NFL: A Closer Look at Super Bowl 50

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The Denver Broncos were the top seed in the AFC this season with a record of 12-4. The Carolina Panthers were No. 1 in the NFC with their impressive 15-1 mark. It’s rare that the top team in each conference makes it all the way to the Super Bowl, but with marquee victories in their respective conference championship games, Carolina and Denver have done just that.

Over the last week and a half, both sides have been dealing with off-field distractions, family requests for tickets, and constant tweaking of game plans as they prep for the big game at Levi Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. That’s a long time period to prepare for a football game, and anything — and everything — can happen.

So, what should we expect from the golden anniversary of the Super Bowl? Which players will show up big? And ultimately, will it be the Broncos or the Panthers hoisting the Lombardi Trophy on the first Sunday of February? Here are out first impressions of the game.

How they got here

Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

While both the Broncos and the Panthers finished first in their respective conferences, the road to the Super Bowl was quite different for each team. In Denver, the season started with questions about Peyton Manning’s ability at quarterback. After starting 7-0, the team appeared to be one of the best in the league, owning a terrifying defense that was literally winning games week in and week out. Then, the team hit a rough patch and lost Manning (who was struggling mightily) to an injury, which forced them to turn to their unproven backup Brock Osweiler.

Osweiler played well enough to put the Broncos in position to clinch the top seed in the AFC in their final game, where Manning came back to secure that spot. Even though they owned home-field advantage, many doubted the Broncos’ chances to make a Super Bowl. An overpowering defense and enough production from Manning and the offense led them past the New England Patriots in the conference championship though, allowing them to continue their somewhat improbable run.

Carolina had a much more straightforward path to Santa Clara than did the team’s opponent. The Panthers played the entire season with a chip on their shoulder and won their first 15 games of the season, defeating some of the NFC’s best in the process. They ended up falling short of a perfect 16-0 season, but a 15-1 record gave Carolina home-field in the playoffs, which turned out to be huge. The Panthers cruised (for the most part) against the defending NFC Champion Seattle Seahawks and then the high-flying Arizona Cardinals in the conference title game, led by likely-MVP Cam Newton and an opportunistic defense. Quite frankly, the Panthers have been the most consistent team throughout the course of the season.

Defense could rule the day

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

If you saw the way the defenses for each of the Super Bowl competitors played during conference championship weekend, it becomes easy to understand which side of the ball could determine the NFL champion for the 2015-16 season.

The Panthers’ unit created seven turnovers in their dominating victory over Arizona on Sunday (including four interceptions of Cardinals’ QB Carson Palmer). Those turnovers created a bevy of opportunities for Newton and the offense, which has been a formula for success for the team all season long. In fact, Carolina owned the best turnover margin in the NFL at +20 in the regular season. Further, with players like Luke Kuechly, Josh Norman, and Kawann Short, the Panthers own game-changing players at every level of their defense. Manning and the Broncos will have their hands full preparing for this unit over the next two weeks.

When it comes to defense, Carolina is great, but nobody plays better on that side of the ball than does Denver. First in total yards allowed, fourth in points allowed, first in sacks, and in the top 10 in takeaways — those were the numbers during the regular season for this unit, and they’ve only played better in the postseason. They pressured Tom Brady into several mistakes during the Broncos’ dramatic win over the Patriots in the AFC Championship and made all the necessary plays to capture the victory. With players such as Von Miller, Aqib Talib, and Derek Wolfe, Denver also gets it done at every level of its defense. The old saying of “Defense wins championships” could really come to fruition in Santa Clara.

A determining matchup

Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Speaking of defense, the Broncos have one of the best in the business on that side of the ball in linebacker Von Miller. In that win against New England, Miller took over the game all by himself, collecting 2.5 sacks of Tom Brady, grabbing an interception, and causing chaos on almost every snap. If he can play like that in the Super Bowl, he could lead Denver to its third world championship in franchise history. However, Miller and his defensive teammates will have to handle a different kind of animal in Panthers’ star QB Cam Newton.

Newton has been nothing short of spectacular in his fifth NFL season, as he accounted for a league high 45 touchdowns (35 passing, 10 rushing) during the regular season, leading the Panthers to a league high 31.3 points per game. He’s nearly impossible to bring down with his 6-foot-5, 245-pound frame, and he plays with a passion and level of confidence that is matched by few players in the league. Newton has also been brilliant in the postseason, where he’s accounted for another five touchdowns.

If the Broncos are to win the Super Bowl, Miller has to not only create pressure on Newton, but he also needs to get him to the ground when he has the chance. They stand little chance if Newton is running around and making plays on their stout defense, and Miller will be a key in stopping that from happening. Similarly, Carolina needs its MVP to step up and deliver on the biggest stage.

Who should win?

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Things will happen over the course of the next two weeks that will change the course of the Super Bowl. Injuries and other things will arise that could ultimately determine the winner. As of this present moment though, we have a feeling of which team will emerge victorious.

That team is the Denver Broncos. Carolina obviously has a very good, very complete team that could very well walk away with the title. However, Denver is battle-tested (all but three of the team’s victories this season came by 7 points or less), and its defense has proved to be the determining factor in almost all of those wins this season. Further, Manning is determined to capture a second Super Bowl title in his legendary career in what could be his last game. Those factors and more lead us to believe that the likely-underdog Broncos can capture the Lombardi Trophy.

All data courtesy of ESPN.go.com and Pro-Football-Reference.com