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The Big Game's golden anniversary

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Breaking down Super Bowl 50

Back in the fall, 32 NFL teams started their seasons with a singular goal win the Super Bowl. Over the course of the past few months, team after team saw their dreams of hoisting aloft the Lombardi Trophy fall by the wayside. Now, the lengthy battle of attrition has finally come to its end.

It's time for the Super Bowl.

This is the 50th edition of what has become the biggest event in American sports. Hundreds of millions of people both here and all around the world will be watching as the Denver Broncos take on the Carolina Panthers for the right to call themselves champions.

(Note: This is where I have to voice my disagreement with the NFL's decision to step away from their tradition of labeling the Super Bowl with Roman numerals. I understand that 'Super Bowl L' seems a little weird, but it's a shame to dismiss that connection to the game's history. That said, I'm going to resist the urge to use the 'L' and refer to the game as Super Bowl 50. But I won't be happy about it.)

The Broncos and Panthers have gone to California and descended on Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara. Considering the game's tendency to land in warmer climes, it might surprise you that this is the Bay Area's first Super Bowl since the mid-1980s; the game hasn't even been in California for over a decade. Of course, with the recent announcement of the Rams moving back to Los Angeles, the timing of a California Super Bowl couldn't be better.

As for the game itself, it's an intriguing matchup. The face of the Broncos is clearly quarterback Peyton Manning, who has somehow revived his seemingly lost season and finds himself with one more opportunity to win a championship. On the other side is Carolina's Cam Newton, who in the course of having a season for the ages has become a lightning rod for controversy, a polarizing figure whose skills, style and attitude have inspired passionate feelings of both admiration and admonishment.

Of course, while the NFL has become a quarterback league and both of these teams feature big names at the position this game is likely going to come down to the respective performances of two of the best defenses in the game.

Each team has its strengths and weaknesses; it's time to take a look.

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Quarterback

This is the comparison that will be at the forefront of everyone's mind in the days leading up to the game.

Peyton Manning is an all-time great, a no-doubt Hall-of-Famer who has put up unprecedented numbers over the course of his career. However, that career is definitely reaching its end Manning has struggled with injuries and was even benched for a stretch this season. He is no longer the quarterback that he was even two years ago, but his years of experience allow him to at least partially make up for the physical double whammy of injury and age.

Love him or hate him, Cam Newton has put forth a phenomenal season. He plays the position in a way that we've not really seen before; he's a physical freak who combines unprecedented size, strength and speed at the quarterback position. However, this season is the first time that Newton has been able to utilize those skills to their utmost. He's not just an athlete playing quarterback anymore he's a quarterback, full stop. In the air or on the ground, he's the most dynamic offensive force in the NFL.

All due respect to Mr. Manning, but this one isn't even close.

Advantage: Panthers

Running Back

Denver's running back corps has been led by C.J. Anderson in the postseason; he's done solid work, putting up 144 yards on 31 carries and scoring a touchdown. His backfield mate Ronnie Hillman hasn't been quite as effective, managing just two yards per carry on 27 attempts. Neither back seems to offer an elite level of skill, but the combination, while workmanlike, should have enough juice to keep the Panthers defense honest.

Jonathan Stewart is kind of a forgotten man when people talk about the league's best rushers. He's not flashy, but when you look at the numbers particularly this postseason, when he's gone for 189 yards and two touchdowns in two games they're pretty impressive. He's the workhorse for Carolina; the second-leading playoff rusher has been Cam Newton. He's an underappreciated player who is getting a chance to shine on his sport's big stage.

The Broncos crew is fine, but they've got no one who matches Stewart.

Advantage: Panthers

Wide Receiver/Tight End

The primary reasons for what offensive success the Broncos had this season are wideouts Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. This exceptional duo of skill players has been responsible for 16 catches and 200 yards between them over the course of the postseason; not eye-popping numbers, but enough to get the job done. Tight end Owen Daniels, meanwhile, has shown a nose for the end zone, scoring twice in the AFC Championship.

Carolina's receiving corps is less impressive. Their best pass-catching weapon all season was tight end Greg Olsen; that certainly hasn't changed in the playoffs, with Olsen catching a dozen balls for nearly 200 yards and a touchdown. The wideouts are a collection of second- and third-tier guys; Corey Brown, Jerricho Cotchery and Ted Ginn have all caught a handful of passes. It's a group largely elevated by their quarterback.

Greg Olsen makes it closer, but Denver's group still comes out on top.

Advantage: Broncos

Offensive Line

Denver's O-line has not had a particularly good year. The Broncos have a history of good line play, but injuries have left the unit largely depleted, populated by backups and other guys who might not have been ready for prime time. Guys like center Matt Paradis, guard Evan Mathis and especially tackle Michael Schofield have had more than their share of struggles particularly against athletic pass rushes.

Carolina's offensive line has been a real strength all season. Led by Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil, the group helped the Panthers to the league's second-best rushing offense and provided the protection Cam Newton needed to make his own statistical leap. With left tackle Michael Oher fulfilling his vast potential and guys like Andrew Norwell, Trai Turner and Mike Remmers stepping up, this Panthers line is one of the league's best.

Chalk up another one for Carolina.

Advantage: Panthers

Defensive Line

This group is an impressive one for Denver. Nose tackle Sylvester Williams has done good work as a run-stuffer in the middle, while ends Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe have been huge presences in the pass rush Wolfe in particular has been a postseason force, with 10 tackles and a couple of sacks. The Broncos defense as a whole was one of the best in league history this season; this group of linemen was a huge part of that.

Meanwhile, the Panthers have some impressive talent on the D-line as well. End Charles Johnson has had a big postseason with a couple of sacks, but the real revelation has been tackle Kawann Short, whose 11-sack regular season continued with a pair in the playoffs. Those two have been phenomenal, but the rest of the group has been excellent as well. Plus, this unit has performed quite well against the run as well.

One could argue for either one of these groups as the best, but I'm going with the cop-out answer.

Advantage: Push

Linebackers

This is probably the largest collection of excellence across both teams at any position in this game.

The Broncos linebackers are flat-out dominant. Von Miller leads the way; he has been a dominant force for years, but managed to somehow find yet another level in this postseason. Seven tackles, 2.5 sacks and an interception just phenomenal. He's been so impressive that it's easy to forget that DeMarcus Ware has 1.5 sacks of his own while being massively disruptive. And then there's Danny Trevathan (14 tackles) and Brandon Marshall (9 tackles and a forced fumble). An embarrassment of riches.

On the Panthers side, the conversation starts with Luke Kuechly, who might be the best all-around linebacker in the NFL; his postseason includes 19 tackles and two interceptions (both returned for touchdowns, by the way). Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson are elite talents as well, yet they've combined for two fewer tackles than Kuechly on his own. The Panthers defense is excellent in its own right; this unit is very much a strength.

Kuechly might be the best of the bunch, but Miller's right there and the Broncos are deeper.

Advantage: Broncos

Secondary

The Denver pass defense performed wonderfully in the regular season; nothing really changed in the playoffs. Cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Chris Harris are one of the best cover combos in the league, shutting down exceptional passing attacks with regularity. Meanwhile, safeties T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart have had some injury issues, but Stewart has still picked off two passes this postseason. The quartet together has 37 tackles between them.

On the Panthers side, the talk is all about Josh Norman. The cornerback has become an elite cover man, shutting down a number of top receivers. He even managed a freelance sack in the NFC Championship. Fellow corners Robert McClain and Cortland Finnegan have performed well, while safeties Roman Harper and especially Kurt Coleman have also looked strong. It's a quality unit from top to bottom.

Two talented groups, but again, the Broncos come out on top.

Advantage: Broncos

Special Teams

Denver kicker Brandon McManus has had an awfully productive postseason, converting on all seven of his field goal attempts including five from 40 yards or longer. Britton Colquitt has been a major field position weapon at punter, averaging 47 yards for his 15 postseason punts and putting nearly half of them inside the 20 with just a single touchback. Meanwhile, their kick coverage has been solid and their returners serviceable.

Graham Gano has handled kicking duties for the Panthers; he's been perfect in the playoffs, albeit on just three attempts no surprise considering the dynamic nature of the Carolina offense. Punter Brad Nortman hasn't been particularly impressive, notching an average of 38.4 yards on eight punts with just two inside the 20. The Panthers kickoff coverage has been fraught with peril, but their punt coverage has been tight; their return game has been solid.

Pretty close, but McManus gives Denver the slightest of edges.

Advantage: Broncos

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This is one of those situations where the breakdown can be a little deceptive. While the Broncos definitely hold advantages particularly on the defensive side those advantages are relatively small. The places where Carolina is on top especially at offensive line and quarterback are decisive wins for the Panthers.

Ultimately, it's going to come down to whether or not an exceptional Denver defense can do enough to stifle Cam Newton and the Carolina offense, as it seems unlikely that the hobbled Broncos offense will be able to break out in a big way against a very good Panthers defense. Still, Denver's D has led the way all season long; they've definitely got a chance. Not a great chance, but a chance.

In the end, the powerhouse Panthers offense will prove too much. Look for Carolina to take home their first-ever championship.

Final prediction: Carolina Panthers 30 Denver Broncos 21

Stella's Kibbles and Picks bonus prediction: Carolina 35 Denver 17

Last modified on Thursday, 04 February 2016 13:02

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