Everything you need to know about Broncos-Panthers
With one close finish and one dominant performance in the conference championship round, the Super Bowl 50 matchup is set. It’s been a fascinating season, but in the end, it was both of the No.1 seeds that made it to the promised-land.
The Broncos punched their ticket to the world’s biggest game, with an unbelievable defensive effort against the New England Patriots. Denver shut down Tom Brady’s high-powered offense and held on for a gritty, well-earned, 20-18 victory. The Broncos were far from perfect, but they did just enough to earn themselves one more game this season.
The Panthers’ victory over the Arizona Cardinals was less exhilarating, but arguably more impressive. Once again, Carolina jumped ahead early, taking a 24-7 halftime lead over the Cardinals. But unlike last week, the Panthers decided not to just hold on for dear life, but rather to stay aggressive and attack in the second half. The strategy worked, and Carolina came away with an absolutely dominant 49-15 victory.
Now these two teams will square off on the biggest stage of them all. Super Bowl 50 is less than two weeks away, so let’s take a look at this matchup through the PFF lens.
Denver’s offense did not string together a noteworthy game in really any regard on Sunday afternoon, so it’s hard to pick out a real strength at the moment. But on the season, wide receivers Demaryius Thomas (77.6 overall season grade, scale 1–100) and Emmanuel Sanders (86.7) have been their best two weapons, and they’ll need the pair desperately against Carolina. Thomas has struggled this postseason, but on the year, he’s averaged 2.07 yards per route run, good for 13th among receivers. Sanders has been the Broncos’ most productive target in the playoffs, averaging a third-best (among all postseason receivers) 2.16 yards per route run and second-best overall receiving grade.
The Broncos do not seem to have a weakness on defense, but as everyone saw against the Patriots, it’s their pass rush that is without question their biggest strength. The unit applied relentless pressure against Brady on nearly 46 percent of his dropbacks, despite only blitzing on 16 percent of them. They were led, as usual, by outside linebackers DeMarcus Ware (83.1) and Von Miller (92.9). Ware finished with a sack, six hits, and three hurries, while Miller had three sacks, one hit, and four hurries.
Denver also got a big-time effort from interior linemen Derek Wolfe (90.7). Fresh off a contract extension, Wolfe had the third-highest pass-rush game grade for the Broncos, producing a sack, three hits, and four hurries.
The Broncos’ rushing attack left a lot to be desired on Sunday, as the Patriots’ defense was able to completely shut it down (outside of one big play). Take away that 30-yard run by C.J. Anderson (71.6), and he rushed for just 42 yards on 15 carries, forcing zero missed tackles. Teammate Ronnie Hillman (67.3) was even worse, rushing the ball 11 times for a measly 16 yards, also forcing no missed tackles. The Broncos’ offensive line struggled to create holes. All five starters finished with negative run-blocking game grades.
The Broncos’ defense had very few lapses on Sunday, but they did have some small issues in pass coverage. Linebacker Danny Trevathan (87.8), who had been solid in coverage all season long, struggled on Sunday. He allowed 83 yards on four catches, and finished with a team-low coverage grade. Another struggling player in coverage was safety Josh Bush. He allowed three catches on four targets for 27 yards, and also failed to provide safety help on that big fourth-down conversion to Rob Gronkowski late in the game. However, Bush played 69 snaps due to injuries to both Broncos’ starting safeties, Darian Stewart and T.J. Ward. Neither is expected to miss the Super Bowl, however.
WR Emmanuel Sanders (86.7): Peyton Manning has been just about average since returning as the Broncos starter in the playoffs, but that ceiling has been enough, thanks in large part to Sanders’ play. He’s been able to make play after play for this offense, none more evident than his 34-yard jump ball reception on Sunday that should have been intercepted. His 2.11 yards per route run is the 11th-best among all receivers this season.
OLB Von Miller (92.9): No changes here from last week, either, as Miller continues to prove he’s one of the best players in the NFL. In two playoff games so far, Miller has put up a +10.2 cumulative pass rush grade in the playoffs (0.0 is average), posting three sacks, one hit, and 11 hurries. His pass-rush productivity of 19.4 in the playoffs is the second-best in the league.
The Panthers’ rushing attack had a much more effective game than last week, consistently gaining big chunks of yards and giving balance to a strong offensive attack. Running back Jonathan Stewart (83.0) finished with 83 yards on 19 carries, and forced two missed tackles, while quarterback Cam Newton (87.1) gained 49 yards on just eight carries and scored two touchdowns. The entire offensive line (even left tackle Michael Oher) graded positively in run blocking, and the strong run game allowed the Panthers to work the play-action, where Newton was seven-for-seven for 127 yards.
Carolina’s secondary played another fantastic game in coverage, really tightening up from last week’s struggles against the Seahawks. While an opponent once again attacked cornerback Robert McClain to the tune of 15 targets, he allowed seven receptions for 80 yards and a touchdown, as well as a pass breakup. But the Panthers had solid play all around. Cornerback Josh Norman saw five targets, surrendering just two catches for 21 yards, and he added two pass breakups. Safety Kurt Coleman wasn’t ever targeted as the primary coverage man, but he made two interceptions and was excellent in his safety help role, posting a team-high coverage grade.
The Panthers’ offense played about as well as anyone could have expected, but they still have some issues with receiving targets not named Greg Olsen. Targeting anyone else besides Olsen, Newton was 13-of-19 for 222 yards (11.7 yards per attempt), two touchdowns, and one interception. But take away two big chunks from WR Philly Brown (74.8) and Ted Ginn Jr. (72.5), both of which were the result of poor defense, rather than good plays by the receivers, and Newton’s YPA drops to just 5.7. Only Jerricho Cotchery (80.1) graded as an above-average receiver this season, and he had just two catches for 17 yards against Arizona.
Defensively, Carolina had some struggles stopping the run, but were dominant enough to build a huge lead early and force Arizona to abandon their ground game. But they still allowed Cardinals running back David Johnson to rush for 60 yards on 15 carries and a touchdown. The Panthers also missed three tackles. Defensive tackle Kawaan Short (90.8) didn’t really make any waves, finishing with just one defensive stop and an average run defense grade.
TE Greg Olsen (84.6): Olsen has been one of the best receiving targets in the postseason thus far, racking up 12 catches on 14 targets for 190 yards and a touchdown. He has the highest playoff receiving grade in the league at the moment. What’s even more impressive is that nine of those receptions have gained first downs.
CB Josh Norman (83.7): Norman has been a strong coverage corner all season long, and his 87.5 coverage grade ranks as the fourth-best among CBs this season. His 15.3 coverage snaps per reception these playoffs are fourth-best, as is his 0.61 yards per coverage snap average.
Matchups to watch
LG Evan Mathis (89.5) vs. DT Kawaan Short (90.8): Mathis has had an interesting season, as he grades as PFF’s third-best guard. But that’s mostly because of his league-leading 95.4 run blocking grade; his 74.6 pass blocking grade is average, at best. Short has been one of the best interior defenders all season, and is very well-rounded. His 86.6 run defense grade ranks 18th among interior defenders, while his pass-rush has been incredibly strong at 90.1, the fifth-best mark.
RG Trai Turner (86.9) vs. DT Derek Wolfe (90.7): Turner has been very strong for the Panthers all season long, grading as our seventh-best guard. His pass blocking efficiency of 97.7 also ranks seventh among guards, and he’s allowed just one hurry these playoffs. Wolfe is an elite interior defender, and he’s strong against both the run and pass. Bursting onto the scene, he has 16 total pressures in his two playoff games, leading interior defenders with a 16.6 pass rushing productivity.
Paths to victory
Denver can win if: They can keep a balanced offense that opens up the field to take some of the pressure off of Manning, allowing him to make safe and easy throws. And if their pass rush can continue to dominate and throw Newton off his game from the get-go.
Carolina can win if: Their rushing offense can dominate on the ground, both opening up the play action for Newton and slowing down the Broncos’ pass rush. And if their defense can shut down the Broncos’ run game early and force Manning to try to beat them with his arm.