Bold prediction of the day: Brandon McManus misses a 41-yd game winner as time expires, and the Carolina Panthers hold on to defeat the Denver Broncos in a thriller.
Score: Panthers 19 | Broncos 17
This is a tough game to call. The Panthers are easily the most balanced team in the league, with a strong defense anchored by an outstanding linebacker corps, and a powerful offense led by MVP-candidate Cam Newton. The Broncos, however, have the #1 defense in the league, and a satisfactory offense led by elite QB turned game manager Peyton Manning.
Peyton Manning vs. Carolinas D: Before Peyton was sidelined due to a left-foot energy, he led the league with 17 INT’s in 9 games. Meanwhile, over the regular season, Carolina led the league with 24 INT’s and a +20 turnover differential. However, Peyton has not thrown an INT since he re-entered the starting QB role during the last game of the regular season.
Can Peyton remain flawless against an opportunistic Panthers’ D? Or will his struggles in the Super Bowl continue, with pick-sixes in each of his past two Super Bowl appearances? Based on his history and this outstanding Panthers defensive squad, I am leaning towards the latter.
Fun fact of the day: every team that has thrown a pick-six in the Super Bowl has gone on to lost.
Broncos’ defensive front vs. Panthers’ O-Line: The Panthers’ O-Line shined in the NFC Championship Game, protecting Newton and giving him plenty of time to throw. The Broncos’ defensive front likewise shined, pressuring Tom Brady more times than any other QB since 1996.
One of the keys to this game, for either side, is to win the battle of the trenches. If the Carolina O-line can neutralize Von Miller and Ware — it’s a whole new game. If the Denver D-line can bring pressure to Newton, it could be a repeat of two weeks ago, but with more turnovers, taking into account Newton’s relative lack of experience.
Carolina’s rushing attack vs. Denver’s run D: And by “rushing attack” I mean the one combined from Jonathan Stewart and Cam Newton. Denver has not faced a mobile QB like Newton all year. That said, Denver’s run D is the first in the league. If Denver can keep Newton in the pocket, how does Newton respond?
Possession battle: Carolina has scored at least 40 points in its postseason games. I have total faith in Denver’s D not to give up so much but to keep Carolina’s firepower at bay, Denver has to dominate time of possession by taking away Carolina’s running game and asserting their own with CJ Anderson and Ronnie Hillman. Field position will factor in heavily here too — Denver’s sputtering offense will be given life with a short field. Special teams will factor in here heavily.
I am picking the Panthers for their balance on all sides of the ball – an MVP-candidate QB, a strong rushing attack, and a stout, turnover-inducing defense, but the Broncos #1 D will prove to be a challenge. It could very well go either way, and it will be close, but I’m taking the Panthers to edge out the contest.