Heading into Super Bowl 50, the Carolina Panthers, led by likely-MVP Cam Newton, have seemingly become the favorites to win their first Super Bowl title in franchise history. This has put the AFC Champion Denver Broncos in a unique position as the underdog in the winner-take-all matchup. However, it’s fair to assess that Carolina has been the best team throughout the 2015 season, losing just one game and coming off a dominating 49-15 win over the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship Game. With that in mind, here are three mistakes that the Broncos must avoid making against the Panthers.
1. Overcommit to defending against the run
Since Newton entered the league in 2011, the Carolina Panthers have formed their offensive identity primarily through their rushing attack, finishing in the top 10 in rushing yards in four out of the last five years. The 2015 season was their best finish; they placed second in the league by averaging a whopping 142.6 yards per game. On paper, this appears to play in the hands of the Broncos’ defense, which ranked third in the league against the run, giving up just 83.6 yards per game with a league-best meager 3.3 yards per rush.
However, Denver has yet to play a quarterback like Newton this season. The 26-year-old orchestrates a running game that is a defender’s nightmare. This is due to his size — that rivals that of a linebacker — along with his quickness. Newton’s legs, combined with Jonathan Stewart’s reliability, allow the Panthers to effectively use the read option out of either the shotgun or pistol formation, gaining 1,556 yards with 5.87 yards per carry (the third-highest totals this season).
All of this would lead the Broncos toward defending against the run, but that shouldn’t be the case. Newton has been a much more efficient passer this season, posting a career-high 99.4 passer rating; a number that has only risen in the sample size of two games in the playoffs, with an 113.4 passer rating against two of the top-five defenses this season in the Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks.
It’s a tricky situation for Denver, but an overcommitment to stopping the run could end up costing them the game. The Broncos’ star defensive end duo, Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, should focus more on applying consistent pressure on Newton when he is throwing in the pocket. If the Broncos’ defense can accomplish this, it could go a long way in keeping Newton and Panther’s offense flustered — improving their chances of a win.
2. Getting away from the running game
On that same token, the Broncos’ offense has been mostly a shadow of what it was two seasons ago when they last reached the Super Bowl, largely due to Peyton Manning struggling to throw the football. He no longer has the arm abilities to make strong throws down the field. More than ever he relies on short throws averaging 6.80 yards per attempt, which is the second-lowest total of his career and sixth-fewest this season among qualified quarterbacks.
Since returning to the field in Weeks 17, Manning has taken much better care of the football, without throwing an interception, but the offense’s focus should be on the running game. The Broncos’ defense, along with their rushing attack (featuring both C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman), is what got them to this point. That said, Denver does have a difficult task ahead against a stout Carolina defense that was ranked fourth against the run and have allowed only 36 rushes of 10 yards or more this year, which is the fifth-lowest amount in the league.
If the Broncos stray away from their running game, there’s a chance that Manning could suffer a similar fate to that of the Cardinals in the NFC Championship Game, when Carson Palmer committed six turnovers, including four interceptions. It’s a tightrope to walk against Panther’s tough defense, but if Denver wants to have any offensive success against them, it will have to feature a heavy dosage of the rush attack.
3. Allowing the Panthers to set the tone
This season the Panthers have excelled at taking command of the game from the get-go, ranking second in the league with 7.2 points in the first quarter, which is a number that has only increased over the last three games (to 10.3 points). This is precisely what occurred in their two playoff games when they scored 14 and 17 points respectably in the first quarter against the Seahawks and Cardinals.
If Carolina is able to get an early lead, it will allow for their sixth-ranked defense to settle in, making any semblance of a comeback from a double-digit lead seem bleak at best. It allows for players like Kawan Shorts, who had a career-high 11.0 sacks; Kurt Coleman, who was tied for second in the league with seven interceptions; and Thomas Davis to become factors defensively.
With that in mind, the Broncos must start the game strong by putting together a solid first quarter that has them either ahead or trailing by a touchdown or less. Any deficit exceeding that could quickly spell doom as it did against the Seahawks two years ago.