Matchups for the Super Bowl between the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos on Feb. 7 in Santa Clara, California:
When the Panthers (17-1) have the ball
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No, it's not that simple for Carolina and Denver. But close.
QB Cam Newton (1) has been the NFL's most dynamic offensive player this season. He had 35 touchdown throws and 10 TD runs during the regular season, and he's added five more scores in the playoffs. Tall, strong and more accurate than ever, he's a tremendous force in the pocket. Tall, strong and elusive, he's hard to slow down when on the run. Near the goal line, he can be unstoppable.
So how does Denver try to slow down Newton? With the NFL's top-ranked defense.
That unit turned the AFC championship game in the Broncos' favor by rushing, hitting and distracting Tom Brady. The key will be the performances of the linebackers, led by All-Pro Von Miller (58), who couldn't be blocked by New England and also had an interception.
DeMarcus Ware (94), Danny Trevathan (59) and Brandon Marshall (54) also will try to get in Newton's face and mind, whether in the pass rush or popping up in unexpected spots. Look for coordinator Wade Phillips to come up with even more varied schemes than Denver used against Brady – recognizing Newton's escapability and power must be neutralized, too.
Carolina will counter by getting RB Jonathan Stewart (28) involved early. He's the best running back in this game, and has an All-Pro blocker in fullback Mike Tolbert (35), but he's facing a defense that rarely is ineffective in stopping the ground game.
The Panthers' underrated O-line, led by All-Pro center Ryan Kalil (67) and RG Trai Turner (70), won't get a break against any of Denver's guys in the trenches. DEs Antonio Smith (90), Derek Wolfe (95) and Malik Jackson (97) all have made significant contributions for Phillips.
Just like last week, when All-Pro Rob Gronkowski was at tight end, Denver needs to shut down the position. It's not unfair to argue that Carolina's Greg Olsen (88) is just as meaningful to his offense as Gronk is in New England.
Denver's secondary was banged up by the Patriots, and is stronger on the corners with Chris Harris Jr. (25) and Aqib Talib (21). It's conceivable one of them will be matched up with Olsen, particularly if T.J. Ward (43) and Darian Stewart (26) are hobbled. Watch for Denver's third CB, Bradley Roby (29) to see lots of action.
Newton has made journeyman WR Ted Ginn Jr. (19) into a solid receiver, and veteran Jerricho Cotchery (82) operates in empty spaces from the slot. Philly Brown (10) broke an 86-yard TD reception vs. Arizona.
Newton made them effective against two staunch defenses, Seattle and Arizona, in the postseason. Can he do it against a third such opponent – and in the Super Bowl?
When the Broncos (14-4) have the ball
The Panthers say they are preparing for a five-time NFL MVP, but they know Peyton Manning (18) hasn't played at that elite level during this injury-ravaged season.
They also are aware that for one game – especially this game – Manning just might conjure up the brilliance.
So Carolina won't try to outsmart Manning, a particularly difficult chore, and will get physical with him. Watch for the D-line that has been so dominant in the playoffs to ratchet up the pressure even more.
Kawann Short (99), Star Lotulelei (98), Charles Johnson (95) and Mario Addison (97) up front, plus linebackers and defensive backs on the blitz will try to make Manning uncomfortable. One way to defeat that, of course, is getting RBs C.J. Anderson (22) and Ronnie Hillman (23) involved early and successfully. That could force some hesitation for the Panthers.
Then again, with All-Pro LB Luke Kuechly, the league's leading tackler, Carolina has the guy who can counteract that strategy.
And if his fellow All-Pro at the position, Thomas Davis (58), can suit up and perform with his broken right arm, so much the better for Carolina. And so much the worse for Denver.
The Broncos have not given Manning great protection all season, but it has been good enough in two postseason wins. The onus is on LT Ryan Harris (68), rookie G Max Garcia (73) and first-year starting center Matt Paradis (61).
When Manning throws, the theory has been he can't get the ball deep with enough on it. Accurate or not, he's still tough on the shorter passes and play-action. WRs Emmanuel Sanders (10) and Demaryius Thomas (88), TEs Owen Daniels (81), Virgil Green (85) and Vernon Davis (80), plus Anderson supply plenty of options. Provided they have gotten past the dropsies that plagued many of them against Pittsburgh – it was less a factor vs. New England – they will present a formidable challenge for All-Pro CB Josh Norman (24), ball-hawking S Kurt Coleman (20) and the rest of the DBs.
Ginn averaged 10.3 yards on punt returns and broke a 32-yarder to set up his own TD run against Arizona. But the Panthers aren't anything, uh, special on coverage units.
K Graham Gano (9) finished second in the NFL in points with 146, and is good, not great, from long range. He also missed three PATs in 2015.
Denver K Brandon McManus (8) hit 30 of 35 field goals during the season and is perfect on all seven in the playoffs. He has range, too, and gets lots of touchbacks.
The Broncos are without kick returner Omar Bolden, but their coverage squads are solid. Punter Britton Colquitt (4) has had better seasons. So has Carolina's Brad Nortman (8).
Ron Rivera was the NFL Coach of the Year in 2013 and is a front-runner for the award this season. A solid defensive assistant and coordinator for years, he finally got his own team in 2011 and has gone 49-34-1, with three straight NFC South crowns.
Extremely popular with his players, Rivera has been called ''Riverboat Ron'' for his willingness to take chances in games. He's toned that down recently, but the Panthers on both sides of the ball recognize his faith in them when he gambles.
Coordinators Mike Shula (offense) and Sean McDermott (defense) are creative and aggressive. McDermott has more talented players on his unit, but Shula has Newton.
Gary Kubiak spent eight seasons coaching the Texans after being John Elway's backup for much of his playing career. Elway summoned him to replace John Fox after last January's postseason debacle against Indianapolis.
Kubiak's offense required many adjustments from Manning, and the most cerebral of quarterbacks made most of them swiftly. Just as significantly, when Manning went down, Kubiak and offensive coordinator Rick Dennison had tutored backup Brock Osweiler well enough to keep sailing toward the AFC's top seed.
Phillips has been one of football's most successful defensive minds for years. He's a perfect example of someone who might not be suited for the top job, but is a superb coordinator.
Manning's quest for a second Super Bowl ring and the chance to go out like his current boss, Broncos GM Elway, did in 1999. Manning isn't saying outright this is the end of his Hall of Fame-caliber career, despite all the indications it will soon be over. His teammates not only want the perfect send-off for their QB, but to erase memories of the shellacking Seattle put on them two years ago.
The Panthers believe that despite having the NFL's best record all season – and one of the best in NFL history – they have been underappreciated by the masses. They hear the word ''castoff'' applied to some of them, and it bites.
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