This article was written for www.JOE.ie, published on Feb 1st 2016. Link here.
The Americans love their football and they certainly love their pageantry so you can be certain that Super Bowl 50 will be quite the spectacle.
The Denver Broncos, defensive kingpins of the AFC, square off against the NFC champions, the Carolina Panthers, on Sunday night and it definitely promises to be a great game.
Clip via YouTube/NFL
Here we have a look at some of the potential difference makers.
Peyton Manning – Denver Broncos Quarterback
If you’re talking about the greatest quarterbacks to throw a pigskin, his name will always be mentioned in the conversation regardless of your allegiances.
The 39 year-old already boasts a championship ring from his three previous Super Bowl visits, has been named MVP of the NFL a record five times, has a slew of All-Pro and Pro Bowl nods and he holds more records than you can shake a stick at (why you would do that is your business) and this game will be his swansong (if the rumours are to be believed).
How much of that actually matters on the field? Not one bit.
Prior to being benched after tearing a “plantar fascia” in his left foot (me neither) Manning was enduring an horrendous season, throwing nearly twice as many interceptions as touchdowns in the regular season.
With doubts surrounding his arm strength and ability to make every throw, #18 will be hoping to silence the critics and live up to the standards of the Broncos defense. If Peyton can protect the football it will go a long way towards a Broncos victory.
Cam Newton – Carolina Panthers Quarterback
Cam Newton enters this game as the MVP-elect and while it’s his first time arriving at the big dance you can be pretty sure it won’t be his last time gracing the Super Bowl.
Since entering the league as the #1 pick in a stacked draft class (AJ Green, JJ Watt and the Broncos’ Von Miller are just a handful of the stellar players selected that season) Newton has gone from strength to strength. This season he and his team were expected to struggle after the pre-season loss of WR Kelvin Benjamin but they have proved all the doubters wrong, Newton in particular demonstrating a marked increase in pocket presence and poise.
Whereas in previous seasons Cam may have rushed his throws after being flushed out of the pocket he has showed great maturity in working through his progressions to complete throws that he may not have made a year ago.
That said, he is still a phenomenal runner with ball in hand and at 6’5 and 245lbs he is not an easy man to bring down, his ten rushing TDs in the regular season will attest to that.
There’s no doubt about it, the Panthers have the advantage at quarterback.
The Head Coaches – Ron Rivera (Panthers) vs Gary Kubiak (Broncos)
“Riverboat” Ron Rivera played linebacker for the suffocating ’85 Bears defense, the “Monsters of the Midway”.
He won a Super Bowl that year alongside Hall of Famers Richard Dent, Mike Singletary and Walter Payton and it’s that winning mentality that he instils in his players. While no player is bigger than the team there are certain characters within his locker room and Rivera certainly maximises their talents.
Players like Newton, Jared Allen, and Josh Norman are inspirations for their team-mates and Rivera knows that playing to their strengths will reap dividends. Known for “rolling the dice” on occasion, there’s never a boring game with Rivera involved.
Gary Kubiak has brought Denver back to the Super Bowl in his first year as head coach. A long-time head coach of the Houston Texans, his lack of decent quarterbacks perennially scuppered any post-season plans.
Now at the helm of the Denver Broncos, his quarterback is more than adequate and with Wade Phillips’ overwhelming defense backing him up he will be more than hopeful of taking the title back to Colorado.
The Panthers’ O-Line vs The Broncos’ D-Line
The trenches are not the most glamorous positions in the NFL but they are hugely important.
Two weeks ago, the Denver defense made the Patriots offensive line look like turnstiles and Tom Brady absorbed twenty hits across the 60 minutes. It should be mentioned that twenty QB hits is the most recorded since they began recording the statistic in 2006.
This will not be happening this weekend.
First of all, the Broncos won’t be able to rely on the center giving away the snap count (as Bryan Stork repeatedly did) and secondly Ryan Kalil, Andrew Norwell and Trai Turner are a considerable upgrade on the New England interior.
However, the Broncos defense is a step up from any unit the Panthers will have faced thus far (the Cardinals in the NFC Championship don’t count because Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu was injured) and will face a stern test of their credentials from Derek Wolfe & co. That’s not even mentioning the Bronco linebackers, more on them below.
The Broncos’ O-Line vs The Panthers’ D-Line
The likes of Schofield, Harris, Mathis and Vasquez are more than capable on either side of Ramires for Denver.
They have done a great job of keeping their quarterback upright this season and even though they are in for a tough battle against a talented Panthers D they are battle-hardened after coming up against tough defensive units like the Raiders, Chiefs and Steelers on more than one occasion this season.
Carolina’s D-line as a fearsome prospect, equally as daunting as the Broncos frontmen. Jared Allen is enjoying a new lease of life back at defensive end, Star Lotulei and Charles Johnson have been top-tier but it’s Kawann Short who has been the one to watch in this particular group.
The big man (well, they’re all big men really) has been a disruptive force this season and is more than capable of getting after Manning.
Von Miller & DeMarcus Ware – Denver Linebackers
On their own, these players are a scary prospect. Together? That’s a different story altogether.
Combining for 18.5 sacks during the regular season, these supremely talented edge rushers will be looking to ruin Cam Newton’s day just like they did to Tom Brady a fortnight ago.
Lightning quick and able to get the angle on any defender, the Panthers won’t have time to dally on the ball. Newton will need to know exactly where this pair are before every play.
Side note: Von Miller was the #2 overall pick in the 2011 draft, just one pick behind Newton. This will be the first time that #1 and #2 picks from the same year face off in a Super Bowl.
Luke Kuechly & Thomas Davis Sr – Carolina Linebackers
There’s not much more can be said about Kuechly’s talent. In his rookie year in 2012 he led the whole league in tackles and was awarded Defensive Rookie of the Year.
If that wasn’t impressive enough, he went on to win Defensive Player of the Year in 2013. The only other player to begin their career like that was New York Giants legend Lawrence “LT” Taylor.
Esteemed company indeed. He hasn’t let up from there and has firmly established himself as the league’s premier middle linebacker.
Thomas Davis hasn’t had it all how own way. Three ACL tears in three years would have ended the career of many players but Davis has showed remarkable perseverance to get to the top of the game and rightfully take his place in his dominant partnership with Kuechly.
Oh, I should also mention that he broke his forearm a fortnight ago in the NFC Championship against the Cardinals. Some guys have all the luck.
He will be wearing a specially made 3D-printed arm support in the game on Sunday which could hamper his efforts.
Greg Olsen – Carolina Tight End
Greg Olsen has been Cam Newton’s safety blanket all season long, finishing as the team’s leading receiver with 77 catches and 1,104 yards.
His combination of size, strength and hands will need to be accounted for if Newton has the ball in hand. The Panthers only suffered one loss this season and in that game Atlanta maintained constant pressure on Cam while doubling up on #88.
I’d imagine Chris Harris Jr will be tasked with shadowing Olsen for the day.
Charles “Peanut” Tillman & Josh Norman – Carolina Cornerbacks
Tillman, a Chicago Bears great, is enjoying the twilight of his career and will be an interesting matchup against the speedy Emmanuel Sanders.
No-one punches the ball out of an opponents hands like Peanut and he could be responsible for one or two big plays.
Josh Norman is more than capable of letting you know just how good he is which is just as well because he is very, very good.
A strong, physical CB, his matchup with the Broncos’ primary receiving threat, Demaryius Thomas will be a fascinating one to keep an eye on. Norman is also responsible for 8% of his team’s penalties so don’t be surprised to see a flag or two thrown his way.
The Running Backs – CJ Anderson (Broncos) vs Jonathan Stewart (Panthers)
While these players had similar seasons statistically, they play two different brands of football.
Anderson is always on the lookout for a quick dump-off from his quarterback which frees him up to gain some yards through the air. Stewart benefits from Newton’s presence – if a defense has to worry about the quarterback running the ball as well, it usually means an extra yard for the running back should he get the ball.
Both teams will be looking to establish a running game on Sunday, if they fail in that regard then they’ll be at a major disadvantage.
Bronco and Panther fans will be hoping their man comes out on top in this comparison.
The Broncos Secondary
This elite unit will be fighting fit for the big game and will relish the opportunity to test themselves against the Carolina receiving corps.
Aqib Talib and Chris Harris JR are top-drawer corners but Denver do face a minor worry in that their safeties picked up knocks in the victory over New England and failed to finish the game.
TJ Ward and Darian Stewart are full participants in practice as of this week but if either of them go down it will spell trouble.
The Broncos only conceded 30+ points once this season and that was when their two safeties were off the field.
The Panthers Wide Receivers
This time last year the Seattle Seahawks advanced to the Super Bowl with a group of “no-name” receivers after Percy Harvin, their star WR moved on to pastures new.
The Panthers are in a similar position albeit through different circumstances. Kelvin Benjamin, their #1 receiver went down to a season-ending injury last August and the team were written off by many, myself included.
Ted Ginn Jr, Jerricho Cotchery, Philly Brown, Devin Funchess and even Brenton Bersin all did their part to fill the void left by Benjamin and have helped to get their team to the biggest game of all. Despite their trojan efforts they are written off as underdogs in every matchup but they’ve come through it as a strong unit.
No Carolina Panthers receiver got to 45 catches or 800 yards this season but four of them exceeded 30 catches and 400 yards.
The Broncos secondary will be their biggest test yet and once again they are seen as the underdogs but they could have one last surprise in them.