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FOOTBALL

Super Bowl 50 Preview: Denver Broncos vs. Carolina Panthers

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World-Herald staff writer Sam McKewon breaks down the Super Bowl 50 matchup between Denver and Carolina.

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QUARTERBACK

A man in his prime vs. a guy battling Father Time. It’s the Super Bowl, and so quarterbacks — whoever they are — will be a primary storyline. But the story here is juicy. Carolina’s Cam Newton is on a roll, running and passing with equal skill. The Broncos’ Peyton Manning has never been particularly mobile, and his right arm isn’t nearly as strong as it used to be. But Manning’s mind — the way he thinks around a game — is as sharp as it’s ever been, and he’ll need every bit of it to navigate the Panthers’ salty defense. But Newton has grown by leaps and bounds as a game manager, and he controls his team with confidence and authority. He also has an arm that can make hard throws look easy. Newton’s post-play celebrations get most of the attention, but before the whistle, he’s been pretty darn good.

OFFENSIVE SKILL PLAYERS

The Panthers are a big football team. Newton is big, the running backs — Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert — are big, and tight end Greg Olsen (6-foot-5, 253 pounds) is big. Newton’s top target, Olsen works the middle of the field, snatches passes out of the air and can take a good hit from the defense. Watch, too, wideouts Devin Funchess (another big guy) and Ted Ginn Jr., who’s a skilled runner, as evidenced by his touchdown run against Arizona. The Broncos use a committee at running back. Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson are the guys — Anderson attacks the line of scrimmage a little better. Wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders make a good one-two punch on those quick screens Manning likes to throw, while tight end Owen Daniels has a lot of knowledge of coach Gary Kubiak’s offense.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Carolina has one of the best run-blocking lines in the NFL, anchored by center Ryan Kalil, who’s among the league’s best, if not the best. Denver’s offensive line has become better and better at the zone blocking run scheme that paced Denver’s two Super Bowl teams in the 1990s, as evidenced by a terrific drive late in a playoff win over Pittsburgh.

DEFENSIVE FRONT SEVEN

The Panthers’ front seven have made two straight NFC West quarterbacks — Russell Wilson and Carson Palmer — look uncomfortable and confused in the pocket, forcing them into mistakes. Linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis — both All-Pros — have something to do with that, but don’t underestimate defensive tackle Kawann Short, who’s coming into his own. The Broncos, on the other hand, have two studs at pass rusher. Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware made life miserable for the Patriots’ Tom Brady in the AFC championship. Ends Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson aren’t slouches, either. The Broncos have the top defense in the NFL, and this front — as coordinated by Wade Phillips — is a big reason. Newton will be tested by Denver’s speed, particularly that of Miller.

SECONDARY

Aqib Talib may not win any “favorite player in the NFL” awards, but his 30 career interceptions, eight career touchdowns and 98 career pass breakups prove he’s not a dude with whom to be trifled. The Broncos’ pass rush can often tip its cap to Talib. His teammates Chris Harris Jr. and Bradley Roby are pretty special, too. Harris made the Pro Bowl. Safety T.J. Ward is a playmaking tackler. Carolina has a sturdy secondary led by Josh Norman — who might have been one of the NFL’s best defensive players this year along with Kuechly and Davis — and Kurt Coleman, who had seven interceptions during the season and two more against the Cardinals in the NFC title game. The Panthers basically make scoring hard on every level of the field.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Carolina kicker Graham Gano and punter Brad Nortman are solid, while returner Ted Ginn Jr. always is a threat to do something dangerous. The return game, anchored by Ginn, hasn’t hit big yet, but Ginn has explosive abilities. The Broncos have a potential game-breaking returner in Omar Bolden and a decent punter in Britton Colquitt. Kicker Brandon McManus is young and a little untested.

COACHING

The Panthers’ Ron Rivera has the right persona for his team and his quarterback. Carolina is a little flashy, Rivera really isn’t, and it works for everybody involved. The Panthers tend to get off to terrific starts — that’s certainly been the case in two playoff wins — and Rivera’s defense, which allows linebackers to make plays all over the field, is a hit. For the Broncos, Gary Kubiak was brought in by Denver executive/Hall of Famer John Elway to install the zone running offense that takes pressure off Manning’s arm. Kubiak is basically Mike Shanahan-lite, coaching a team largely shaped by predecessor John Fox, and trying to pull it over the finish line before some of the team’s best players become too expensive to keep. Kubiak is the coach. So, in a sense, is Elway.

THREE KEY QUESTIONS

Can Carolina take this show on the road?

The Panthers pummeled the Seahawks and Cardinals at home, jumping out to insurmountable leads. If that happens in Santa Clara, the Broncos probably don’t have the quick-strike firepower to get back into the game. Denver needs to withstand Carolina’s initial surge.

Is Denver’s zone run game able to puncture some holes in the Panthers’ front seven?

Carolina is just peachy with teams trying to pass the ball, and Manning’s arm is so feeble that there’s not a whole lot he can do to pick it apart.

Will the Broncos’ chatty defensive line get inside Cam Newton’s head?

They definitely did with the Patriots’ Tom Brady, who made his share of mistakes in the AFC title game. The Super Bowl is the ultimate stage, and even though Newton has handled every game this year like a champ, Denver is that one team, with a certain attitude, that can rattle him.

PREDICTION

Line: Panthers by 5½

Last meeting: Broncos won 36-14, Nov. 11, 2012

Lowdown: This is quite a challenge for the offensive coordinators. Denver’s Rick Dennison will be charged with containing Luke Kuechly and the athletic Carolina defense. To put it another way, Dennison has to make sure his linemen and backs can keep Peyton Manning upright. That’s a factor, especially early, as the Broncos don’t want a repeat of their disastrous start in that Super Bowl 48 mauling by Seattle. Carolina’s Mike Shula could find himself in a chess match. Quarterback Cam Newton should be able to run to offset some of Denver’s pass rush. The key is how much. If the Panthers strike the right balance, they win.

Carolina 23, Denver 19

— John Rodino

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