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I really want Super Bowl 50 to be a game that comes down to the wire. There’s nothing worse than a Super Bowl blowout, and there’s nothing better in sports than a championship game coming down to the last minute (see: last year’s game).

But looking at how the Panthers and Broncos match-up, I just can’t envision a scenario in which Denver is able to keep it close outside of Cam Newton going down with an injury. This isn’t a knock on the Broncos. They are a very good team with a historically good defense. Denver had to go through two of the league’s best offenses led by two of the league’s best quarterbacks to get to Santa Clara, and did so while only giving up 17 points a game.

The Broncos defense has been doing this all season, but they haven’t faced a quarterback like Newton or an offense like the one he leads. All the factors that make Denver’s defense great (the fierce pass rush, the ball-hawking linebackers and a secondary capable of locking up receivers in man coverage) are neutralized by the league’s most unique offensive attack.

Newton obviously plays a big role in Carolina’s running game. The Panthers aren’t afraid to use their franchise quarterback on designed runs, whether it’s on read options or just straight quarterback power runs. And offensive coordinator Mike Shula will build in decoys with receivers streaking across the backfield to give the front seven yet another thing to worry about.


All of this slows down the defense. It can’t rely on the typical keys because the running back isn’t the only threat on a run play. Wade Phillips’ defense is built around an attacking front. He wants his players to get north and south but it’s hard to get off the ball and attack when you have no idea where the ball is going.

That extends to the passing game, where the Panthers will take deep shots off of play-action. Defensive ends like Von Miller and Demarcus Ware have to defend the edges just in case Newton does decide to take off on a designed rush, so they can’t just fire off the snap like they did so well against New England.

Also working against pass rushers when facing Newton is his ability to get out of the pocket and make plays. Pass rushers are essentially limited to straight-line rushes. If they get out of their rush lane and leave a gap open, Newton will exploit it with his legs.


In order to stop Newton from getting out of the pocket, the defenders in coverage always have to have their eyes on the quarterback. And this is where Newton will really affect what the Broncos want to do.

Denver has the best cornerback group in the league. With Chris Harris Jr., Aqib Talib and the emerging Bradley Roby, the Broncos are one of the few teams that can matchup with receivers man-to-man. These corners can get up in receivers’ faces and stop the quick, short passes that are en vogue all across the league. This unit is built to play in today’s NFL.

Well, the Panthers aren’t built like the rest of today’s pro offenses. Their attack is based on a bruising run game and taking deep shots in the pass game. Newton is the key. His running threat forces defenses to bring an extra guy into the box, which limits what coverages a defense can play. And if Denver does bring a safety down, that will leave Ted Ginn Jr. one-on-one with no help over the top, which he has feasted on all season on his way to a career-high 10 touchdowns.


It’s also hard to play man-to-man against mobile quarterbacks like Newton. Pass defenders turning their back to the pocket to run their assignments leave scramblers with plenty of space to move. Back in Week 9, Newton was tearing up Green Bay’s zone defense, so the Packers switched to man coverage with predictable results.


So if Denver can’t play its suffocating man coverage or with its typical speed, how can we expect the same dominant force we’ve watched over the last five months to show up on Sunday?

As our Nate Scott astutely points out, Denver’s only real shot is to force Carolina into obvious passing downs. That way, the Broncos can go back to their staples without having to worry too much about read options or scrambles by Newton. It’s much harder to pick up a first down on the ground on third-and-10 than it is on third-and-4.

With an obvious mismatch on the other side of the ball (is there any chance a weak-armed Peyton Manning has success against a defense that gave MVP candidates Russell Wilson and Carson Palmer fits?), the Broncos defense playing well is the only chance we have of seeing a close game.

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