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Sunday, February 7, 2016

Super Bowl 50 Prediction

Carolina Panthers vs. Denver Broncos.  February 7, 2016 at 6:30 EST on CBS.  The most predominant storyline heading into Super Bowl 50 is the rising star of Cam Newton against the fading light of hall of famer Peyton Manning.  But, football is the ultimate team game.  So simple narratives rarely tell the whole story.  That is why a prediction column is necessary.

How they got here.  Before the season, the Carolina Panthers were not picked by many people to make the Super Bowl, but they finished the regular season with an stunning 15-1 record.  The Panthers' only loss came in a meaningless game on December 27 at the arch rival Atlanta Falcons.  During the playoffs, the Panthers faced what many perceived to be the two most dangerous challengers in the conference in the Seahawks and the Cardinals.  The Panthers beat the Seahawks 31-24 after getting off to a huge lead in the first half.  The Panthers then demolished the Arizona Cardinals by a score of 49-15 to earn a place in the Super Bowl.

The Denver Broncos finished the regular season with a 12-4 record.  All four of their losses came down the stretch in November and December, but Brock Osweiler and not Peyton Manning was the starting quarterback for three of those four defeats.  The Broncos also beat the experts' two favorite teams to win the AFC when they topped the Steelers and the Patriots.  Unlike the Panthers, the Broncos needed brilliant performances in clutch moments to advance past both opponents and reach the Super Bowl.

Offensive breakdown.  For most of Manning's career, when his teams advanced deep into the playoffs, the questions were about the defense and not the offense.  That is not the case this year.  The Denver Broncos are right in the middle of the pack in most meaningful offensive categories and are 19th in scoring offense.  The Panthers, on the other hand, are the most prolific scoring team in the league.  The Panthers score all those points thanks to a dominant rushing attack that includes both their running backs and Cam Newton.

Defensive Breakdown.  Heading into the Super Bowl, the game has been framed as the Broncos' top ranked defense squaring off against the Panthers' top ranked offense.  What gets lost in that narrative is the fact that the Panthers have a superb defense themselves.  The Broncos defense is ranked first in terms of yards per game, but they are just 4th in terms of scoring.  The Panthers are 6th in scoring defense.  In my book, that is pretty much a wash.

Intangibles.  Although I downplayed the importance of the quarterback matchup at the start of this column, there is no denying that the quarterback story is a compelling one.  Will the youthful enthusiasm of Cam Newton prevail or will it be the stoic seriousness of Peyton Manning?

Although there has not been an official announcement, it is widely believed that win or lose, this will by Peyton Manning's "last rodeo."  If the Broncos were to prevail, it would not be the first time they sent a legendary quarterback into retirement with a Super Bowl victory.  But, if the Broncos do win this game, it will most likely not be because of Manning's arm.  Manning's mind and his team's running game and defense will have to be the keys to a victory.

Experience certainly does count.  But, even at his young age, Cam Newton has already been battle tested in the crucible of SEC football and in a national championship game in college.  The game will not be too big for the Panthers' quarterback.

Prediction.  At most betting establishments, the Carolina Panthers are favored by six points over the Denver Broncos.  It is important to remember that betting lines are not actually predictions.  They are established to create equal wagering on both teams.  Nonetheless, there are favorites for a reason.  Since 2000, teams that have been favored by more than a field goal have gone 7-4 in the Super Bowl. I expect that trend to continue in Super Bowl 50.

Weighing in the Broncos favor is the strength of schedule this season.  Playing in the AFC West, the Broncos faced stiffer competition than the Panthers did in the NFC South.  But, the only thing a team can do is beat the teams that are put in front of them.  The Panthers did that all but once this year.  Both teams played the top teams in their conference in the playoffs.  The Broncos beat those teams.  The Panthers put on clinics.

The Panthers are a very different team than the Patriots for two reasons.  The first difference is the rushing game.  The Broncos unleashed a punishing pass rush against the Patriots because they did not have to fear a rushing attack.  That won't be the case against the Panthers.  The other huge difference is the fact that Cam Newton is ... well ... huge.  When the Broncos rush Newton, they will be meeting a guy their own size in the backfield.  Newton will be able to turn otherwise successful blitzes into a few big gains.

In order for the Broncos to win this game, they will need to play a nearly perfect game on both sides of the ball.  They are capable of doing that, but the chances are slim.  In the end, the Panthers' defense will be the deciding factor in the game.  As the game wears on, the Panthers will gain momentum and become like a snowball rolling downhill.

I predict the Panthers will win this game by a score of 38-17.

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