by Scott Kacsmar and Vincent Verhei
In the grand scheme of things, 50 NFL games are not a large sample size. That's three weeks of the regular season, plus a fourth week's Thursday night game and the first kickoff on Sunday afternoon. But Super Bowls are huge events, and Super Bowl 50 is a pretty big milestone for those of us who were not alive for Super Bowl I and are not expecting to be around for Super Bowl 100.
Since most Super Bowls lack the angle of recent history between two teams, every year people try to compare the matchup to past Super Bowls instead. Many have chosen to compare this one to the Broncos-Seahawks matchup in Super Bowl XLVIII, but in reverse, with the Broncos having the top defense and Carolina having the top offense. Of course, that Denver team built by John Elway was destroyed 43-8 by Seattle. In Super Bowl XXIV, the Broncos had Elway at quarterback, Gary Kubiak as his backup, and the No. 1 scoring defense, which was coordinated by Wade Phillips. Unfortunately, San Francisco had the best offense with an MVP quarterback in Joe Montana. The Broncos were smoked 55-10. Outside of 1997-98, the Super Bowl has not gone well for Elway, Kubiak, Phillips, or the Broncos.
Meanwhile, Peyton Manning's lone Super Bowl win came against the 2006 Bears, who were coordinated on defense by Ron Rivera. Manning's other Super Bowls have not gone well either, but here he is in his fourth Super Bowl with his fourth different head coach, hoping to write a storybook ending to one of the all-time great careers. On the other sideline, Cam Newton is hoping to become the first player win the MVP award and the Super Bowl in the same season since Kurt Warner did so in 1999. The Panthers scored 500 points this year, but historically, the NFL's 17 500-point teams have won just four Super Bowls. The last to do so was the 2009 Saints -- who beat Manning's Colts.
High-scoring teams relying on MVP quarterbacks tend to crash and burn offensively in the playoffs, but the 2015 Panthers are not your typical high-scoring team by any means. This is not your usual matchup of a scoring juggernaut against a stout defense. Instead, Super Bowl 50 pits the best defense against the second-best defense. This game has more in common with the Giants-Ravens matchup in Super Bowl XXXV) than it does with anything we saw two years ago. (As we shall get to shortly, the similarities between that game and Super Bowl 50 run deeper than you would ever expect.)
The Broncos and Panthers are both led by their defenses, but Carolina has a bit more punch to its offense. Both teams have played a ton of close games this year and come away with stellar records: Denver is 12-3, Carolina is 10-1. However, Carolina has really turned things on since the midpoint of the season:
|Carolina DVOA 2015, Weeks 1-9 vs. Weeks 10-20|
Since Week 10, Newton has played in every way at an MVP level, and the Panthers have won six games by at least 14 points, including a 49-15 stomping of highly-touted Arizona in the NFC Championship Game.
Meanwhile, Denver continues to grind out wins with little margin for error, as it has all season. Except for Green Bay, every team that has played Denver can say it almost beat the Broncos this season. Of course, if the Panthers become the latest team to almost beat the Broncos, they'll make the good people of Denver a mighty happy bunch.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link. Game charting data appears courtesy of either ESPN Stats & Information or Sports Info Solutions.
You also might want to read the rest of our Super Bowl 50 content from over the last couple weeks.
- Scott Kacsmar wrote two pieces breaking down Peyton Manning's playoff resume and the random nature of quarterback win-loss records.
- Cian Fahey broke down Denver's likely defensive strategy against Carolina, as well as Emmanuel Sanders and his role for Denver's offense.
- In a Film Room bonus, Scott Kacsmar looked at Carolina's big pass plays this season, and how they might fare with the long ball against the Broncos.
- Vince Verhei looked at the common threads between Carolina's worst games as well as Denver's worst games.
- Ben Muth covered Denver's offensive line in fine detail throughout the season, and also had an in-depth examination of Carolina's run game.
- Scramble for the Ball had its annual Prop Bet Extravaganza.
- ESPN Insider subscribers can also read about how Carolina and Denver used free agency, as well as the Broncos' place among great Super Bowl defenses.
All readers can click here for in-game discussion on our message boards. If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
Let's start by explaining why this is not really a matchup of the best defense and best offense. Denver has earned the title of No. 1 defense this season. The last five defenses to rank first in points per drive allowed all won the Super Bowl. Carolina being the top offense is not as reputable. The Panthers finished first in points per drive scored, but only 12th in yards per drive. This is the only offense since 1997 to finish in the top two in points per drive, but not in the top seven in yards per drive. Carolina's ranking of eighth in offensive DVOA is the lowest among those 38 teams since 1997. We can go back further than that. Carolina is the only team since the 1970 merger to lead the league in points scored and not rank in the top 10 in yards gained. Those teams are also just 10-9 in the Super Bowl.
Highest-scoring team is 10-9 in Super Bowl, but Carolina is most atypical offense on the list. pic.twitter.com/tHdOmBCr6L
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) January 31, 2016
Dominant scoring teams usually dominate at gaining yards. That is how things have been for decades, but this is why Carolina is still more of a defensive-driven team with a very good, unique offense. But it is an offense that feasted on the season's easiest schedule and the second-best starting field position in the league. No offense had more touchdown drives (15) start in opponent territory than Carolina, including a league-high 11 drives starting inside the 40. This is why it is so crucial for Denver's offense to limit turnovers. If Carolina has to consistently start at its own 25 or worse, then Denver's defense should be in good shape.
For Cam Newton to have an MVP-caliber performance against this defense, he may have to borrow from two quarterbacks he has been compared to in the past: Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck. They had the best games this season against Denver. All three are obviously tough to bring down in the pocket, but Newton's game is still different from the other two. What Roethlisberger did in Week 15 that led to a season-worst 34 points allowed by Denver was patiently manage the game from the pocket with quick, short passes. He completed 40-of-55 passes for 380 yards, using his wide receivers to shred the Denver secondary while rarely going more than 15 yards down the field. That is not Newton's game at this point of his career. He's never had a 30-completion game, he averages the third-highest air yards per attempt, and he certainly does not have the Pittsburgh wide receivers. He is more likely to replicate what Luck did in Week 9 when he often held onto the ball until the last possible second before getting the pass away. Luck scrambled when he had to and came up big on third downs. He unfortunately injured his kidney in the game, but still finished with the win. Do not be surprised if Newton gets the green light for 15 runs in this game. There is no next week. You never know if this is your only chance to win a Super Bowl. Do whatever is necessary to win this game.
Carolina's balanced attack of running the ball, running its quarterback and throwing downfield can definitely lead to short gains, incompletions and bad down-and-distance situations. Newton only completed 59.7 percent of his passes this season and Carolina ranked eighth in dropped pass rate. Ted Ginn isn't the only Carolina receiver to be known for his speed instead of his hands. It can be an erratic offense, hence the No. 8 ranking in DVOA.
Take this one to the bank: the Panthers are going to rush for over 100 yards in this game. They have done so in 31 consecutive games, the longest streak since Pittsburgh did 37 games in 1974-76. Denver has allowed seven 100-yard team rushing games, though only two of those teams were able to do so without the aid of their quarterback's rushing. That may not be good news for Jonathan Stewart, but Carolina can obviously be content with that. Denver ranked first in second level yards and second in open field yards, meaning offenses gain very little on the ground once they get five yards past the line of scrimmage against the Broncos. This is a very talented front seven all around. Surprisingly, the Broncos were 31st against power (short-yardage) runs, and even Carolina was 32nd. However, the Carolina offense ranks second in power runs thanks primarily to Newton himself running the power dive. Do not expect a pass from the 1-yard line to Corey Brown with the game on the line this year. The Panthers will run it for sure, especially since Denver's red-zone run defense is 30th in DVOA, one of its very few poor ratings.
The question is: will all the rushing lead to success? For all the things the Broncos did wrong in Super Bowl XLVIII, the one thing they did well was shut down Marshawn Lynch, and it did not even matter. There is no better way for Denver's defense to win this marquee matchup than to force Cam Newton into mistakes and a bad passing day. Newton has only thrown four interceptions since Week 8, but he has five dropped interceptions in that time as well. Denver has to take advantage of those opportunities. Oddly enough, Denver led the league with 21 takeaways in road games, compared to just six at home.
The running game is going to be important for Carolina, but it does not always lead to a successful passing day. Carolina rushed for 155 yards in Atlanta (Week 16), its fifth-highest output in a game this season. But that was Carolina's only loss after scoring a season-low 13 points. Atlanta's strategy is one that Denver could borrow. The Falcons shrunk the game (eight possessions each) by sticking to the run regardless of effectiveness, and doing well on third down. Despite Carolina's rushing efficiency, the offense did not succeed thanks to the Falcons playing great pass defense. Newton gained just 113 yards on 32 pass plays, and the Falcons forced three throwaways and defensed seven passes by playing the receivers tightly. It was an incredible turnaround from just two weeks earlier when the Panthers shredded Atlanta for 21 points and 260 yards of offense in the first quarter alone in a 38-0 win.
You could say Carolina's lone loss was the result of a rematch with a familiar divisional opponent on the road. Then again, we saw New Orleans and Atlanta trying to cover Ted Ginn, the No. 1 wide receiver on this team, with a linebacker deep down the field. Also consider the entire AFC South, quite arguably the worst division in football, gave Carolina some good battles this season despite not meeting since 2011. Both units can say they are seeing something much different this week compared to the rest of the season. Even with a bye week, Carolina is a difficult offense to prepare for due to the unorthodox plays built around the run that most teams do not tinker with. What Phillips had in store for Tom Brady and the Patriots has to be different here.
Pressure is still going to be critical to forcing those mistakes from Newton. Denver led all defenses this year in pressure rate (34.7 percent), according to ESPN. Everyone knows the Broncos hit Brady 20 times in the AFC Championship Game, but the Panthers have only allowed 61 quarterback hits all season, the third-lowest total in the league. Carolina's had some great practice for this matchup given Seattle (32.7 percent) and Arizona (31.9 percent) ranked second and third in pressure rate. Newton was barely touched in those games and the Panthers have allowed a postseason-low three hits. However, Denver knows how just a couple of well-timed pressure plays can completely blow open a game. Two quick pressures on Manning in Super Bowl XLVIII led to a 22-0 deficit as both plays produced an interception. Denver's defense just recently played the only two teams to allow fewer hits than the Panthers. Ben Roethlisberger was the least-pressured quarterback in 2015, but Denver still got him for three sacks, including a crucial one on fourth down with the game on the line. The Bengals only allowed 58 quarterback hits, but Von Miller should have caused a game-ending fumble from AJ McCarron in overtime in Week 16 had official Ed Hochuli not blown the call.
Phillips' defense had the fourth-highest blitz rate (41.7 percent) this season, but wisely dialed it back to rushing just three or four at Brady. Denver would be smart to do that again given the documented success Newton has had against the blitz this season. When you have DeMarcus Ware and Miller coming off the edges, blitzing is not a must, but that crowd noise and home-field advantage will not be in play at a neutral site.
When Michael Oher and Mike Remmers are the starting tackles, you might think Denver has a huge advantage, but the Panthers have succeeded with these tackles all season. They have to give the tackles some help in this matchup, and Carolina does that in a variety of ways. They can chip with the tight ends and they can go to max-protection schemes with seven or eight blockers. Players such as fullback Mike Tolbert and tight end Ed Dickson may not touch the ball often, but they can block. When we studied the big pass plays in this Carolina offense for Film Room, we found that Carolina likes to use seven-man protection schemes to throw deep. That was how 13 of their 36 gains of at least 25 yards were created. According to SIS charting, Carolina used at least seven blockers on 11.8 percent of its passes this season, second to only Buffalo (12.0 percent).
They may need those plays this week to slow down the pressure, but you have to think Denver's secondary matches up well with this receiving corps. It has a good mixture of speed and size, though obviously tight end Greg Olsen is the main attraction. He can run routes quicker than Rob Gronkowski, who terrorized the Broncos down the stretch of the last game. Olsen could be a real mismatch for Denver linebacker Danny Trevathan down the seam, but I would suggest using cornerback Aqib Talib on him. The bigger Talib will likely draw tall rookie Devin Funchess, one of three Carolina wide receivers with an average target depth of at least 12.8 yards. The more sure-handed Jerricho Cotchery is at 8.4 yards, but he really shares his targets equally with Funchess and Corey Brown, another speedster who should see a lot of Bradley Roby. Chris Harris should draw Ginn for much of the game. All three of Denver's cornerbacks have had good years and rarely allow big plays. According to SIS charting, Talib (5.7), Harris (6.8) and Roby (6.0) all allow fewer than 7.0 yards per pass. Carolina never used four wide receivers on a play this season.
Safety play really hurt Seattle (covering Olsen) and Arizona (bad angles) against this Carolina offense, and that is why it is huge for Darian Stewart and T.J. Ward to be healthy for Denver. Both were out in that Week 15 game when the Steelers carved up this defense. Both were sidelined again with injuries late in the AFC Championship Game and the Patriots started to take advantage. Playing against this offense requires experience and good instincts to not get sucked in by watching Newton and some of the deception the Panthers create with play-action passing and the read-option. If Denver can plaster these receivers and make Newton hold the ball longer, then either the pass rush should get there or he might get antsy to force a pass. While we found that Newton only had three big pass plays that were created from him extending the play, his ability to do that is going to be big in this matchup. It is not so much looking for deep passes in those situations, but he has to take some checkdowns -- Carolina throws to running backs at the lowest rate in the league (12.9 percent) -- to keep the offense on schedule.
Newton cannot afford to get greedy on the biggest stage, because he has to remember he has the other best defense in the world on his side. Sacks, throwaways and punts are not so bad in a game like this. Keep pounding away and strike when the opportunities present themselves.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
For 15 years now, the question "Can you win a Super Bowl with that quarterback?" has often been answered with "Well, the Ravens won a Super Bowl with Trent Dilfer." A decade and a half later, 32 teams have combined to play 479 seasons, and we have yet to see another Super Bowl champion that was so imbalanced towards one side of the ball as the Baltimore Ravens in 2000. But that could all change on Sunday. According to DVOA, the 2015 Broncos are even better on defense than the 2000 Ravens were -- and their offense was even worse than Dilfer's Baltimore club. Counting this weekend's game, we have DVOA for 52 of the 100 teams to play in the Super Bowl, and none of those teams were worse on offense than this year's Broncos. According to DVOA, Denver makes the bottom-five Super Bowl teams in both rushing and passing offense, and their offensive line is tied with the 2008 Arizona Cardinals for the worst Adjusted Line Yards (which only goes back to 1996) of any club playing for the Lombardi Trophy. And, yes, the Peyton Manning of 2015 has surpassed the Trent Dilfer of 2000 as the worst quarterback to start in a Super Bowl since 1989.
That latter statement is not hyperbole. Manning's DVOA was -26.0%, second-worst among quarterbacks with at least 200 passes. Dilfer's DVOA in 2000 was -22.8%, sixth-worst. That's partly because the skyrocketing passing statistics in recent years have raised the baselines for all quarterbacks, but even in a vacuum Dilfer's numbers were as good or better than Manning's except for sacks:
|2000 Trent Dilfer vs. 2015 Peyton Manning
To be fair, Manning has struggled with injuries this season, most notably a torn plantar fascia in his left foot. Those injuries (and Manning's horrible play) caused Kubiak to finally bench Manning after the quarterback threw four interceptions in Week 10 against Kansas City. Manning wouldn't start again until the playoffs, taking six weeks off to heal, and public perception is that Manning has been better since his time off the field. And overall, in a big-picture sense, that is true. Manning's DVOA went from -26.9% before his injury to -7.4% afterwards (including the playoffs and 10 dropbacks off the bench in Week 17 against San Diego). That's definitely better, but it means going from Nick Foles- or Matt Cassel-bad to Josh McCown- or Sam Bradford-bad -- which still isn't any good. Further, that improvement comes entirely from a newfound ability to avoid interceptions. Despite missing seven starts, Manning was second in the NFL this year with 17 interceptions. However, he hasn't thrown any since his return, and luck hasn't had much to do with it -- officially he has thrown only one dropped interception in the playoffs. In every other phase of the game, though, Manning's numbers have actually declined post-injury. He's getting sacked more (with a sack rate climbing from 4.5 percent to 6.0 percent), he's completing fewer passes (completion rate falling from 59.9 percent to 55.1 percent), and he's making fewer big plays (yards per completion falling from 11.3 to 10.9). And that's against San Diego, Pittsburgh, and New England -- not exactly a murderer's row of pass defenses. So no, he has not thrown any interceptions since his injury, but he has actually gotten worse at moving his team up and down the field. It's quite ironic that Manning, once known as the best quarterback without a Super Bowl ring, could soon become one of the worst quarterbacks to win one.
Manning and the Broncos have changed their philosophy somewhat since he has returned to the lineup. Before his injury, Manning threw 47 percent of his passes to receivers within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage; 31 percent to mid-range receivers 6 to 15 yards downfield; and 23 percent to deeper routes of at least 16 yards. Since his return, his percentage of deep balls hasn't changed much, but he has been throwing fewer short routes (down to 37 percent of all throws) and more medium passes (up to 38 percent). In finer detail, though, there has been some fluctuation here. Manning's splits against Pittsburgh (49 percent short/30 percent medium/22 percent deep) were very similar to his pass distribution earlier in the year, but he was much less likely to throw short passes against San Diego (22%/33%/44%, in only nine passes) or New England (28%/50%/22%). How will the Broncos choose to attack Carolina? In this case, it's a bit of pick your poison. The Panthers allowed 4.8 yards per play against short routes (seventh-best in the league) and a success rate of only 39 percent (fourth). However, they gave up a league-low 6.6 yards per play on medium-range routes, and only Houston allowed a lower success rate on those passes than Carolina's 49 percent. (And as our team defense page shows, Carolina was also excellent in coverage against deep passes.)
The other big change in Manning's philosophy has been a lesser reliance on Demaryius Thomas. Pre-injury, Manning targeted Thomas on 30 percent of his passes; since returning to the lineup, he has thrown to Thomas 22 percent of the time. (And I mean that with shocking consistency: Thomas was targeted on 22 percent of Manning's passes against San Diego, Pittsburgh, and New England.) This might explain the drop in Manning's interceptions. Thomas was the target on five interceptions thrown by Manning and three more thrown by Brock Osweiler, a total of eight that was matched only by Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown (eight) and Brandon Marshall of the Jets (nine). Emmanuel Sanders has actually been Manning's most frequent target of late, but that's only because Thomas' targets have fallen off. Sanders' targets have stayed about the same, as have those of Denver's running backs and tight ends. Instead, the passes that were going to Thomas earlier in the year are now going to Denver's "other" wide receivers, guys like Cody Latimer, Jordan Norwood, Andre Caldwell, and Bennie Fowler. Collectively, that quartet has 10 catches in 18 targets for 108 yards in the playoffs, similar to Sanders' totals (10-16-147) and dwarfing those of Thomas (6-15-52).
Ordinarily, after explaining that a team likes to spread the ball around like that, we would refer you to our "2015 DEFENSE vs. TYPES OF RECEIVERS" page and call it good, but the Panthers playing in Carolina's secondary right now are not the same men represented in those tables. The Panthers lost nickelback Bene' Benwikere to a broken leg in Week 14 and starting corner Charles Tillman to a torn ACL in Week 17. Journeymen Robert McClain and Cortland Finnegan, both of whom were unemployed as of Thanksgiving, have been starting at cornerback and nickelback, respectively. Though the Panthers still have top cornerback Josh Norman (11th in success rate in the regular season, sixth in yards allowed per target) available, they are otherwise fielding two other guys on every passing down that nobody else in the league wanted, not even for roster depth.
This has left Carolina very vulnerable to teams that can spread them out with multiple quality wideouts -- at least, on paper. How has it turned out in reality? Well, Finnegan hasn't been much of a factor at all, targeted only five times in two playoff games. Norman has been targeted 11 times, and though his per-target stats have been poor (45 percent success rate, 7.1 yards allowed per target), considering that he has spent chunks of those games covering excellent receivers in Larry Fitzgerald and Doug Baldwin, Carolina can live with it. McClain, meanwhile, has been picked on like you wouldn't believe. According to SIS charting, the Seahawks and Cardinals targeted him 26 times in two games. (Manning, of course, has a history of picking on vulnerable corners -- remember the Roc Alexander game?) To put that into perspective, Kansas City rookie Marcus Peters led all cornerbacks with 119 targets this year, which works out to 7.4 targets per game. So far in the playoffs, McClain has been targeted nearly twice as frequently. The results of those throws have been mixed. McClain's success rate of 50 percent in coverage is very bad, worse than about 80 percent of qualifying corners in the regular season. However, he is allowing only 5.9 yards per target, which is better than 80 percent of corners. In essence, McClain is giving up short, meaningful completions all day long, but he's not letting receivers get behind him for big plays. Given the nature of his situation and the strengths and weaknesses of Carolina in general, this kind of nothing-deep, nothing-cheap football makes sense. Preventing long completions and forcing opponents to move down the field one first down at a time will give Carolina's ferocious front seven and pass rush more opportunities to make big plays.
If this lack of secondary depth opened a vulnerability in Carolina's defense, then you'd be hard pressed to find two better offenses to exploit it than the Panthers' two playoff opponents, Seattle and Arizona. Carson Palmer and Russell Wilson were first and third in passing DVOA this year, and both had plenty of weapons at their disposal; the Seahawks and Cardinals were two of 14 teams we have ever measured that each had three wide receivers among the top 20 at the position in receiving DYAR. And yet those two great quarterbacks with all those downfield options combined to complete 61 percent of their passes with four touchdowns, six interceptions, eight sacks, and just 5.7 yards per pass play. In 24 drives, the Seahawks and Cardinals managed only five touchdowns and a field goal. And again, that was against two offenses that were much better suited to pick on backup cornerbacks than the current version of the Denver Broncos. This success is a huge credit to the Panthers' pass rushers, and to the schemes of Ron Rivera and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott.
However, while those schemes have been effective against wide receivers, they have opened up some holes against tight end and running backs. Seattle's Luke Willson and Arizona's Darren Fells combined for a 55 percent success rate and averaged 8.2 yards on 11 targets against Carolina; the average numbers for tight ends this season were a 51 percent success rate and 7.2 yards per target. The Panthers have also allowed (or forced, depending on how you look at it) 17 passes to running backs, averaging 6.2 yards per target with a success rate of 47 percent, both very close to the average numbers for all running backs this season. So the Panthers have not been terrible in coverage against these positions, just mediocre. On this defense, though, that qualifies as a weakness.
Unfortunately for Denver, it's not a weakness they will likely be able to exploit. Manning hasn't been very good throwing to tight ends this season, before or after his injury. In his first nine games, he had a 46 percent success rate and 6.5 yards per pass throwing to tight ends; in his last three, those numbers have fallen to 40 percent and 5.7 (though Owen Daniels caught a pair of touchdown passes against New England). And things have been even worse for Manning when throwing to his running backs. Pre-injury, he had a 19 percent success rate and 3.9 yards per pass when throwing to his backs; post-injury, that average is up a hair to 4.0 yards per pass, but the already miniscule success rate has been cut nearly in half, to 11 percent. If the Broncos are counting on C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman to make hay against Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly in coverage, well, this game is already lost.
Signs are very grim for Denver's passing game. Is there any more hope for their running game? Anderson and Hillman have found more valleys than peaks this season on the ground, but they seemed to have things turned around in recent weeks, with 21 total DYAR in Week 16 against Cincinnati, 29 more a week later against San Diego, and 21 again in the divisional round against Pittsburgh. That's three of the five best games the combo have produced all year. And then it all came crashing down to earth when they had -25 DYAR between them against New England in the AFC Championship Game.
Hillman and Anderson are both boom-or-bust backs, each ranking among the top 20 running backs in highest average yards per carry, but lowest success rate. Only five other running backs made both of those lists; Anderson and Todd Gurley were the only backs to make the top 10 in both categories.
Only one of those boom-and-bust backs faced Carolina's defense this year: New Orleans' Mark Ingram, who ran 26 times for 106 yards and two touchdowns in two games against the Panthers. Oddly, while Carolina was able to limit his big plays, they allowed him to be very efficient. His longest run gained only 14 yards, but he was stuffed just four times. Twelve of his 26 carries gained 4 yards or more, and he picked up seven first downs on the ground.
In the playoffs, the Panthers have jumped out to early leads and held the ball for long drives, and as a result their run defense was barely tested against Seattle or Arizona. They have faced 24 running back carries in the postseason, and eight of those carries have ended in stuffs. However, they also gave up runs of 14, 15, and 23 yards in the first half to David Johnson last week.
As you have probably noticed, it's awfully hard to find anywhere on the field where Denver's offense might have an edge, but if they are able to reach scoring range, they might enjoy good luck finish drives. Carolina's defense was surprisingly weak in the front zone (with a DVOA of 6.7%, which ranked 23rd) and red zone (3.4%, 18th). Denver's offensive DVOA in the front zone was -4.2%, which ranked 19th, and though their red zone DVOA was 26th at -14.7%, they should have an advantage there too as long as they keep the ball on the ground -- not because they were especially good at it (they weren't, ranking 23rd with a -21.5% DVOA), but because Carolina's defense was so bad (25.4%, last).
In fact, Carolina's sole defensive shortcoming all year has been an inability to stop short-yardage runs. They were dead last against power runs, and as a result they were 27th in third-/fourth-down rushing plays, and 28th on all third-/fourth-down plays with 1 or 2 yards to go. Denver was 23rd in power runs and 27th in all third-/fourth-and-short plays, but they were fifth in third-/fourth-down rushing DVOA. Getting to and converting short-yardage opportunities seems to be Denver's only realistic hope in this game.
Aside from short-yardage runs, the Panthers defense holds a big edge over the Broncos offense in almost every quarter of the game, every part of the field, every scoring situation, every down, every distance. And now the Broncos are about to play the best defense they have seen all year (well, except when facing their own defense in practice). They only played three games in 2015 against defenses in our top 10: Kansas City (twice) and Cincinnati. In 37 drives in those games, they managed three field goals (one in overtime) and seven touchdowns. That's 1.57 points per drive, which would have been 27th in the league this year.
Trent Dilfer became known as the worst quarterback to win a Super Bowl because the Ravens defense pitched a shutout against New York; the Giants' only points in Super Bowl XXXV came on a kick return. Dilfer, though, benefitted from playing against a defense that ranked 12th in DVOA, not second like this year's Panthers. This time around, the lousy quarterback is far more likely to lose in a shutout than to win in one.
This will likely be a low-scoring game, which places extra emphasis on punts and field goals, while diminishing the importance of kickoffs. Denver's Brandon McManus had a better year than Carolina's Graham Gano, but Gano has a superior record of long-term success. In his two NFL seasons, McManus has been nearly perfect on shorter kicks (27-of-28 within 39 yards) but very shaky on anything longer than that (12-of-20, 60 percent, from 40 yards or more). He also missed an extra point this year. Gano, meanwhile, is 53-of-56 on shorter kicks in four seasons in Carolina, and 38-of-52 (73 percent) on longer kicks. However, he did miss three extra points this year.
Brad Nortman's biggest weakness as a punter is an inability to force fair catches, allowing more than half his punts to be returned. David Mayo and Joe Webb (who also returns kicks) lead Carolina's nondescript coverage teams. With Omar Bolden on injured reserve, Emmanuel Sanders has been Denver's primary punt returner, but he has been terrible at it, averaging just 6.1 yards per return with a long gain of only 14 yards and a key fumble in a loss to Oakland. Denver's overall punt return rating is boosted by Bolden's 83-yard touchdown against Indianapolis.
Denver's high ranking in punting speaks more to the strength of its coverage team than it does of Britton Colquitt, whose punts were actually below average in value once we account for the Mile High altitude, but the Broncos allowed only 6.9 yards per return. Ted Ginn had a very consistent year as a punt returner, with 10.3 yards per return even though his longest gain was only 37 yards.
Gano was actually a top-10 kickoff man this year, but Carolina was third-worst in kickoff coverage. Bolden's injury left Andre Caldwell as Denver's primary kick returner; he returned seven kickoffs in the regular season, none longer than 29 yards. For Denver, McManus was below average on kickoffs (again, adjusting for altitude), while the Broncos' coverage teams, led by Shaquil Barrett and Todd Davis, were just average. Carolina only returned 27 kickoffs this year, including the playoffs. Fozzy Whittaker and Joe Webb split return duties for the Panthers; neither accomplished much of anything.
Fans who believe that "defense wins championships" should be pleased with this matchup between the two best defenses in the NFL. However, even with these defenses, do not count out a comeback should either team get down big quickly. Conventional wisdom says Denver's conservative offense can least afford to fall behind the way so many of Carolina's recent opponents have. However, the Broncos have come back to win after trailing by 14 points three times this season, and did so against top AFC teams (the Chiefs, Patriots, and Bengals). They also erased a 17-point deficit in Indianapolis (Manning's last road start) before losing. We know very well that Carolina let huge second-half leads against the Colts, Packers, Giants, and Seahawks shrink quickly. We also know that Denver has blown leads of 17 (Pittsburgh) and 12 (Oakland) points this season, while Carolina, despite its run-heavy reputation, has the scoring power to rally back from behind.
Even though Carolina's offense lacks the usual efficiency of a top-scoring unit, it is still considerably better than any version of offense the 2015 Broncos have fielded. That difference, combined with Carolina's season-long superiority in the turnover battle, is why the Panthers are a deserving favorite of 5.5 points. If the Broncos lose the turnover battle to a Carolina team that led the league with a plus-20 differential, this could get ugly like some Denver Super Bowls of the past. That is why the Denver defense must be the best one on the field Sunday night, and why Carolina has more flexibility to find a way to win Super Bowl 50 for the first title in team history.
However, Denver's defense has done an incredible job of keeping games close all season. The only real blowout was the Week 10 loss to Kansas City where a clearly injured Manning was turning the ball over constantly. He is not likely to play so poorly in what should be the final game of his career. This is a much different team than the one that took the field in that 43-8 mess two years ago in Super Bowl XLVIII, where the game was basically over one play into the third quarter. If Denver can manage the early storm and keep the score close into the fourth quarter, then this will be anyone's game. But if we are forced to choose a winner, then Carolina is the clear pick here.
DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.
Team DVOA numbers incorporate all plays; since passing is generally more efficient than rushing, the average for passing is actually above 0% while the average for rushing is below 0%.
SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense. Those numbers are explained here.
Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list red zone DVOA and WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here).
Each team also gets a chart showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to total DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a rolling average of the last five games. For the conference championships and Super Bowl, there are two charts, one for offense and one for defense. The defensive chart is reversed so that improving (i.e. lower DVOA) is on top and getting worse (i.e. higher DVOA) is on bottom.