By Shawn S. Lealos
It's a tale of two teams. The Carolina Panthers began their existence in 1995 as an expansion team, starting their NFL run the same time that the Jacksonville Jaguars did. They then made it to their first Super Bowl in 2003. This year, the Panthers are in their second Super Bowl and hope to win their first.
The Denver Broncos started play in 1960 and had played in four Super Bowls, losing them all, before Carolina ever had a franchise. They finally won their first two Super Bowls in 1997 and 1998, and made it back in 2013, making this year their eighth Super Bowl appearance.
While the Carolina Panthers finished the season with 15 wins and two more wins than the next best team, the Denver Broncos finished with the same record (12-4) as the New England Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals, and ended up with the No. 1 seed based on the tiebreakers. Both No. 1 seeds made it to the Super Bowl, but Denver has proven to be beatable, losing to Indianapolis, Kansas City, Oakland and Pittsburgh during the season. Carolina and Denver have only played four times in the teams' histories, with Denver winning three times, including their last meeting in 2012.
Denver Broncos on Offense
Interestingly, if this game took place last year, there would have been a huge story. The man who took the Broncos to the Super Bowl in 2014 was John Fox, the same man who led the Panthers to their only Super Bowl appearance. However, Denver fired Fox despite three straight seasons with 12 or more wins. That led the way for former Broncos backup quarterback Gary Kubiak to step in as the new head coach in Denver, and he changed the team's philosophy.
Peyton Paves the Way, then Takes a Backseat
For the past thee seasons, Peyton Manning was the catalyst for everything the Broncos did on offense. He actually had career years with Denver, breaking his own personal records and leading them to the playoffs on his own talented shoulders. However, this season Manning has struggled with injuries. He was within striking distance of the all-time wins record for a quarterback, but thanks to injuries, ended up tied with Brett Favre for the record at 186. The most interesting thing about this season was that Denver was winning in spite of Manning's play.
Manning only threw for 2,249 yards this season, and for the first time since his rookie season, he threw more interceptions than touchdown passes. It was also the first season that he had under 10 touchdown passes total for the season. He threw only nine touchdowns in 10 regular season games while tossing 17 interceptions. Even more distressing was that he only threw for 104 total yards in the final two games of the regular season. In the two playoff wins, Manning threw two touchdowns and no interceptions, and 398 yards, showing that he was not finished yet.
Broncos Running Game Has a Comeback
Manning's drop in play barely affected his talented wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. Thomas finished with his second 100-plus yard receptions season with 105, but had his lowest yardage total since 2011, with 1,304 yards. He also only caught six touchdown passes, his lowest number since 2011. This year's Broncos are just not a passing team.
However, the running game has roared back to life. One year after breaking out, C.J. Anderson struggled to open the season and lost his starting job to Ronnie Hillman. However, Anderson rebounded and both players ended up getting a lot of carries this season. Hillman had 207 carries for 863 yards and seven touchdowns, and Anderson had 152 carries for 720 yards and five touchdowns. This has suddenly become an offense that runs the ball to set up the pass.
Denver Broncos on Defense
The offense is not the reason that the Denver Broncos are in the Super Bowl. They are there because this is the best defense that Peyton Manning has ever played with. They finished the season ranked first in the NFL in total defense. Of course, the Panthers ran all over the second ranked Seahawks defense in their first playoff victory this offseason. They also beat up the fifth ranked Arizona Cardinals defense, so this might not be as big of a difference maker.
The Carolina Panthers win by running the ball. They still beat the Seahawks, who ranked No. 1 against the run during the regular season. Arizona ranked sixth against the run and Denver ranks third against the run. It seems like these Carolina Panthers are able to run against any defense, no matter how good they are. The Broncos also rank first against the pass, but Cam Newton runs the ball to set up the pass, so that might not matter as much, either.
Broncos Defensive Leaders
The leaders on this defense are Von Miller, who will spy Cam Newton all game; and DeMarcus Ware, who is one of the top pass rushers in the NFL. Miller finished the season with a team-leading 11 sacks and four forced fumbles, while Ware finished with 7.5 sacks and one forced fumble. These are the men who will try to disrupt Manning and force him into mistakes.
Linebackers Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall are also stars on this defense. Both men broke the 100 tackle mark this sason and the two men combined for 10 passes defensed and two interceptions. Add in cornerback Aqib Talib, who led the team with 13 passes defensed and three interceptions, and this is a defense that is opportunistic and looking for mistakes to capitalize on.
Denver Broncos Players to Watch
Peyton Manning: While the Denver Broncos do not rely on Peyton Manning to win games by himself anymore, he is still the man to watch in this game. Manning has hinted that this could be the final game of his career. John Elway said that he would love for Manning to retire like he did, as a Super Bowl champ, and this could be his chance. Manning is not the quarterback he once was, but he is still the smartest player in the NFL.
Von Miller: In the Broncos two playoff games, Von Miller has 2.5 sacks, the most of any player in this game. He also has one interception, one pass defensed, and seven total tackles. Cam Newton is running all over everyone in the playoffs, and Von Miller is the one man standing between Newton and a Carolina Panthers Super Bowl win.
John Elway wants Manning to go out as one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. While Manning has the numbers to back it up, a second Super Bowl win would go a long way to making his case for the best of all time. However, this isn't the same Peyton Manning that played in the Super Bowl last time around, and Cam Newton is arguably one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL this year. If the Broncos defense can't stop Newton, there is little chance that Denver can keep up. The Broncos win thanks to their defense, and this time it might not be enough to stop Cam Newton.
Shawn S. Lealos is a freelance writer who graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 2000 with a Bachelor's Degree in Journalism. He writes for a variety of national publications and has over 15 years of sports journalism experience. Follow Shawn on Twitter @sslealos. aExaminer.com.
for more features.