Charlotte, N.C. — The Carolina Panthers are “going going back back to Cali Cali” to quote the late rapper, Biggie Smalls. They are headed to the Super Bowl for the second time in franchise history following their dismantling of the Arizona Cardinals 49-15 on Sunday in the NFC Championship game.
This has been a dream season for the Panthers and their fans. Not many people saw a 17-1 record and trip to the Super Bowl in their future when Greg Hardy was released and Kelvin Benjamin was lost for the season. The 21-year-old franchise is gaining relevancy and solidifying it’s place in history. The kids receiving game balls after touchdowns will be life long fans. Cam Newton will, in all likelihood, be named the Associated Press Most Valuable Player the day before the Super Bowl. The reigning NBA MVP Stephen Curry, a Charlotte native and huge Panthers fan, was recorded practicing in a Carolina Panthers’ jersey today. Charlotte is on the map. The city is alive and it is a great time to be a part of it.
As satisfying as this season has been, it will not be a complete success unless the Panthers go to Santa Clara, take care of business, and return with the hardware. To do so they will have to beat the most complete team they will have faced all season in the AFC Champion, Denver Broncos.
Who knows what the future holds for Peyton Manning, but he is one of the greatest quarterbacks and football minds of all time and, when healthy, still makes the entire team better. Demaryius Thomas is an elite wide receiver and he and Manning have impeccable timing. Emmanuel Sanders is a speedy compliment to Thomas and tight end Owen Daniels caught two touchdown passes in Sunday’s win over the Patriots. The Broncos are a passing team, but running backs C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman are elusive runners who frequently escape for big plays by way of runs and screens in the passing game.
Manning’s arm strength is not what it once was, and he relies on timing, anticipation, and short passes more than ever, so it will be imperative that the Panthers’ pass rush forces Manning to move around in the pocket to disrupt his rhythm as they did to Carson Palmer Sunday night. If the Panthers’ defense can apply significant pressure without blitzing, that increases the chances that they can force interceptions because more defenders will be free to cover space against the pass.
Carolina has thrived on turnovers and Peyton Manning has looked vulnerable at times in the Super Bowl. Most recently, the Seattle Seahawks embarrassed the Broncos 43-8 two years ago in Super Bowl 48 in a game in which Peyton Manning lost one fumble and threw two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown.
The Panthers offense played like a well oiled machine Sunday night and Mike Shula deserves full credit, as he seems to be several steps ahead of opposing defensive coordinators these days. The offensive players are executing like championship players should as well. The Denver Broncos have the best defense in the league statistically and they pass the eye test. However, team statistics can be thrown out the window at this point. This game will be about which team can impose their will on the other.
Demarcus Ware is an all time great pass rusher. He is third on the active sack list with 134.5 for his career. Von Miller trails only J.J. Watt in sacks since he entered the league in 2011 with 60. They are very active and very good. Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. are probably the best duo of cornerbacks in the league. All four players were selected tot the Pro Bowl this season. The combination of dynamic pass rushers and elite cover corners makes this a dangerous Denver defense. Their formula is the same as the Panthers’ defense. Apply pressure and force turnovers. Miller in particular is very versatile because he is capable of dropping in to coverage as well as rushing the passer as evidenced by his interception of Tom Brady on Sunday.
This will be Cam Newton’s toughest test. Miller and Ware will chase Newton as much as anyone has all season. Cam has not had to scramble much recently because he and the offense have been so efficient in the passing game, but I think he will have to use his scrambling ability more against the Broncos due to the excellence of Miller and Ware. The Broncos mix up their coverages well and if the pocket breaks down, it will be up to Cam to make plays with his legs.
The Panthers’ offensive line has exceeded expectations all season and they will need to be at their best for one more game against the Broncos to give Newton time to find his receivers that seem to be perpetually open as of late. I expect Greg Olsen and Corey Brown to have the best match ups against the Denver defense, so look for those two especially to make big plays.
Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert will find their spots as well against an aggressive defense that likes to get up field quickly. Look for Mike Shula to use screen passes and misdirection to get them involved and keep the defense off balance.
Carolina puts a bow on their fairy tale season by defeating the Denver Broncos 31-17.
The Panthers will return to Charlotte on February 8, 2016, as heroes and Super Bowl Champions. Peyton Manning is a class act and deserves all of the respect he garners, but this is the Panthers’ year.
The Panthers have ditched the image of lucky winners, and have a chance to claim the title of World Champions with a win over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50. Win or lose, Carolina has gained national respect and established a winning culture that they will continue to build on for years to come. The Panthers and their fans should take a moment to savor the atmosphere and appreciate the journey this team has taken us all on. Charlotte and the Carolinas are always a great place to be. Right now, the Carolina Panthers are a big reason why.