Super Bowl: Carolina (-5) ‘at’ Denver
I feel guilty for not burning a few thousand words on the game that decides the championship of the NFL… but because I still have Browns stuff to write– and my lack of attention to these previews has produced an appalling 6-4 record– I really want to get this over. Plus I simply don’t have anything terribly creative to say about this matchup:
1. Offense: Carolina (500 points) has the NFL’s #1 offense; Denver (355) is ranked 19th.
2. Defense: Denver (296 points allowed) has the NFL’s #4 defense; Carolina (308) is ranked #6.
3. Turnovers: Denver (31 giveaways, 27 takeaways) is -4 in turnover ratio, Carolina (19 turnovers, 39 takeaways) is +20.
4. Margin of Victory: Denver went 12-4, but outscored opponents by only 59 points– the telltale sign of a fluke team. Carolina (15-1) outscored opponents by 192 points– more than any other franchise.
5. Playoff Performance: Denver won its two playoff games by a total of 9 points (43 points scored, 34 allowed). Both games went down to the wire.
Carolina won its two playoff games by 41 points (80-39). In three of the four halves, they dominated their opponent.
6. Strength of Schedule: Denver played an extremely strong regular-season schedule; Carolina’s was extraordinarily weak. But in the playoffs, neither of Denver’s opponents had any of their starting running backs. Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown– their All-Pro receiver– missed the game; all three New England wideouts were on the injury list.
Seattle played Carolina with RB Marshawn Lynch hobbled and his backup out. Arizona was missing several defenders. But both of Carolina’s opponents were substantially healthier than Denver’s. They were also better teams during the regular season.
7. Quarterbacks: Cam Newton has never played in a Super Bowl; first-time quarterbacks– even MVPs– often struggle. Peyton Manning has never had a good game (rating over 90, 2-1 TD-INT ratio) in three tries. In both losses (31-17 to New Orleans and the 43-8 beating by Seattle), the other quarterback outplayed him. In the win, he had a mediocre game (25-38 for 247 yards; a TD and an INT, a fumble), but Rex Grossman (20-28 for 168 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs and 2 fumbles) played worse.
Newton is also playing very well in the playoffs: 35-50 for 496 yards– nearly 10 yards per pass. He has 3 TDs and 1 INT, with 2 rushing TDs added on. Manning is 38-69 for 398 yards– barely over 5.0 yards a pass. He has 2 TDs and no picks– but he’s avoided turnovers only through the grace of a higher power.
The only thing clearly in Denver’s favor is sacks– they had 52 to Carolina’s 44. But that is arguably a difference in philosophy. Ron Rivera coached for Andy Reid, Lovie Smith and Norv Turner, none of whom were “Git after ’em!” coaches.
I can’t even point out that Rivera has a track record of being conservative and underperforming in the clutch– Gary Kubiak of Denver has been worse.
It’s pretty easy to write a scenario where Denver wins. Knowing that their 39-year-old Hall-of-Famer is playing his last game for the Broncos (if he doesn’t retire, presumably Bronco GM John Elway won’t re-sign him), his teammates go all out for him. Manning summons up the moxie to play one good game– or parts of one game.
Meanwhile, Carolina has one of those nerve-wracked performances that one occasionally sees when a team plays in the spotlight the first time. Their top back, Jonathan Stewart, isn’t a great player; he could get stuffed repeatedly and fumble a few times. Newton’s top three targets are TE Greg Olsen and WRs Ted Ginn and Jerricho Cotchery. They’re all over 30, none is especially distinguished.
Olsen is the best– two good years and two very good ones and he’s gone nuts in the playoffs (12-14 for 190 yards and a TD)… but Bronco defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is one of the best in the business. Last week he had to shut down an even better tight end– with a Hall-of-Fame QB throwing to him. Rob Gronkowski went 8-15 for 144 yards and a score; Tom Brady struggled.
The hitch in this scenario is that New England’s line was in tatters due to injuries; Carolina’s is not. New England had no one who could run; Carolina has two backs– plus the quarterback. Both backs are on the injury list (probable), but they can at least play. That’s not something Pittsburgh or New England could say.
Also, Carolina, unlike New England, has a very good defense. Denver’s offensive line is weak; their quarterback is immobile. Plus, Manning has been awful, except for a few throws here and there.
And the difference on turnovers is appalling. Denver’s defense gets a pretty good number, but the Panthers haven’t made them. On offense, the Broncos have turned the ball over only once in the playoffs– but they averaged two turnovers a game during the regular season. In 13 of the 18 games, Carolina has forced at least two turnovers. In the last two weeks, they forced nine.
The Panthers are a better team. Unless they play far below their ability, the game should reflect this.
Prediction: Carolina 34, Denver 11