Super Bowl 50 is nigh. The oddsmakers picked the New England Patriots as the favorites before the Pats played the Broncos in the AFC Championship game. Whoops. As we saw last year when the Seattle Seahawks botched an assumed Super Bowl victory in the waning seconds, anything can happen. And that includes when the Denver Broncos play the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50. So we’ve thrown out the oddsmakers’ predictions at the moment—which are in the Panthers favor in case anyone is wondering—to explore five pressing storylines ahead of the matchup no one expected.
How will Peyton Manning fare?
To say that Peyton Manning has had a roller coaster year is putting it mildly. He’s dealt with a foot injury that sidelined him for nearly half of the season, returned to the squad as the team’s back up, quickly won his job back, and was dogged by human growth hormone rumors. And yet, when it mattered most, he threw two touchdown passes and led the Broncos with a steady hand past New England in the AFC Championship game. Now, will we see “Cool Hand Peyton” in the Super Bowl, or a repeat of his lackluster performance in Denver’s 48-3 loss to the Seahawks two years ago in Super Bowl 48?
How did the fairly average Panthers become good enough to make it to the Super Bowl?
The arrival of Cam Newton in 2011 coincides with the Panthers resurgence over the past five years. But it’s not just Newton’s strong arm and fast legs—he rushed for 100 yards in a game this season and is a scrambling threat on any broken play—that has helped the team improve. According to Five Thirty Eight, the Panthers pass defense was the fifth most improved in the league this year, which, when combined with an already solid offense, has helped elevate the team from average to a well-rounded force. Can the Panthers swarming D make Manning sweat?
How will Cam Newton do in his first Super Bowl?
While this will be Newton’s first Super Bowl appearance, he has plenty of big game experience. At Auburn, he led his team to the 2010-2011 BCS national championship. And this year the Panthers finished the regular season 15-1, so Newton has already proven he can take essentially any team, anywhere. Unlike other first-time Super Bowl QB’s, the bright lights shouldn’t faze Newton, because his sole focus will be on the end zone. This season he threw 35 touchdowns—second most in the league—and also ran for another 10, which is more than most running backs. Could this be Newton’s breakout from Pro Bowler to world champ?
Who will start faster?
It will be critical for each team to gain the momentum right from the kickoff. Why? Because the last time the Broncos were in the Super Bowl, they fell behind 36-0 before the team finally scored. Conversely, the Panthers started aggressively against the Arizona Cardinals in the AFC Championship game and stormed to a 24-7 halftime lead, then extended their lead to an insurmountable 27 points by the end of the third quarter. These kinds of scoring advantages mentally break the other team. In the Super Bowl, a creaky Peyton Manning might not be the fastest starter, so the Broncos will have to rely on their tough defense—which kept Tom Brady and the Patriots in check early in the AFC Championship game—to contain the Panthers offense and ensure that the Broncos remain in contention for four quarters.
Which kicker will be clutch?
As we saw in the Broncos vs. Patriots contest, the game did come down to the kicking game—the early PAT miss by Pats kicker Stephen Gostkowski forced the Patriots to go for their ill-fated two-point conversion in the final minute. What kick will be the game changer here? And who will boot it? The Broncos have second-year kicker Brandon McManus, who made 30-35 field goals this season, including five over 50 yards. (He was also 35-36 on extra points.) Meanwhile, the Panthers have Graham Gano, who made 30 of 36 field goal attempts this season and also boasts a career long 59-yarder on his resume. Let’s see the game come down to a 60-plus yard field goal and give one of these guys the chance to be the hero.
The stage doesn’t get any bigger than this. If you’re getting ready for the big game, take a look at how you can improve your TV setup to see how everything unfolds even better.