By Peter Gleason
The Carolina Panthers have become a big betting favorite against the Denver Broncos in next Sunday’s Super Bowl based primarily on the explosiveness of their offense.
Carolina QB Cam Newton expects to enjoy the moment and keep his composure, but the presence of the MVP candidate doesn’t explain the team’s calm and collected attitude alone. For as much as Newton brings to the table, Carolina’s defense and its penchant for takeaways has played a big role in propelling the club to a 15-1 record during the regular season. Moreover, the unit could have as big an impact as any other in Super Bowl 50 (Feb. 7 at 6:30 p.m. on CBS3).
The Carolina defense excelled at forcing turnovers during the regular season, producing both the most interceptions (24) and fumble recoveries (15) for a league-leading 39 total takeaways. And yet, despite the high bar set by that impressive production, the unit has actually improved at taking the ball away during the playoffs.
In their two postseason games, the Panthers have amassed an unfathomable nine takeaways. Of those forced turnovers, two have directly led points in the form of pick-sixes by All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly. Three others — an interception by Cortland Finnegan, a pick by former Eagle Kurt Coleman and a fumble recovery by Teddy Williams — produced 17 additional points. In total, the Carolina defense has accounted for 31 points in the playoffs, nearly as much as the Broncos, the newly crowned AFC champion, have scored overall during that span (36).
While the ball-hawking Panthers pose a threat to any team, they could feast upon a vulnerable Broncos offense. During the regular season, Denver turned the ball over 31 times, third most in the NFL. That figure likely would have increased had quarterback Peyton Manning not missed half of November and the entire month of December with a foot injury. Manning finished with the second most interceptions in the league (17) despite playing in only 10 games.
The primary cause of Manning’s late-career turnover surge seems to be dwindling arm strength. Though the future Hall of Fame quarterback can still effectively throw the ball on short, in-breaking routes and down the middle of the field, his lack of zip has curtailed his ability to complete passes outside to the sidelines. Because of that limitation, opposing defenses have learned to sit on routes coming over the middle, effectively derailing Denver’s passing attack. It should come as no surprise that Manning hasn’t completed over 60 percent of his passes in a game for nearly three months, and he has thrown more touchdowns than interceptions on only two occasions the entire season.
The Panthers could fully exploit those issues in the Super Bowl. The Broncos offense has struggled in the playoffs, despite facing the good-but-not-elite defenses of Pittsburgh and New England. While those units both possess plenty of athleticism — a trait that help significantly when facing a quarterback like Manning — neither comes close to approximating the overall speed of Carolina’s defense. The linebacking corps alone contains three of the league’s fastest players at their positions: Kuechly, Thomas Davis (who suffered a broken arm in Sunday’s tilt against the Cardinals, but vows to play in the Super Bowl) and Shaq Thompson. The trio combined for 10 interceptions during the regular season and playoffs. Additionally, their superior range — assuming Davis is healthy in two weeks — allows for the Panthers’ secondary to take more risks in coverage, leading to more takeaways.
Meanwhile, the Broncos don’t have any reliable way of reducing Manning’s exposure to turnovers. Though running backs C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman have each enjoyed some success this year, both have developed a nasty habit for putting the ball on the ground. They combined for five fumbles during the regular season, and Hillman’s lackadaisical attitude during the AFC title game allowed the Patriots to recover a backwards pass. Denver cannot plan their offense around either running back without expecting the Panthers to force a turnover.
Ultimately, the best approach for Denver probably involves a conservative offensive attack that limits the number of opportunities for Carolina to take the ball away. Manning and the offense have seldom lit up the scoreboard this season, and the defense has the potential to produce points of its own. While hardly an exciting strategy, the alternative seems far less enticing. The Panthers simply have too many ways of capitalizing on opponents’ mistakes for the Broncos to take many chances.