Everything you need to know about Broncos-Panthers

With the matchup for Super Bowl 50 set, PFF's Bryson Vesnaver breaks down everything you need to know heading into the big game.

| 8 months ago
(AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

(AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

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 Broncos

The good

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 bad

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.

Key player

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.

Carolina Panthers

The good

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 bad

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.

Linebacker Thomas Davis (73.4) was their strongest run defender, but he suffered a broken arm and his Super Bowl effectiveness is in doubt.

Key player

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.

| Analyst

Bryson has been an analyst at Pro Football Focus since 2014, and has also been a contributor to 120 Sports.

  • ITguy

    The Panthers can win if Cam Newton can figure out a 3-4 defense and limit turnovers. There are a lot of 3-4 defenses in the AFC but the NFC is mostly a 4-3 conference. If the Broncos can mix up a lot of coverages and blitzes to get hits on Newton and turnovers, that would give them a shot.

    • Jimmy & Savannah White

      The panthers have defeated several 3-4 defenses this year and dominated them. Where were you? Eagles, packers just to name a couple.

  • The Mysteries of Bob

    Wade is the only guy that can win us this game.

    Counting on Peyton pulling an Alex Smith (other than 3rd down passes short of the sticks).

  • http://www.unreasonablydangerousonionrings.com/ Moralltach

    I feel like the Broncos’ speed on defense will be key. Trevathan and Miller are some of the fastest linebackers in the league, and TJ Ward’s closing speed is insane. If Cam escapes the pocket—and he will, at some point—I think the Broncos have a better chance to beat him to the sideline than most.

  • Shawn Kemp’s Cocaine Problem

    The Denver offense can help out their defense. All we’ve seen during the season is Carolina becoming a momentum team. They score in large chunks. If Peyton can sustain long drives (gotta play the time of possession game) and at least go tick-for-tack with the Cam on scoring, Denver has a legit shot to win the game.

    • TheDude

      Great idea… keep Carolina’s defense out on the field! They’ll just wander around aimlessly while Peyton throws laser-beam passes right by them. Or will Denver burn up the clock with their NFL 17th-ranked rushing attack?

      Have you even WATCHED any of the playoffs?

      • http://theburningbush.disqus.com/ TheBurningBush

        he’s on cocaine!

      • Shawn Kemp’s Cocaine Problem

        Think what you want. But the Carolina defense IS NOTHING close to the Denver defense. The way you’re answering like a sarcastic ass, makes people believe Denver will get blown off the field—no, that won’t happen.

        • Michael Clifton

          Have you even watched a Panthers game this year? We may not be as explosive of a defense, but manning will be happily lobbing the ball to keuchly and Norman and the defense that is 20+ in the turnover differential this season. Hello pick 6 heaven!

          • Bryan

            Hello crushing loss. I loved watching the game and seeing Carolina fans freaking out. Broncos defense showed every how good they are.

        • TheDude

          You’re right… Panther’s defense is nothing like the Broncos.

          Get used to seeing this guy. He’ll be in all the Super Bowl highlights clips after the game: https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/81e1f4d578221babaaece9355d7ec2a4f3cb2b4f1b9cff558b08786661f75cc7.jpg

          • http://theburningbush.disqus.com/ TheBurningBush

            but the Panther have a pretty good offensive line, big good block running backs with a very good mobile quarterback.

          • Bryan

            Sorry but Broncos defense showed why they are that much better. Cam couldn’t do anything.

          • http://theburningbush.disqus.com/ TheBurningBush

            yep, too much Von Miller for the Panthers offensive line.

          • Bryan

            Broncos kicked their ass.

          • TheDude

            Indeed. (Bows humbly to the champions).

            Well done.

          • Fgd Ricketts

            Lol, highlight reel of pouting and running from those meanie reporters after 3 minutes. $cam at his finest.

          • TheDude

            Embarrassingly true.

            The hurt was bad enough here in the Carolinas even before he showed his weak character.

            “Salt In The Wound Newton”?

          • http://theburningbush.disqus.com/ TheBurningBush

            look y’all got a good young and honest quarterback who is a winner and hates losing and as he said he is paid to win and he is a sore loser: “Cam: I’m on record as being a sore loser. I hate losing. You show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.”

            http://www.msn.com/en-us/sports/nfl/cam-newton-%e2%80%98i%e2%80%99m-on-record-as-being-a-sore-loser%e2%80%99/ar-BBpiAxE?ocid=spartandhp

        • TheDude

          Since you didn’t see fit to rub salt in my wounds, I would like to offer my sincere congratulations for your accurate prediction. Well done.

          Here in the Carolinas, we are thinking of changing Cam Newton’s nickname from “Superman” to “The Incredible Sulk”.

          I just saw Von Miller on Ellen and that guy seems awesome. Did I hear that he is going to be a free agent? Hmmmmm….

          • http://theburningbush.disqus.com/ TheBurningBush

            Von Miller on Ellen well that says a lot, Panther fans don’t need to panic just keep your core team together you got your #1 receiver coming back, you now have a elite NFL franchise the Panthers should be in the class of Seattle, New England, Denver and I want to put Indianapolis and Baltimore in that class. but y’all got to keep a eye on Tampa Bay.

          • Matt

            good on you man. If Car is your team, congrats on a great season as well!

  • Brian

    Denver doesn’t stand a chance. Denver’s rich history of being blown out and embarrassed in super bowls will continue and add a 6th blowout sb loss to their collection. Still surprised that peyton, the guy that gets left out of the best qb ever conversation bc of his long list of postseason choke jobs, picked denver to go to. Bc denver is the king of choking in a super bowl with no pier except maybe buffalo. Denver also of course is home to the other choke artist john elway who was the king of super bowl choke artistry until terrell davis came along and at least gave some respectability to elway’s postseason career. It’s really kind of fitting manning and the broncos went and got blown out by seattle in the sb. Funny thing is, their rivals, ne and brady went on to beat that same team the following season in the super bowl lol. Oh the irony. After Carolina blows out denver it would be freaking hilarious is brady and ne beat Carolina in the following sb. Lol

    • Booper

      This post gave me cancer.

    • Josh

      pier>peer

      • Brian

        I apologize, I did not take the time to reread & make sure there were no errors. I have since corrected this matter as I wouldn’t want anyone to think I was comparing the broncos to a pier. Although after carolina walks all over them, they might as well be.

    • Matt

      There are so many things you don’t understand, including the definition of irony.

      • Brian

        Well I’m pretty sure I have a clear understanding of Denver’s embarrassing super bowl record. And while I’m sure u think u know what u are talking about, in this case u don’t. I would be referring to cosmic irony which for the example I used fits rather perfectly. There are many forms of irony(not just the definition that comes up when u google it) & if u would investigate this further u will find cosmic irony & see that from the perpective of broncos supporters this would qualify as cosmic irony.

        • Bryan

          Broncos crushed them. Carolina had no clue how to beat the Broncos defense.

        • Matt

          How’d this opinion work out for ya, genius. It wasn’t even close, so at least you had the blowout part correct.

    • Bryan

      Broncos crushed Carolina. What a joke of a team Carolina was. Next year with a 1st place schedule lets see how many wins they get.

  • Bryan

    I think people are forgetting the Panthers run a read option which will
    let the Broncos hit Cam even if he’s in the pocket. No flags are going
    to be thrown. Read option means yours a runner not a QB, the NFL has
    made sure QB’s know this. Russell Wilson complained about being hit and
    the league told him deal with it. This means if Cam can’t handle getting
    hit alot he will lose his cool and I think he turns the ball over. I
    believe the game will be alot closer than most think. Should be a great
    game.

    • idiotcomment

      Oh wow! You’ve cracked the mystery that no team has found out over the last 5 years the Panthers have been running the read offense! Never before has a team thought about– what was it you said? “hitting the quarterback”. Well this changes everything!! We must forward your message along to the Broncos Brass so they can make it a close game. I can see the headlines now “Hero Internet Commentator Singlehandedly Shuts Down Record Offense”. They’ll throw parades in your honor! They’ll rename the stadium after you!

      • Jimmy & Savannah White

        Bahaha!!! Best comment ive seen yet!!!! That Dudes an idiot!!!

      • Bryan

        Told you!!!

      • Matt

        He was right. Cam was crying about perfectly legitimate hits and he gave up on his team. He wanted no part of that game after 2.5 qtrs

    • Cyteria Knight

      What! Have you ever watched a Panthers game? Of course Cam knows he can be hit as a runner & he has been without whinning. But the real question under your theory will be is if the players on the Broncos will whine when Cam hits them? Cam can give as good as he gets. Just read what players who’ve played against him have said about that 6’5″ 250 lbs. body coming at them. Cam can take it!

      • Bryan

        Cam showed his true colors. Over rated!!!

      • Fgd Ricketts

        Cam rolled around like a baby looking for flags all game. He’s creampuff soft and wouldn’t even go after his own fumble.

        • Cyteria Knight

          This will be my one & only response to you. You’re entitled to your opinion. You’re a hater & will remain a hater. Whether Cam would have dived for the ball or not. Continue your ‘I told you so’ rants and I’ll continue to support my team and QB. GO PANTHERS!

          • Matt

            You should realize you were wrong about your boy. Liking him and thinking he’s good is one thing, thinking he was going to make the Denver D cry by hitting them is delusion beyond diagnosis.

    • Brian

      Yeah I agree with the others, don’t think cam is gonna get flustered by being hit. Denver has some big hitters, but seattle has faster, bigger, and badder. Not to mention the hammer of them all chancellor & cam has managed against them. Denver just laid on it on brady an historic amount of times and brady still did brady things and nearly won despite this. I think cam will be ok. All carolina needs to worry about is the cam doesn’t turn out to be a bigger big game choke artist than the KING of postseason choking himself, peyton manning.

      • Bryan

        Broncos kicked their ass!!!

      • Matt

        Wrong. Cam got rattled big time. Gave up on his team and cried about legal hits. Fumbles, pics, quitting etc.

  • http://theburningbush.disqus.com/ TheBurningBush

    in short the game will be won in the trenches, Denver has two quick defensive end Carolina have a very good offensive edge goes to Carolina Denver has a ok offensive line but Carolina has the best defensive line edge goes to Carolina with a very good passing and mobile quarterback super bowl 50 will go to Carolina Panthers won’t even be close.

    • Backinmd

      I, too think it will be a blowout..This is Carolina’s year ..Thought Ariz. defense would have played better than they did in their loss ..Was it Panthers play or Ariz. shortcomings ..Panthers offense was too much ..They wore them down ..

      • http://theburningbush.disqus.com/ TheBurningBush

        I agree with you to answer you question I will say it was the Panthers play mainly up front in the trenches, and in the super bowl who ever win up fount in the trenches will win the super bowl and I give the edge to Carolina!

        • Matt

          You kids might want to watch more football next year.

  • koda57

    *IF* OC Shula calls a good game Cam and company will get that snowball effect going and the game will get ugly. We never know what we’ll get out of Shula but we do know he has the playbook to score big against anybody. It’s just a matter of how deep he’ll go into it.
    IMO Carolina’s biggest advantage is their Oline. They have proven to hold up to all comers and I’m sure they’ll do good against Denver’s furious front 4.
    Question is can Denver’s Oline hold up to Carolina’s furious front 4.
    Cam in his prime beats 39 year ol Peyton,,, 44 to 0

    • Fgd Ricketts

      Lol, reading these hilarious “predictions” is fun

    • Matt

      This is awesome. That OL was a swinging gate all night.

  • Backinmd

    Even if Payton was/is 100% still think panthers will win big …Feel Carolina’s OL will be too much for Denver ; add Cam’s running ability ..It will be a blowout AND win or lose Payton will retire …He’s a walk in to the HOF ..

  • Jimmy & Savannah White

    Actually Peyton is out of “HGH”! Without it he is nothing more than a quarterback 2-3 years past his retirment date. He can barely throw it to his halfback on a screen play. GOOD LUCK!!! Carolina will WIN this Game by three scores…. Carolina wins 31-10 .

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