Havoc-causing pass rushers
Just ask Tom Brady what DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller mean to Denver's defense. The duo led a gang of game-plan wreckers that hit the Patriots quarterback an outrageous 20 times in the AFC Championship Game despite blitzing on just 16 percent of their snaps. Outside linebackers coach Fred Pagac gushed about Ware's smarts and natural abilities, calling him "as good as they get," and Miller "as good an athlete as I've been around in 37 years of coaching." It doesn't stop there. Derek Wolfe has been a force of nature, while fellow defensive lineman Malik Jackson has pushed the pocket all season. Carolina has jumped out to massive leads in their past two games, but that won't be so easy against Denver's active and vicious front seven.
Special teams heroics
What a time to be alive if your name is Britton Colquitt. The Broncos punter was money in the bank against the Patriots, dropping a trio of punts inside New England's 12-yard line in the AFC title game. The week before, he pinned the Steelers deep in their own territory with the help of special-teamer Kayvon Webster. "When you look at the league statistics overall," said special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis, per MileHighSports.com, "it doesn't make any difference if it's the Panthers or whoever it is, the average start has so much to do with the offense's success."
The reader is suspicious that we're talking punters this high in the post, but plenty of recent Super Bowls have pivoted off special teams excellence. If Denver's defense gets the kind of field-position advantage we saw over the past few weeks, the Broncos have an excellent shot of keeping this game close.
Carolina's struggles vs. the zone read
Broncos running back C.J. Anderson told me that he's enjoyed the shift to Gary Kubiak's zone-read blocking scheme, a system that requires patience from ball-carriers. While this offense has its issues -- only the abysmal Titans had more three-and-outs -- Denver is 9-0 when they rush for 105-plus yards. That won't be easy against Carolina's front seven, but in their only loss of the year to Atlanta, the Panthers had their issues against Kyle Shanahan's zone-run scheme. The Falcons didn't pile up much yardage on the ground, but 30 carries helped chew 35-plus minutes off the clock. If you don't want to deal with Cam Newton, keeping him on the sideline is your best move.
Denver's coordinator improves defenses wherever he goes. It was impressive to hear him emphasize all week how the Broncos believe in fitting their scheme around the roster. That isn't a major challenge with so much talent in Denver, but Phillips has plenty to do with it. He was whispered about this week as the best defensive coordinator in NFL history, and it's not a crazy thought. He's lived and breathed football from the cradle on, growing up under legendary coach Bum Phillips, who Chris Wesseling chronicled in last summer's excellent "Luv Ya Blue!" longform. Phillips was masterful against the Patriots, using a swath of combination-man coverages to swallow up Patriots wideouts and confuse Brady. Tommy Boy barely threw a good pass in the first half, with the game film showing that Denver's defensive sets put New England in a bind. The chess match between Phillips and Carolina play-caller Mike Shula promises to be a gem.
"They're so fast and I think the best way you can talk about how well they're coached, and what a good job Wade does is when you see them diagnose so quickly," Shula said. "They get to the ball so fast even on the missed direction stuff. They seem to find the ball quick and they're swarming to the ball. You know they'll play some backups and a lot of their backups could start for just about anybody and there's not that big of a drop off."
Yup, we're going defense again, and here's why: One of the reasons Denver was able to confuse the heck out of Brady was a loaded secondary packed with a combination of sticky cover men and hard-hitting play from the safety position. Denver's loaded with Aqib Talib and Chris Harris at corner and T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart behind them. Second-year corner Bradley Roby also looms as a star-in-the-making for the only secondary league-wide to allow under 200 yards per game through the air. The Panthers have exploded early on offense in recent weeks, but don't expect a repeat of Super Bowl XLVIII for the Broncos: They've allowed just one of 18 teams to score 30-plus points this season -- tops in the NFL.
Unbalanced? So what
Long gone is Denver's record-breaking offense of 2013, but we're talking about a team that's won 14 games. They're not nearly as balanced as white-hot Carolina, but the Broncos are just the fourth team since the 1970 merger to lead the NFL in fewest yards allowed per carry and fewest yards allowed per throw. They're also comprehensively healthy, assuming Ward and Stewart are full-go at the safety spots. Every Broncos player I spoke with this week emphasized how different this team is from the one that got crushed by the Seahawks two seasons ago. That Broncos squad rolled in with the No. 1 offense against Seattle's No. 1 defense -- this time around it's Denver with the top defense in all the land.
"There are a lot of guys that are still here, and ... I know they don't want that taste in their mouth again, so I think it means a little bit more," Ward said of Super Bowl XLVIII. "The guys that were there, nothing needs to be said about that. They know what happened. That performance is not going to be repeated."
Peyton's date with destiny
Logic be damned! Carolina's the heavy favorite, but the NFL wouldn't be the greatest sports league on Planet Earth if it didn't also cater to magic. Peyton Manning was on the pine three weeks ago as the capper to an altogether embarrassing campaign. Plenty of doubters -- me included -- thought he was cooked, but Manning now has the chance to author one of the greatest stories in NFL history. His teammates talked endlessly this week about wanting to send him out with a win. These are human beings -- not droids -- and the Broncos came across as a team drawing strength from Manning's final push for glory.
"It would mean everything. That's my brother," receiver Emmanuel Sanders said of winning one for Peyton. "It'd be unique to allow him -- if he decides to hang it up -- to go out with a ring. That's everybody's dream, to retire, to say, this is my last year and you go out with a ring. I mean, the football gods really do love you, and based on his career, they really do love Peyton."