Give Denver this: they learned their lesson from their blowout Super Bowl loss two years ago. Unlike the Patriots, who still are vulnerable to the same gameplan the Giants used to beat them twice in the Super Bowl, the Broncos studied their flaws and took steps to correct them.
The upshot is that this Broncos team is far more balanced than the one the Seahawks destroyed. They have the top defense in the league. Their offense, while not as threatening as the record-breaking 2013 one, still can be fairly efficient at times, as in the first half of the AFC Championship game. And while Peyton Manning is physically a ghost of his former self, he is still a genius at reading the defense.
Against New England, Denver’s defense pressured Brady with a four man rush, forcing him to throw before he wanted to, and disrupting his timing. It was a very well-played defensive game.
The thing is that Brady, while indisputably one of the best quarterbacks ever, is not exactly fleet of foot. He has good pocket awareness, but he’s not much of a runner–even though he did have an 11 yard scramble for a first down in the AFC Championship.
Cam Newton presents a very different threat. He is fast, and he is strong. If they try to rush around the tackles and leave the middle of the field open, Newton isn’t going to dance around waiting for someone to come open–he can just take off down the field.
Even worse news for Denver: Carolina runs a play designed to confuse defensive ends and linebackers and slow down the rush. The read-option play is exactly the thing that you use against a good defensive line.
Throughout Denver’s win against the Patriots, I was marveling at how one-dimensional and unoriginal New England’s offense was. They never tried anything other than spreading out their receivers and trying to throw the ball on Denver. Minimal running, no end-arounds, no trick plays like the one they ran against Baltimore last year. It was a very uninspired gameplan.
Then I watched Carolina demolish Arizona with a varied, creative offense that looked like it would be a nightmare to defend against. If the power running doesn’t beat you down, Newton fires bullet passes to fast receivers downfield. If you try stopping that by dropping men into coverage, he runs for the first himself. They throw to the tight end out of running formations; they run wide receiver reverse plays disguised as option plays. It’s the complete package.
If Carolina’s offense has a weakness, it is that it’s not clear how accurate Newton really is. Against the Cardinals, he didn’t need to be–his receivers were consistently getting open and could adjust to make the catch. But if coverage is tight, I’m not sure he can make the pinpoint throws. The only receiver they have who seems capable of winning a physical battle for the ball is Olsen.
Of course, even with good coverage, Newton may still beat Denver with his legs. Of Denver’s 4 losses this year, 3 were to teams with scrambling quarterbacks who could evade the rush: Alex Smith, Andrew Luck, and Ben Roethlisberger. Newton is like those guys, only faster and stronger.
As for when Denver has the ball…
Peyton Manning has had perhaps the most bizarre year of any quarterback to ever reach the Super Bowl. He’s thrown tons of interceptions to not very many touchdowns, he’s been benched for a stretch… And yet he played one of the best post-seasons of his career, orchestrating clutch drives and big plays when his team needed them.
In the first half of the AFC championship, the Patriots inexplicably decided to play soft coverage and let Manning have easy completions. They also covered his top target with a linebacker. After Manning got two touchdowns thanks to this, they adjusted, and Denver managed only a field goal in the second half.
Manning doesn’t throw the ball with much force anymore. I’ve never heard anyone mention this, but I suspect the reason he chose to go to Denver after his recovery in 2012 is that he knew the thin air would mask this problem a bit. Unfortunately for him, they are not playing the Super Bowl in Denver.
If Carolina is smart, they will play press coverage on Manning’s receivers, stuff the run with their linebackers, and dare Manning to beat them by making throws down the field. My bet would be that he can’t. The Carolina defense has looked vulnerable at times–notably against the other Manning brother–but their total domination of the vaunted Arizona offense shows they can be very tough to throw against.
Denver has done a very good job rebuilding on the fly after a loss that would have demoralized many teams. They still have a lot of players who were in the Super Bowl two years ago, and they are not going to let themselves get humiliated like that again. In the end though, Carolina just has too much talent and too many different ways of winning for Denver to pull it off. Denver won’t go without a fight this time, but they won’t win either.
CAROLINA PANTHERS: 31
DENVER BRONCOS: 20