It is always fun to get into the last week of the season and break down the priorities for the most overanalyzed game in sports. In the era of "analytics," everyone with a smartphone has a complex algorithm that can statistically determine the outcome of the big game.
Naturally, you can point to all the conventional wisdom about winning the turnover battle, controlling the clock, etc. Every coach, however, knows to break it down to a few key priorities for your team to hook on to; you want your players to believe that, if they execute these things, the desired result will come. If you find that the game isn't quite working out as anticipated, so be it: improvise and adjust. But if it does indeed go the way you've planned early on, your players will surge with confidence that they truly have the formula to win the Super Bowl.
Finally, we've reached the point where we can quit talking about how healthy Peyton Manning is -- or if the Broncos should be running Gary Kubiak's offense, rather than doing what Peyton has done his entire Hall of Fame career. When John Elway and Kubiak sat down with Manning last offseason, they sold him on the formula that delivered Elway two Super Bowl wins late in his career, a formula that did not rely on him doing it single-handedly: play great defense, run the ball and get explosive plays out of a minimal number of throws. Even though it has not gone remarkably well to this point (Denver ranked 16th in total offense during the regular season), that is exactly what has to happen.
» Establish a ground game: The Broncos are 9-0 when they run for more than 105 yards and 8-0 when they log 30-plus rushing attempts. This is the heart of the Kubiak system. The problem is that, with Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei in the middle for Carolina, and Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis (hopefully) at the next level, getting productive yards between the tackles against the Panthers is going to be next to impossible. The Broncos are going to have to get the bounce-zone plays outside, setting up the zone-cutback plays where most of their big plays come from.
» Take your shots: It is going to be tough enough to run against the Panthers' front seven, let alone if the safeties and corners can squat inside of 15 yards. The best matchups on the field for Denver have to be with Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas testing the Carolina secondary. The Broncos are not going to beat Carolina with five or six drives of 10-plus plays. Explosive plays will be paramount -- if for nothing else, just to loosen up the running lanes.
» Notch 7s, not 3s: Denver ranked just 27th in the NFL in red-zone touchdown efficiency during the regular season. That is not going to cut it. If the Broncos settle for field goals when they get in the scoring area, it's over. Remember, Denver has to keep up with Carolina -- the NFL's highest scoring team.
Denver's D, under Wade Phillips, has been nothing less than brilliant this season. With an offense that was many times just average -- and at other times nonexistent -- the Broncos are in the Super Bowl because of their top-ranked defense. The potential problem: Denver has not played a team with the physicality of the Carolina Panthers. Phillips showed in the AFC Championship Game that he is willing to go against form to get the job done.
» Stop the run: As good as the Denver defense is, the front seven, though athletic, is undersized and overmatched against Carolina's bludgeoning offensive line/ground game. The Broncos are going to have to commit more numbers to the box than normal. The good news is they have the secondary to match up one-on-one with the Panthers' receivers on the outside, which will allow Phillips to apply the bodies it is going to take to stop Cam Newton and Co. on the inside.
» Frustrate Cam: It has long been a defensive axiom: "It is the front four's job to make the quarterback get the ball out quickly and it is the secondary's job to make him hold it." If the Broncos' secondary can make Cam wait out his receivers' routes, then Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware and whomever else Phillips wants to throw at Newton can get home.
» Create takeaways: The Broncos can't win unless they force turnovers and give their offense some short fields. Of course, this won't be easy. Since the beginning of December, Newton has 18 touchdowns against just two interceptions. Also, Newton's 110.4 passer rating against the blitz was the third-best mark in the NFL during the regular season. But Phillips might have to dial up the pressure constantly, to see if he can force a turnover, even though it's clearly risky business.
Cam Newton has done everything humanly possible to prove he is a championship-level quarterback. That includes beating you from the pocket, if that's what it takes. But the core of this offense is still the Panthers' ability to pound away with 235-pound back Jonathan Stewart ... then follow it up with the 250-pounder, Mike Tolbert ... then, when you are nice and tenderized, cut loose the gargantuan quarterback on designed runs. And after all of that, when you're forced to put everyone in the box, Carolina will kill you down the field with big plays.
» Pound the football: Carolina only ran the ball less than 30 times twice this season. And even in those two games, they ran for 171 yards on 29 carries against the Giants and 155 yards on 20 carries in their only loss of the year at Atlanta. The Panthers know that Denver is undersized and cannot hold up to the pounding they can deliver. And, when the Broncos have to play man -- to add the extra players to the box -- that is when Cam can take off for big gains on the ground, as the defensive backs all will have their backs turned to the line of scrimmage.
» Convert on third-and-medium/short: Oddly enough, Carolina is 30th in the NFL in third-down conversions of 3-to-5 yards. If the Panthers are able to run the ball the way I anticipate they will, they have to take advantage of the short third-down opportunities. As good as the Broncos were against Tom Brady and New England in their two games, they were just average overall during the season in this down-and-distance.
» YAC, YAC, YAC: Along with talking up a good game -- and the Panthers are the best in the league at this -- they will need to (and should have plenty of opportunities to) generate yards after the catch. This is where most of their explosive plays are likely to come. Ted Ginn Jr. only catches about half the balls thrown his way, but when he does haul it in, he seemingly always goes the distance.
Sean McDermott, the defensive coordinator for the Panthers, has put together the closest thing I have seen to our dominant 2000 Ravens defense -- impossible to run against on the inside because of the down linemen, impossible to run on to the outside because of the athletic and sure-tackling linebackers. The Achilles' heel: Carolina has given up some big plays in the secondary.
» No big runs: The front seven is superior to Denver's offensive line, so be patient and don't overrun your gap responsibility. The Broncos' big plays come on the cutback zones; if you eliminate those, they will not be able to sustain enough in the running game to beat you.
» Ballhawk like crazy: I hate to say it, but Peyton will throw enough pick-able balls for Carolina to take advantage of and win the game. Denver led the NFL in interceptions thrown and Carolina paced the league in interceptions corralled. I have not run this through the computer, but I don't think that bodes well for the Broncos.
» Make Denver remember Super Bowl XLVIII: If Denver can't run the ball and can't make any plays down the field early, the Panthers' defense has the ability to make Peyton and Co. think "Déjà vu all over again" from the Super Bowl two years ago. All the bad memories might come rushing back to the Broncos if they don't start well.