Cam Newton will be protected
Carolina's offensive line has been the team's secret weapon, especially in pass protection. And they can neutralize Denver's biggest strength up front. Von Miller, Derek Wolfe, and DeMarcus Ware will get their share of heat, but Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will have to blitz more than he did in the AFC Championship.
When you look at the names on the Carolina offensive line, it doesn't quite make sense. But when you look at the coaches film, you see that the Panthers pass blocking has been one of the NFL's best groups. Their performance in the first half against Seattle was from another world.
There will times that Newton has to evade the rush and improvise. But it's remarkable how little he's needed to lately. When he does break from the pocket, Newton has better vision than most running backs. He's become nearly impossible to stop because of that and because ...
Newton has mastered the little things
There has never been a quarterback quite like Newton. His physicality and arm strength, however, tend to obscure some of the real reasons why he's improved so much this year: He's become more like so many all-time great quarterbacks. Newton throws with tremendous anticipation, whipping the football out well before his receivers make their breaks. Some highly paid franchise quarterbacks never master this skill. Perhaps because of his comfort in Mike Shula's system and the excellent pass protection, Newton is more comfortable than ever going through his reads and looking off defenders. The running ability puts Newton over the top as a threat, but his mastery of playing from the pocket has made a massive difference this year.
The Broncos won't know what's coming
Against Seattle, the Panthers ran the ball down the Seahawks' throats to later set up big plays in the passing game. Against Arizona, Newton came out of the gates slinging the ball to set up the Panthers' multifaceted running game. Carolina can beat you with either hand. They are masters at taking what the defense gives them. Denver's offense isn't nearly as versatile.
The running game has so many plays
NFC South defenses like Atlanta have a better chance to slow down Carolina because they see this running attack more often. For a defense like Denver, there is no way to simulate stopping the Panthers. No team in the NFL has more base running plays. No team has more formations, variations, misdirection, and synchronicity than this Panthers group. The offensive line can go one way while the ball goes the other way. The guards can pull one way, while a tackle and tight end block in the opposite direction. Newton makes it all work, forcing the defense to commit or hesitate when he decides whether to hand the ball off. No team runs more power football with their quarterback and Newton might be the best red-zone quarterback in the league.
Even great defenses like Seattle can be blown off the ball and confused. The holes were enormous in that game. The Panthers can make a defense's aggression work against them, forcing teams to be disciplined. Give offensive coordinator Mike Shula two weeks to prepare for a game, and he's going to have plenty of wrinkles on Sunday. That run game is often a huge reason why ...
The Panthers start fast
This is one of the most dominant first half teams in NFL history. Carolina has blown the doors off so many playoff teams this year in the first 20 minutes of the game. Denver needs to stay close or play from ahead to get to the fourth quarter, and then hope their late-game magic works. The Broncos just aren't built for a two score comeback, and the Panthers routinely make two score leads for breakfast.
Kuechly and Davis are forces of nature
Before he broke his arm, Thomas Davis was the best player on the field in the NFC Championship. After three ACL surgeries and ten seasons with the Panthers, he's still one of the fastest linebackers in pursuit of the ball. His knowledge and film-study lets him react to plays before they start rolling, resulting in big plays behind the line of scrimmage. The Panthers love to show pressure up the middle with Davis and Luke Kuechly, forcing confusion from opposing lines. Both players can blitz, both can drop back into coverage, and both need to be monitored every play.
Kuechly is at an even higher level. Even Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall told me this week that Kuechly was the best linebacker in the league. His range in pass coverage will allow him to close on any Peyton Manning flutterballs. Ron Rivera said Kuechly was the natural heir to Mike Singletary and Brian Urlacher as the NFL's true complete linebacker. His ability in pursuit seems to be contagious.
It sounds simple, but it's not. The Seahawks have been the best defense of the decade in large part because of their fundamentals, starting with tackling. Carolina is cut from the same cloth. They don't give up plays after the catch and they swarm to ball carriers. This is especially troubling for Denver, a team that relies on quick hitters. Peyton Manning shouldn't expect that same bubble screen to Demaryius Thomas to work often when cornerberack Josh Norman is there to end the play.
Broncos offense is limited
It's rare to see a team make the Super Bowl with a sub-standard passing game, but that's what the Broncos have done. The Patriots held them to 244 yards in 15 drives. Manning has thrown eight passes this postseason that went more than 20 yards in the air; he's completed one of them and it easily could have been intercepted.
If the Panthers defense is vulnerable, it is to the deep pass. But the Broncos are ill suited to take advantage. They have asked Peyton Manning to do so little in the playoffs, but that's a formula with little margin for error. The running game struggled against New England with the lead, scoring only 3 points in seven drives. Manning is at his best throwing the ball up the seams, but that's where Carolina's linebackers can make big plays. Carolina defines aggression on both sides of the ball. Denver's offense just tries to avoid mistakes.
They can blitz with impunity, and may not need to
Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott and coach Ron Rivera have built a defensive system over the last five years "brick by brick" and believe its second to none. They must be licking their chops with this matchup because they have so many options. Denver's offensive line and running backs struggle to identify blitzes and have given up way too much quick pressure on Peyton Manning. The Panthers love to get creative sending pressure and should feel confident their back end will hold up in one-on-one matchups because Manning can't throw deep. ...
Then again, this is a rare game the Panthers could have the edge in matchups with their outside pass rushers. The Panthers got this far without great play from their defensive ends, but Charles Johnson is now healthy and Jared Allen had a nice performance against Seattle getting hurt. More importantly, Denver is starting Michael Schofield and Ryan Harris at tackle in the Super Bowl. If there is a weakness on the entire Denver team, that's it. The Broncos can't send extra help outside because Carolina's boffo defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short will be taking up attention inside. The Panthers defense also knows it doesn't need to play a perfect game because they have the top-scoring offense in the league led by the NFL's best player.
It's Cam's time
This has been the season of Cam Newton. His on-field exploits have easily surpassed all the thinkpieces about him off the field. He's a revolutionary talent at the peak of his skills, ready to break through to a level of stardom that few football players ever achieve. Peyton Manning's final game is a great story, but he's no longer a great player. This is Cam Newton's time; this is Cam Newton's stage and he's made for it.