Super Bowl 50 matches Cam Newton and the NFC champion Carolina Panthers (17-1) against the AFC champion Denver Broncos (14-4) and their top ranked defense.
Here are the x-factors on offense and defense for both teams on Super Sunday:
Carolina Panthers: RB Jonathan Stewart
Everything the Panthers do on offense starts with the run game. While Cam Newton and his designed runs are an important part of the operation, Stewart and his hard-nosed style represents the offense’s foundation.
The Panthers gave him at least 17 carries in 12 of the 15 games he played this season, including the playoffs. Stewart will now be asked to run right into the teeth of Denver’s dominant defense, which gave up the fewest yards per rush (3.3) in the NFL this season. If Stewart is productive on Sunday, the Panthers could light up the Super Bowl scoreboard.
Denver Broncos: QB Peyton Manning
Manning hasn’t been spectacular during the postseason, but he’s been just good enough for the Broncos offense to survive. He made a few big plays on Denver’s game-winning touchdown drive against the Steelers, and his two passing scores to tight end Owen Daniels gave the Broncos a lead in the first half against the Patriots.
While Manning is unlikely to be the Super Bowl MVP, he can’t be the reason why the Broncos lose. Carolina’s interior pass rush and play-making back seven will put heavy pressure on him to protect the football. Things could get out of hand quick if Manning—who might be playing his last game—starts giving the ball away.
Carolina Panthers: DT Kawann Short
Short might be the most underrated player in the Super Bowl. He led the Panthers in sacks with 11, and he and fellow defensive tackle Star Lotulelei anchor the point of attack for Carolina’s run defense.
His impact should be felt two-fold on Sunday. Short’s ability to disrupt the pocket from the inside could make life difficult for Peyton Manning, and the Panthers will need to call on him and Lotulelei time and again when the Broncos stick to the script and attempt to run the football. Don’t lose sight of No. 99 in the middle of Carolina’s defensive front.
Denver Broncos: S T.J. Ward
Ward is coming off an ankle injury, but he’s expected to play in the Super Bowl. The Broncos will need him for his versatile talents. Not only will Ward be important for covering tight end Greg Olsen down the field, but he also figures to be a big part of how the Broncos will stack the box and contain Carolina’s run game.
The Panthers and their top scoring offense can hammer the opposition when winning on the ground and opening up big plays off play-action. Denver needs all 11 defenders to handle the attack, but Ward is especially important against Carolina’s unique style of offense.