Panthers too good, versatile for Broncos No. 1 defense

FILE - In this Jan. 24, 2016 file photo, Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton celebrates after the NFL football NFC Championship game against the Arizona Cardinals in Charlotte, N.C. Newton is wearing Lokai silicone bead bracelets with a bit of water from Mount Everest in one of the beads and a dab of mud from the Dead Sea in another, aimed at achieving the lofty goal of inner balance by honoring the highs and lows of life. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)
AP

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) The Denver Broncos and their top defense haven't seen anything quite like Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers, the No. 1 scoring offense in the league.

The Panthers (17-1) are on a roll, jumping on playoff opponents early. The primary question on Sunday might not be whether they'll win the franchise's first Vince Lombardi Trophy, but if they'll hand the Broncos another Super Bowl blowout.

''I think it's his moment,'' Panthers coach Ron Rivera said of Newton, ''as well as it's our moment,''

Although Broncos defensive end DeMarcus Ware said he's ''not really worried about (Carolina's) offense,'' the potential is there for this one to get away, especially if the Panthers get off to another hot start like they have in their two previous postseason games and force Peyton Manning to become one-dimensional.

The Panthers have feasted on pocket passers all season, the latest example being Carson Palmer, who committed six turnovers in Carolina's 49-15 win over Arizona in the NFC championship.

Carolina's defense, which led the league in takeaways, quickly shifts from good to great when the offense gives them a lead.

They have nine takeaways and eight sacks in the postseason.

Luke Kuechly, one of three All-Pro players on defense, has two interception returns for touchdowns in the playoffs.

But the trigger for Carolina is establishing the running game.

''Mike Tolbert and Stew (Jonathan Stewart) make their play-action game go,'' said Broncos defensive back T.J. Ward. ''So if we stop the run, we stop the beginning of what they do, that helps the rest of their offense.''

That's a good plan, but executing it has proven to be a little more difficult.

The Panthers have run for at least 100 yards in 31 straight games, including the playoffs. To put that in perspective, no other team has a streak longer than six games.

Newton is a big part of that, rushing for 636 yards and 10 touchdowns, tying Steve Young's record for career TDs by a quarterback.

The game's most versatile player, Newton shattered the myth that he's just a running quarterback long ago. But he's taken his passing to a whole different level this season, improving his accuracy and throwing for a career-high 35 touchdowns.

He's been lights out in the red zone, throwing 24 touchdowns with no interceptions.

''He's like a combination of two quarterbacks that were great quarterbacks in this league,'' said Broncos defensive end Antonio Smith. ''He's got the escape ability of a Michael Vick and a body frame like Ben Roethlisberger where people are bouncing off of you left and right.''

Carolina's passing game ranks near the bottom of the league, but that's more a reflection of the team's balance on offense. The Panthers are the only team that runs the ball more than they throw it.

''Cam transitioned this year where he's not going anywhere until he has to,'' said Young. ''It's a whole mindset that the mastery of the pocket, the mastery of the data. Now he can enter in and say I don't need to run. I can. I can run over you. But I don't have to. I think he's starting to see just the possibilities of what you can do from the pocket.''

The Panthers may be a small market team and unfamiliar to some, but make no doubt it – they're no fluke.

They've won 22 of their last 24 games, including a 3-1 mark in the post season.

In those 24 games Carolina has outscored its opponent by a whopping margin of 735-427 – or by an average score of 31-18.

So why not play the odds?

Prediction: Panthers 31, Broncos 18.

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