The culmination of a thrilling season comes to a head on Feb. 7 when the Denver Broncos bring the league’s top defense to battle the Panthers of Carolina, who own one of the top offenses in the league. Levi’s Stadium, home of the San Francisco 49ers, holds the honor to host this year’s festivities. Storylines lie abound: Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning attempts to ride off into the sunset after a historic career while MVP-frontrunner Cam Newton tries to lead his Panthers to an astounding 18-1 record on the year, something unprecedented before the season, especially after losing top wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin in training camp. Nonetheless, these are the last two teams remaining, and it would be difficult to challenge they aren’t the best two teams this season.
While Peyton Manning makes an attempt to amend his past Super Bowl implosions, the real reason Denver is here is their defense. The first thing you notice is a truly elite linebacker corps. The stars lie on the outside, with Demarcus Ware and Von Miller registering a combined eighteen and a half sacks on the year, and they have each proved instrumental to the team’s playoff run. Miller himself picked off Tom Brady of the Patriots for one of Brady’s two interceptions in the game, in a momentum-shifting play in the AFC Championship Game. While not a household name (at least not this one), Brandon Marshall has emerged as a star on the inside, with a combined 102 tackles on his resume. The key players aren’t limited to linebacker, as plenty more find their homes in the secondary. Cornerback Aqib Talib, the veteran of the group despite only being twenty-nine is entrenched at the top of the depth chart, yet not too far behind him is the emerging Chris Harris. Harris has challenged Talib all year long for the top spot, and both proved their worth this past weekend as they combined for eleven tackles and three pass-deflections versus New England. Staying in the secondary, free safety TJ Ward is another lesser-known player that has been huge for the Broncos. Starting along him is strong safety Darian Stewart, who caught Brady’s second interception of last week’s game. Pair those top-flight units with newly resigned Derek Wolfe and emerging Malik Jackson at the end positions, and you have one of, if not the, most dangerous defenses in the sport.
While not at the level of the team’s defense, Denver’s offense is still a more than a formidable bunch, yet that is almost always true when Manning is under center. Despite dealing with nagging foot injuries all year that limited him to ten games, Manning rose to the occasion and led his team to their second Super Bowl appearance in three years, playing quality football at home versus the Steelers and Patriots, throwing for a combined 398 yards without throwing an interception. He also got steady help from his tail back C.J. Anderson, who tallied seventy-two yards in each playoff game. The top of the wide receiver depth chart is strong, with Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas leading the pack, although Thomas has been rather absent for this playoff run. It’s the rest of that unit who are less than desirable, with Andre Caldwell and Cody Latimer slotting in as the main backups. Even with a mediocre offensive line, the offensive team is an explosive one.
While not the only cog in the machine that is the Panthers, Cam Newton is a pretty important one. After an MVP-worthy regular season, he continued his dominance into the postseason, even with a so-so performance in Charlotte against the Seahawks in the divisional round. He elevated his game in the NFC Championship, with four combined touchdowns versus the Cardinals and 335 passing yards to boot. Running back Jonathon Stewart returned from injury to start the playoffs, and he’s back to his old ways. He bruised Seattle on nineteen runs en route to 106 rushing yards and two scores, and on the same amount of attempts versus Arizona, he racked up another eighty-three yards. Expect him to be a huge X-factor on the seventh. Stewart owes a decent amount of success to the elite offensive line Carolina has formed. While tackles Mike Remmers and Michael Oher, the latter best known for being “The Blindside Kid”, have been adequate, the stars start with highly touted center Ryan Kalil. To either side of him are guards Trai Turner and Andrew Norwell; Turner, coming off a stellar rookie season, surpassed it with a stronger sophomore campaign. Norwell was no slouch either in his rookie year, and all three interior lineman were graded as some of the best at their positions.
Even without their top wide receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, the Panthers’ receiving corps turned in a productive year when the worst was expected. Ted Ginn was vaulted to the top of the depth chart and emerged as a capable pass catcher in the process, even though he didn’t play a huge part in this year’s playoff run. Philly Brown’s sophomore season wasn’t anticipated to be one that saw him rise too much on the depth chart, but that’s exactly what happened. It took a while for him to start showing his skills, but he’s exhibited them nicely during the postseason. Newton’s go-to target isn’t a receiver though as tight end Greg Olsen has showcased abilities few have at his position, and he’s ascended to one of the game’s best in the process.
While the Broncos offense pales in comparison to its defense, the reverse can’t be said for Carolina. Led by an elite front seven, the Panthers defense has established itself as one of the league’s best. Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly is the heart and soul of this unit, and the team wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for him; he collected nineteen tackles this postseason along with two interceptions. Joining Kuechly’s linebacker core is rookie Shaq Thompson out of the University of Washington, who has come along quite well throughout the year.
The best story, though, comes from the weak-side as journeyman linebacker Thomas Davis makes his first Super Bowl appearance. Even after three different ACL tears, Davis arrived to the NFC Championship game with hopes for a berth in this year’s title game, only to break his arm. Well, if three ACL tears won’t hold Davis back, a broken arm won’t keep him out of his biggest game ever as Davis is probable for Sunday’s game. Speaking of battling through injury, veteran Jared Allen will spend his first Super Bowl appearance on the sideline, hampered with a fractured foot. Rookie Ryan Delaire will replace him, paired with Charles Johnson on the other end. In between them lie third year starters Star Lotuleleli and Kawann Short, with the latter recording two sacks during the playoffs. While star power lags in the secondary, the legion is still a strong one. All-pro cornerback Josh Norman headlines them, with Robert McClain starting opposite of him. Safeties Kurt Coleman and Roman Harper do an above average job, with the former retrieving two picks versus Arizona in the NFC Title Game.
A Super Bowl wouldn’t be complete without a half time show, and the NFL didn’t disappoint this year. Headlined by Coldplay, the NFL has brought back former performers Beyoncé and Bruno Mars to join them on stage. Some even prefer the halftime performance to the game, and those are bad people.
Super Bowl 50 is sure to be an interesting one, especially with the infinite storylines tied to the game. With Manning’s retirement, Newton’s inevitable MVP, and the legacies that lay on the line, all eyes will be on Santa Clara come the seventh. I’d be inclined to pick Carolina bias aside, solely on the fact that Cam Newton is playing at a level unlike any other, and I feel he can will his team to a win with minimal effort from his teammates.