 45 (35 passing, 10 rushing) placed him 7th all-time. And, out of the group, Newton's turnover percentage of just 2.12 is third-best, trailing only 2011 Aaron Rodgers, 2007 Tom Brady and 2004 Peyton Manning, easily three of the best quarterback seasons ever. Oh yeah, and none of the other guys that have scored at least 45 combined touchdowns have won the Super Bowl, so there's another milestone he could reach.

So yeah, he's playing at an historic level, and this game could be his moment to become the face of the league. As for other players on the Panthers trying to secure legacies: There really aren't that many, which is what makes Cam's run so impressive. Sure, you have stud middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who will be looking to pad his Hall of Fame resume, but other than him, there are no players that have been great for an extended period of time.

This game would be a nice feather in any player's cap, especially young stars like defensive tackle Kawann Short and corner Josh Norman, but this game is pretty much about Cam (with a side of Luke) for Carolina.


Player(s) To Watch (DEN): Emmanuel Sanders/Demaryius Thomas and Malik Jackson/Derek Wolfe

I've cheated and put two different combinations here, because it really will be about getting production from both the wide receiver and defensive end positions for Denver.

Quick, how many touchdowns do Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders have this postseason? That would be zero. How many 100 yard games do they have combined? Also zero.

Now, to be fair, the Broncos only have two touchdown passes these last two games, and they were both of tight end Owen Daniels' catches in the AFC Championship Game. But, outside of a fantastic downfield catch on third down by Sanders, the Broncos receivers really haven't helped Peyton Manning out by winning those "50/50 balls" when they're in the air.

That will need to improve against a very good Panthers pass defense, especially if linebacker Thomas Davis plays. If he does, dink and dunk with some zone stretch run plays likely won't work against Luke Kuechly and company.

To score points against Carolina, a defense with studs at all three levels, you're going to have to make some splash plays. Sanders has shown flashes this postseason, but Thomas has been missing in action. The 6-foot-3, 230 lb. receiver has played much smaller than his billing, hauling in just six catches for 52 yards in two games, despite being targeted 15 times.

On the defensive side of the ball, it's a completely new challenge for the Broncos this week. After edge rushers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware teed off on statuesque Tom Brady, Denver's top-ranked defense will now turn its attention to containing the explosive and versatile Cam Newton.

On run plays, that means both winning at the point of attack, and holding your ground in the option game. When the Panthers look to run their zone read, they will often "option" off one of the other team's most explosive front defenders. In this case, that will likely mean Miller. If Miller stays at home on the back side, Denver will have to defend running back Jonathan Stewart with one fewer defender on the play side.

That's where physical ends Jackson and Wolfe come in.

If each of them can get a push and stuff the run without Miller crashing down, the Panthers will be reduced to a traditional running attack. If not, then expect Miller to crash down and help against the run, likely forcing an inside linebacker to scrape back to the back side, but probably too late to catch Newton when he keeps the ball on the option.

Basically, if Jackson and Wolfe can't hold the point decently on the play side, Newton will have plenty of room to work if he runs the keeper on the back side. But it will be more than that for these two ends.

Denver can't simply rush upfield and work its way back to the quarterback, like it did against Brady. Leaving those kinds of lanes against Tom Terrific are fine, since he does most of his damage from the pocket. But, if you give that kind of space to Newton, he's off for a 15-yard gain.

This week, look for Denver to rush "tighter," with an almost run-fill like feel to the way they apply pressure. That means that, while Miller will still be coming off the edge, he likely won't line up quite as wide, and Jackson/Wolfe will each need to push the middle of the pocket back into Newton's face, forcing Superman to retreat, rather than step up into an open alley.


Player(s) To Watch (CAR): Michael Oher, Mike Remmers

Carolina's offense doesn't really have any weak spots, per se. You could argue their wide receivers leave a lot to be desired, but their offensive scheme is such that defenses are disproportionately worried about Cam Newton running with the ball, so even mediocre receivers end up wide the hell open downfield, and how well those receivers run routes and get separation doesn't matter quite as much as it does for teams like Denver and New England and the like.

If Carolina's offense has a weakness, it's the offensive line. Center Ryan Kalil is their best guy up front, but he's a touch past his prime. The rest of the line, man for man, doesn't really have any star-level talent. Michael Oher is a "name" guy, but in reality, he's not that great of a left tackle. His best years came in Baltimore at right tackle, and he was still only a pretty good right tackle (which often makes for only a kinda okay left tackle). Cam Newton's ability to escape and improvise in the pocket covers up a lot of mistakes made up front by the offensive line. On the whole, Carolina ranked 21st in the league in Football Outsiders' offensive adjusted sack rate (their metric for pass protection, which includes intentional grounding penalties and adjusts for the fact that a sack is more likely to occur on a 3rd-and-10 than a 2nd-and-4, and things of that nature).

Carolina hasn't seen a pass rush like Denver's all year. They played Seattle twice, but Seattle's pass rush declined sharply this season. They were only average in total sacks and in adjusted sack rate. In fact, Carolina's schedule is littered with teams among the bottom half in the league with regards to pass rush, and when they did go against teams ranked in the top 10 (Tampa Bay, Tennessee, Houston), they averaged just 182 passing yards over four games. Denver's pass rush was the best in the league, and absolutely dominated New England's patchwork offensive line two weeks ago. If Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware play out of their minds like they did then, the Broncos could find themselves with a good chance to pull an upset.


The Case For Carolina:

Peyton Manning can't throw the ball deep. He just can't. We've now seen two straight playoff games in which the best he can do is throw a duck and hope his receiver can out-jump the defensive back.

Carolina's defense is amazingly well-built to take advantage of a quarterback who can't throw deep. They'll play single coverage on the outside and one deep safety in the middle of the field (Kurt Coleman). If Manning is going to go deep, it will have to be down the sideline. Their other safety (Roman Harper) has made an entire career out of crashing down on crossing routes. Luke Kuechly, all-world linebacker, is similarly skilled. Thomas Davis has a broken arm, but is expected to play with a stiff cast. If he's able to tough it out, that's another elite talent at linebacker that will make life a living hell for Denver receivers over the middle.

With Denver unable to move the ball, all Carolina has to do is grind out a few scoring drives. Luckily for them, Denver's defense isn't that well equipped to defend a mobile quarterback. Their defense is built around pressure, not containment. Ware and Miller come screaming off the edge, but that probably won't work when the quarterback can just step up in the pocket and take off downfield. It's a great strategy against Tom Brady. Against Cam Newton it might bite them in the ass. If Carolina can get its zone-read game going, it will slow down Denver's pass rush and possibly soften the secondary into being vulnerable against a shot to Greg Olsen down the seam or Ted Ginn down the sideline.

Plain and simple, Carolina is the better team, with more talent, with more favorable matchups.


The Case For Denver:

Denver's case, offensively, begins with its receivers making some plays on those "ducks" Peyton Manning throws. They certainly aren't the prettiest passes, but Manning actually identified a few great spots to challenge both New England and Pittsburgh deep the last two games, and his receivers just haven't won the battles (again, other than that great Sanders catch against New England).

Since throwing underneath all night against Carolina's speedy linebackers is less than advisable, the Broncos will have to take some shots, and hope a few land. If they do, it could open some room up for their running game, and maybe even force Carolina's corners to give some cushion, allowing Sanders and Thomas to do damage after the catch.

If Denver hits a homerun or two, you have to believe that Manning will manage this game properly. It seems like since he's returned from injury, Peyton has fully understood his limitations, and is playing within himself, deferring to the defense and not giving the game away. I expect that to continue, and with some lanes opened up, I look for him to pick the Panthers apart when opportunities present themselves.

Defensively, Denver will need to be disciplined in its approach to pressuring Newton, but the Broncos certainly have the athletes to get to him. They don't need to pile up the sack numbers, but simply containing the zone read, and forcing Newton to win from the pocket should be good enough, as a great pair of Denver corners (Chris Harris and Aqib Talib) shut down Carolina's no-name receiving corps.

If everything goes according to plan, this is a one-score game in the fourth, and with a great defense and smart quarterback, Denver would be in great position to pull off the upset.


The Picks: 

Carolina 34, Denver 16

This season, really, from start to finish, has seemed destined for Cam Newton to win the Super Bowl and take over the role as crown prince of the NFL, while Peyton Manning rides off into the sunset in slightly disappointing fashion. Everything we've seen this season has pointed to Cam Newton being borderline unbeatable and Peyton Manning just not having "it" anymore.

The matchups in the game seem to bear that out, also. As mentioned above, Denver's case for winning is to dominate with their defense. But at some point, they're going to have to score points. Carolina scores a ton of points, almost by accident. Three times this seasons, Carolina scored 30+ points despite finishing with under 300 yards of total offense. They led the league in scoring despite finishing outside the Top 10 in total yards. Either through turnovers or a big play on special teams, Carolina seems destined to pull a cheap touchdown drive or two off of a short field (case in point, Carolina was first in the league in points per drive but just 17th in yards per drive - their average starting field position ranked 2nd-best). If that happens earlier rather than later, a two-score lead probably means curtains for the Broncos.

In my heart, I would love a shootout won on the last possession, with Peyton Manning taking home the Lombardi trophy and Cam Newton winning a moral victory for his future as the face of the league (or vice-versa with Peyton Manning winning a moral victory for his legacy), but that's not Denver's game. Denver needs a low-scoring game in which nothing out of the ordinary really happens, but that's wildly unlikely given Peyton Manning's turnover-itis this season and Carolina's obscene ability to force turnovers.

Both teams have gone through the season with a massive horseshoe lodged squarely in their rectum, but Carolina always seemed like they were making their own luck, while Denver just happened to be in the right place at the right time over and over and over again. Regression is going to be a cold-hearted bitch to one of these teams, and it's just more likely to be Denver. Like most Carolina games, expect them to win comfortably despite the box score looking like the game should have been close.


Carolina 20, Denver 16

As much as we're talking about the quarterbacks, I actually think the defenses will rule the day in this one. Carolina boasts one of the most underrated defenses in modern memory, and may actually have the best defensive lineman (Kawann Short), the best linebacker (Luke Kuechly) and the best defensive back (Josh Norman) on the field Sunday. Now, the best pass rushers reside in Denver, along with the better all-around secondary, but this Panthers defense is no chopped liver.

The other thing that makes me lean toward a defensive struggle is how careful each of these teams have been with the ball in their current incarnations. Since Manning returned in the second half of the regular season finale, Denver has just one turnover in three games, and no interceptions. Carolina, on the other hand, finished 8th in the league with just 19 giveaways all season.

Both will try to run the clock with ball control offenses, and take chances in key spots. Now, which team is better equipped to take advantage of those opportunities? I have to believe that's Carolina, who has Cam Newton and Greg Olsen both playing like men possessed, while Denver has a limited Peyton Manning, and a receiving corps that hasn't made quite enough plays to make me feel confident.

I'm kind of rooting for Manning to pull off the upset and ride off into the sunset, but I'm a huge Cam Newton fan as well. I don't think the average football fan can lose this week, with two great lead characters and a pair of studly defenses, but I'll take Carolina, who has just been the best team all year.


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