Monday, January 25, 2016
Super Bowl 50 Preview
Five Quick Hits
* I wish there had been more time in between games on Sunday. The nail-biter in Denver ended minutes before kickoff in Carolina, and if the game had gone into overtime, that creates a conflict for viewers.
* Even if you DVR the NFC Championship Game while you watch the end of the AFC Championship Game, good luck avoiding the scroll at your bottom of your screen, telling you that it's 17-0 Carolina before you've even switched over. There should be four hours, minimum, between the conference championship games. Probably four and a half. I'd rather watch a pre-game show for 15 minutes than miss the first drive of the NFC Championship Game.
* Anyone else catch Rob Gronkowski complaining to the back judge near the end of the early game? He mimed that the Broncos had basically attempted to murder him, on a play that rightfully drew no penalties. Hey Gronk, there's another sport where crying and faking does draw penalties. It's called soccer. Either sign with the New England Revolution, or grow up.
* I chose Cam Newton as my all-pro QB and league MVP, and he played great on Sunday. But I've never seen a quarterback so willing to throw a 4-yard pass on 3rd-and-10.
* Congratulations to this year's finalists for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award: Anquan Boldin, Eli Manning, and Ben Watson. Boldin is the favorite. This is the second year in a row he's been a finalist. Thomas Davis, who won last season, had also been a finalist for the second year in a row.
* Get an early look at the 2016 Super Bowl commercials.
Denver Broncos 20, New England Patriots 18
"All this build-up about Brady and Manning, and it's turned into a Miller and Collins affair," marveled Jim Nantz, referring to the dominance of defensive stars Von Miller (2.5 sacks, INT) and Jamie Collins (6 tackles, 2 sacks). It's not surprising that this was a low-scoring game. Denver has a mediocre offense, New England had a good defense, and the Broncos had the best defense in the NFL.
The Denver defense was fantastic. Tom Brady was under constant pressure, although the Broncos blitzed very little, actually used a three-man rush for much of the game. The defensive backs smothered New England's receivers, and the linebackers flew to the ball when Brady completed passes underneath. Wade Phillips had a great game plan, and his players executed brilliantly.
The Denver offense played smart and under control. Peyton Manning took several long, uncharacteristic sacks, retreating under pressure. While it's frustrating to see quarterbacks take a 15-yard sack instead of throwing the ball away, Manning was careful not to force any throws, and he avoided turnovers, other than an incomplete lateral which Ronnie Hillman left sitting on the ground. I don't get why so many players are so lazy about loose balls. It's incredibly easy to lean down and pick up a ball that might be live, but almost no one does it. It's foolish, and it could have cost Denver the game if things had gone differently.
Three items that were remarkable:
1. The Patriots won the coin toss and elected to receive. They're famous for deferring.
2. Brady had an 11-yard rush, and Manning had a 12-yard rush. Brady led the Patriots in rushing on Sunday, and it was Manning's first game all season with positive rushing yardage, also his longest gain since 2010, with the Colts before his neck surgery.
3. All-pro kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed an extra point, after he was perfect in the regular season, and he had an unsuccessful onside kick, after going 2-for-2 in the regular season. The PAT was critical, as New England lost on a missed two-point conversion.
Carolina Panthers 49, Arizona Cardinals 15
For the second year in a row, the last game before the Super Bowl produced a blowout. Last season, New England beat Indianapolis 45-7, in the game that precipitated the infantile "Deflategate" scandal. This year, the Panthers embarrassed the Cardinals just as badly.
I opened last week's forecast by writing, "Whoever wins the turnover battle will win the game," and going on to predict, "the Panthers win a close one." Well, the Panthers dominated the turnover battle, 7-1, and won a game that wasn't close at all.
Carson Palmer, under frequent pressure early, then rattled and desperate late, made poor decisions and bad throws. And despite Bruce Arians' denials, it's hard to believe that Palmer's injured finger didn't affect his play. The Panthers, meanwhile, moved the ball at will. Their first three drives produced 171 yards and 17 points. Arizona didn't know how to deal with Cam Newton's multi-dimensional run-pass potential — which is strange for an NFC West team — and lost in all phases of defense. As a team, the Cardinals looked overwhelmed.
The biggest concern for Carolina wouldn't be its play — the Panthers finally held onto a big second-half lead — but injuries. They lost another defensive back, Roman Harper, to friendly fire (a hard hit by Luke Kuechly, who scored a TD for the second week in a row), and captain Thomas Davis missed most of the second half with an arm injury, though he promised to be ready for the Super Bowl.
The Crystal Ball
Super Bowl 50: Carolina Panthers vs. Denver Broncos
Santa Clara, California
February 7, 2015
For the third year in a row, the top seeds from both conferences will meet in the Super Bowl. But this result wasn't as likely as that stat would imply. The hottest teams coming into the playoffs were the Chiefs (on a 10-game win streak), the Cardinals (who lost a 9-game streak with a half-hearted Week 17), and the Seahawks (whose last four wins came by a combined 139-32). The Panthers had a tough road to the big game, and the Broncos just didn't look particularly intimidating at the end of the regular season.
This is the first Super Bowl for both head coaches, though both have been to Super Bowls in other capacities. The Broncos' Gary Kubiak becomes the seventh head coach to make a Super Bowl in his first year with the team, joining Don McCafferty, Red Miller, George Seifert, Bill Callahan, Jon Gruden, and Jim Caldwell. Additionally, Peyton Manning will become the oldest QB to start a Super Bowl, breaking the record held by his employer, John Elway.
CAROLINA ON OFFENSE
Denver has a great defense, but this is a bad matchup. The Broncos thrive on pressure, but Cam Newton's running ability means he can evade pass rushers, and he'll run through openings if you leave them. The Broncos will get some sacks, but their pressure won't have the same effect it did against the Patriots. Denver's pass defense is better than its rush defense, and Carolina is one of the most balanced offenses in the league, with a good ground game. New England prefers to throw, which played to Denver's strength, but if Mike Shula is smart, I'd expect the Panthers to run about 50% of the time, more if they get a big lead. I'd also look for some sort of trick play to break things open.
The Broncos need to contain the rush, while preventing big plays downfield: make Newton throw short and intermediate passes, string together long drives. He's capable of that, but the Broncos can't get run over on the ground, or killed on sudden, momentum-generating big-play strikes. The Broncos have won with their defense all year, and they'll need a low-scoring game if they're going to win, so giving up a 50-yard TD would be devastating. Force the Panthers to work the ball down the field, preferably through the air, and hope you can force a couple of turnovers.
DENVER ON OFFENSE
This still seems weird to say about a Peyton Manning offense, but the Broncos are best when their offense is smart and conservative, with an emphasis on ball control. You expect to see what the team has shown its last few games. They'll stick with the run, mostly grinding out short gains to keep the defense honest, and probably break a long one at some point. Manning will take a few shots downfield, but his role is more to find the right plays and pick up first downs on 3rd-and-6. The priority is avoiding turnovers. The Broncos aren't going to win a shootout, and they're not expecting to win with explosive offense; they want big plays from their defense.
Carolina's priority is probably to prevent Denver from establishing its run game and getting into a rhythm. Don't make mistakes, and force Manning to win with his arm. The Panthers are effective ballhawks, as we saw in the NFC Championship Game, but they probably don't need to force turnovers as long as they're solid throughout the game. They need to be creative enough that Manning doesn't pick them apart with his calls at the line, but they don't need to be aggressive, exactly. Luke Kuechly and Josh Norman are terrific players, but Carolina's most important defender in this game might be Kawann Short. Manning can't overcome a good interior pass rush.
This might be a small advantage for Denver, which has a slightly better kicker, slightly better punter, and more dangerous return game. For the Broncos to win, they'll probably need an edge from special teams: a big return or a blocked kick or something.
The three best teams in the NFL this year were all in the NFC: the Panthers, Cardinals, and Seahawks. The Panthers have already beaten the other two, pretty handily, and they're 4-point favorites to win Super Bowl 50. Denver has a great defense, though, and you should never underestimate great defensive teams in a championship. The Broncos were in the Super Bowl two years ago, so they have Super Bowl experience, which the Panthers do not. And it's widely assumed that this will be Manning's last game. I hate to imply that players don't always perform at their peak, especially in a game of this magnitude, but sometimes you see a little more when emotions are running high. Who's to say the Broncos don't find something extra to help the Sheriff ride off into the sunset?
All the intangibles point in Denver's direction. But the Panthers are a better team. They have a great defense, too, as their seven takeaways against Arizona would attest, and they have a much more explosive offense. Their effective ground game plays away from Denver's strengths, and interior defensive pressure could radically disrupt Manning's gameplan. I think the Panthers win comfortably, 27-16.