By Zach Lanning
This Sunday, Super Bowl 50 will be played at Levi’s Stadium in San Francisco. It will not take place at the Meadowlands, and all three area teams failed to make the playoffs, but the game still weighs on the minds of many New Jerseyans as we prepare our famous bean dips and pick out spots on the couch. Perhaps you are rooting for the young, athletic first-timer Cam Newton who makes big plays but orchestrates even bigger celebrations afterward that often rub people the wrong way. Or maybe you want to see Peyton Manning, who started his first game when Cam Newton was 9 years old, raise the Lombardi trophy one last time as he rides off into the sunset after a career that literally changed the way the game is played. Maybe you’re just excited to watch as two of the most dominant defenses this decade do their best to make both superstar quarterbacks irrelevant. Or maybe you’re just excited for Lady Gaga’s rendition of the National Anthem.
While there are no direct links to the Garden State, you can always find something. Jersey finds a way. Panthers tight end Greg Olsen was born in Paterson and was a star football player at Wayne Hills High School. Backup tight end Scott Simonson Jr. is also a New Jersey native and he donated blood marrow when he was in fourth grade to save his sister’s life. New Jersey is also a part of the Panther’s motto for the season “Keep Pounding”. Sam Mills played football at Montclair State University and, despite his size, went on to play three quality seasons in the NFL as a linebacker for the Panthers. He then eventually became an assistant coach for the team. After he was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2003 he continued to coach as if he were healthy while he battled the disease. He gave an inspiring speech to the team on the eve of a playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys in which he urged them to “keep pounding” when faced with adversity as he had done his whole life.
With New Jersey stories like these on their side, I don’t know how I can pick against the Carolina Panthers in this game. Plus, they’re a very talented team with a lot of momentum behind them right now, which definitely helps. I say the Panthers win in a relatively low scoring match-up — 23-20 over the Broncos, in what I hope is a close and exciting game.
The key for the Denver Broncos in this game will be the play of their wide receiver corps. Peyton Manning can’t do it all on his own. He’s not playing on a high enough level, and so his receivers need to step up and make plays when the throw is a little late or a little off target. Just to add an even greater challenge, they will have to do this against Josh Norman, one of the most athletically gifted young cornerbacks in the game who shuts down most, if not all of the top receivers this season. But Odell Beckham Jr. did show, once he got over himself and started playing football, that Josh Norman isn’t invincible, but he’s damn near close.
Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are more than capable of making up for some of Manning’s physical limitations, they just have to show up ready to go, which they have not really done consistently all year. Both went over 1,000 yards for the season but their touchdown totals were low and each committed their fair share of key drops. Their production was also limited by the fact that they were in a Kubiak run-first offense that had a lot of trouble running the ball the first half of the season. I don’t imagine it will be easy to get the running game going against the Panthers, though, with the way that Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis have been playing linebacker this year. Davis, it seems, is on track to play despite fracturing his forearm two weeks ago in the NFC Championship game. Even if he is limited, Kuechly still presents a huge problem because of his monstrous ability to cover the entire field. Hot Take: watch for Vernon Davis to make some plays from his tight end spot even though he’s been relatively quiet all year.
The other side of this match-up features one of the hottest offenses against one of the most dominant defenses, both coming off of what might be their best performances of the year. Defensive maestro Wade Phillips conducted a beautiful symphony against the Patriots with Von Miller as first chair violin and DeMarcus Ware as principal clarinet. I’ll admit that metaphor got away from me a little bit, but you get what I mean: They absolutely destroyed Tom Brady. They made his life a living nightmare. But Cam Newton and the Panthers offense are a different kind of beast and they are built specifically to capitalize on the strong pass rush of Denver. And they just put forth a masterwork of their own against the talented defense of the Arizona Cardinals.
They’re going to look to get the read-option game with Cam and Jonathan Stewart going early and often against Denver to make Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware have to think instead of just pinning their ears back and coming after the quarterback. If they can run this successfully, Cam will have time to sit in the pocket and take some deep shots to Ted Ginn downfield against Denver’s banged-up safeties. Hot Take: Devin Funchess catches an 80-yard bomb for a touchdown.