When the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers advanced to the Super Bowl it was clear that there would be plenty of star power on the field. Teams don’t make it to the final game of the season without having game changing players on each side of the ball.
So who are the best of the best from these two championship worthy squads? We picked the five best players from each team (based on factors such as statistics and team impact) and ranked them among each other. So here they are, ranked No. 10 to No. 1.
10. Demaryius Thomas
Thomas hasn’t had his most memorable season in 2015-16, but there’s no doubting his exceptional talent and his track record of making game changing plays. Since Peyton Manning arrived in Denver back in 2012, Thomas has accumulated at least 1,300 receiving yards in four straight seasons. During that same time span, the 6th year pro has also caught a total of 41 touchdowns. He’s been one of the best receivers in the NFL, and if he hangs on to the ball, there’s no telling the impact that Thomas can have on the Super Bowl (just look at his performance last time he was on the game’s biggest stage).
9. DeMarcus Ware
Ware is one of the best pass rushers in the history of the league, as he owns 134.5 sacks over the course of his 11-season career with the Cowboys and Broncos — good for 11th all-time. The minute Ware arrived in Denver prior to the start of the 2014 season, it felt like the identity of the Broncos changed. Opposite Von Miller (more on him later), Ware gave the team one of the best pass rushing duos in the league. This season, that duo has led the Broncos to the best pass rushing team in the NFL, with Ware picking up 7.5 sacks of his own (not including another 1.5 in the postseason). He’s still one of the best in the business and Denver will need him to be great again come February 7.
8. Kawann Short
After a relatively quiet start to his NFL career, Short has elevated his play dramatically in his third professional season. His 11 sacks in the regular season tied him for eighth in the league, but among interior defensive linemen, Short was tied for first with Geno Atkins and Aaron Donald. Those numbers earned Short his first career Pro Bowl nod and helped the Panthers own one of the best pass rushing attacks in the league. If he can generate pressure on Manning and stuff Denver’s run game, it could be a long day for the Broncos come Super Bowl Sunday.
7. Aqib Talib
Talib is always a threat to make a big play. That fact is proven by his two interception returns for touchdowns this season. Aside from making the flashy plays, Talib simply gets it done as a member of one of the best secondaries in the NFL in Denver. This postseason, he has the most “passes defended” out of any player who has played in the playoffs. He has some help in the secondary with the presence of teammates Chris Harris Jr. and Bradley Roby, but the Broncos defense wouldn’t be as dominant without Talib controlling one side of the field.
6. Greg Olsen
When you think of great tight ends in the NFL today, the conversation usually starts and ends with Rob Gronkowski. While that may be the case, Greg Olsen has proven to be a more than reliable target for Cam Newton and the Panthers for multiple seasons now. He led Carolina with 1,104 receiving yards in the regular season and also reeled in 7 touchdown receptions. He’s a huge target in the middle of the field, and he very well could be the go-to guy in passing situations for Newton as Carolina tries to break down an exceptional secondary.
5. Chris Harris Jr.
Chris Harris Jr. has been one of the more underrated cornerbacks in the NFL, but when you pick apart his resume, there’s little doubt that the fourth year pro is one of the league’s best corners. He and Talib gave the Broncos the best passing defense in the NFL during the regular season, but Harris is the guy who generally covers the opposing team’s No. 1 receiver, and he usually shuts them down. In Denver’s win against New England, he played a big role in shutting down the always dangerous Julian Edleman. There aren’t many lock down corners in the NFL, but Harris is one of them.
4. Josh Norman
Josh Norman, similar to Chris Harris Jr, is another corner with shut-down ability who will be taking part in Super Bowl 50. This season, Norman picked off four passes (returning two for touchdowns) and had 18 pass deflections, contributing to a Panthers defense that led the league in takeaways. Norman may have a mouth that is as loud as his game, but that’s saying something because his game is on-point. Peyton Manning will likely be looking to stay away from his side of the field.
3. Luke Kuechly
Kuechly is one of the true great football players in the entire NFL. With 118 tackles, four interceptions, and a defensive score to his name during the regular season, his numbers alone speak to his greatness. Aside from his stats though, Kuechly is the unquestioned voice and leader of one of the best defenses in the league. Further, his postseason has been even more memorable, as he owns two interception returns for touchdowns. He’s another player on this Panthers team that has been vital to their incredible season, and aside from Carolina’s unstoppable quarterback, Kuechly is the MVP of the team.
2. Von Miller
Von Miller has always been a great player. His five NFL seasons have seen him collect 60 sacks and force 16 fumbles, providing proof that he is a force on the Broncos’ defense. With the way Miller played against the Patriots in the AFC Championship though, his status in the minds of NFL fans everywhere was instantly elevated. Miller collected 2.5 sacks and an interception in Denver’s win and he basically lived in the Patriots’ backfield throughout the entire game. That effort showed the impact that Miller can have in any game. He’s one of those special players who can takeover and almost win a game all by himself. In all likelihood, the Broncos will need Miller at the same level if they want to capture the franchise’s third championship because they will be dealing with the No. 1 player on this list.
1. Cam Newton
A few seasons ago, calling Cam Newton the best player in the NFL would have sounded like the joke of the year. This season, that statement seems all too true. Every week, it feels like Newton is breaking some record and or making some type of history. The chip on No. 1’s shoulder is as big as his 6-foot-5, 245-pound frame, and his confidence is at an all-time high. The Panthers have adopted that same attitude, which proves Newton’s value to his team even further. With 45 total touchdowns (35 passing and 10 rushing), Newton’s ability to attack the defense is unmatched by any player in the league. The Broncos’ defense is looking to end its dominant season with a championship, but they simply haven’t played a player like Newton all season long. It will be an intriguing matchup, but if the Panthers win Super Bowl 50, it will be because their franchise player did what he’s been doing all season long.