The 2015 NFL season will come to a spectacular end on Sunday night, when the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos square off in Super Bowl 50 from Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.
Here are five factors that will help determine the winner between the NFC and AFC champions:
1. Can the Broncos contain Cam Newton’s designed runs?
In an age when quarterbacks are protected like endangered animals, the Panthers give Cam Newton significantly more chances at designed runs than any other player at the position. In fact, 10 of his 12 rushing touchdowns (including the playoffs) came off designed runs. He’s big and strong enough to pound defenses inside, and his speed and athleticism make him difficult to handle when he operates the zone read on the perimeter. Expect offensive coordinator Mike Shula to give Newton opportunities to use his running ability to create an advantage against Denver’s defense, which allowed the least yards per carry (3.3) this season.
2. Will Peyton Manning protect the football?
Manning hasn’t thrown an interception since Nov. 15, a stretch of three games and 78 attempts. Finally healthy and embracing his role as a game manager, Manning has still made plays throwing the ball—but he’s also avoiding the game-changing mistakes that plagued the start to his 2015 season. Continuing the trend will be difficult against the Panthers defense, which led the NFL in takeaways (39) and has already forced nine turnovers—including six interceptions and two pick-sixes—during two postseason games. If Manning doesn’t protect the football, Super Bowl 50 could get one-sided in a hurry.
3. How will the Broncos rush Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware?
Miller and Ware punished Tom Brady and the New England Patriots with one of the most dominant pass-rushing performances in recent playoff history during the AFC Championship Game. Repeating the effort will be next to impossible against the Panthers, who use a diverse running game and Newton’s unique abilities to protect the passer and negate pass-rushing opportunities. Edge rushers can’t just fly up the field when facing the NFL’s top scoring offense, especially with Carolina’s preference to the zone read and the danger of Newton scrambling out of the pocket. Miller and Ware need to play their best game, for the second straight contest.
4. Will the Broncos get a big day from a receiver?
Panthers cornerback Josh Norman is an All-Pro, but he’s only one player in Carolina’s secondary. The Broncos really need one of their receivers—preferably Demaryius Thomas or Emmanuel Sanders—to exploit the other half of the field. Given two weeks to prep, it’s reasonable to predict that Peyton Manning will find ways to make the most of the mismatch. With Thomas dealing with drops and likely to draw Norman, Sanders might turn out to be one of the most important players for Denver in Super Bowl 50. He needs to have a big night.
5. Can the Broncos run the ball?
The Broncos have averaged almost 32 rushing attempts per game in the postseason. Why is this number important? Two reasons. Running the ball keeps the pressure off Peyton Manning and the passing game, and sticking with the run means the Broncos are in the game and playing their kind of football. If Denver rushes 30 or more times on Sunday, there’s a good chance the Broncos will be right in it come the fourth quarter. The Panthers jumping out to a big lead and forcing Denver’s hand on offense is a worst case scenario for Broncos fans.