All the talk leading up to the Panthers’ Super Bowl 50 matchup with the Broncos has been on the number one scoring, Cam Newton-led Carolina offense going up against the number one ranked Denver defense.
And while this battle is a large key in determining how this game plays out, there’s also a matter of how well the Panthers’ ferocious defense of their own will deal with Peyton Manning and his Broncos’ offense.
There are plenty of individual matchups to watch for in this one like Josh Norman vs. Demaryius Thomas in the secondary or Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei vs. Evan Mathis and Louis Vasquez at the line of scrimmage. But the real battle to watch is going to be the one between two of the best minds in football at their respective positions.
Luke Kuechly vs. Peyton Manning.
These two won’t necessarily be matched up directly with each other, but the mental prowess that they each bring to the table has played a part in their career success and certainly in getting to this point.
Throughout Manning’s 18-year career he’s put on a display of quarterbacking that left opponents at a loss and fans in sheer awe.
During his prime, the former Colts and now Broncos quarterback could fit the ball into just about any window with perfect touch and the precise amount of power behind it. He has led a number of elite offenses because of his physical abilities but also because of the intelligence he’s brought to the position, unlike any other, revolutionizing the preparation that goes into being an NFL quarterback.
Manning has become known for his cerebral talents before the snap specifically. He is lauded as an offensive coordinator on the field who can pick apart a defense and find its weakness before the ball is even snapped with various audibles and route changes.
This season however, has seen a much different Manning than the NFL has been accustomed to.
His physical attributes have dwindled in recent seasons and are at an all-time low this season in which he played in just 10 games and had the worst statistical year of his career. Even into the playoffs he’s had to rely on his offensive genius to pick up yards when he can with throws that he’s still capable of making with limited arm strength and touch.
Trying to counteract every pre-snap read and audible from the future Hall of Fame quarterback will be arguably the best defensive mind in the league in Kuechly.
The Panthers’ middle linebacker has been one of the top defensive players in the league since being drafted in 2012. He’s been at or close to the top in total tackles each year he’s played and has a Defensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year award already in his trophy case.
So far this postseason we’ve already seen Kuechly play lights out as he’s become the only player in NFL history to record pick-sixes in back-to-back games in the same postseason and as Pro Football Focus tweeted out, he’s playing on a level that’s second to none.
One of the most spectacular aspects of Kuechly’s play though is his own football smarts which, due to his supreme playmaking ability on defense, tends to go largely unnoticed.
As the leader of the defense, the Panthers middle linebacker relays the play calls to the rest of his defensive teammates and can be seen getting them into proper position, usually in a fiery and eccentric fashion.
Like Manning, Kuechly has the ability to see what an offense is trying to do and then has the power to check out of a blitz or coverage in order to counteract what the opposing quarterback is trying to exploit in his defense.
One perfect example of this occurred in the Thanksgiving Day game against Dallas.
On one play, Kuechly noticed Jason Witten at the line and saw that his defense would be ill prepared to defend the veteran tight end up the seam. So he checked out of the play and dropped himself back into coverage with safety Kurt Coleman and wound up picking off the pass and taking it back for six.
Kuechly has praised Manning in the time leading up to the Super Bowl and is fully aware of the veteran quarterback’s physical decline but noted; “He’s still the guy,” knowing that he can still pick apart a defense mentally as he told the Bill Voth of Black and Blue Review.
Both players will likely be eyeing each other up all game long trying to get one step ahead of the other in what will be a true chess match between these two top-notch football minds and as key a matchup as any in this Super Bowl showdown.
The Offensive Coordinator on the field against the Defensive Coordinator on the field. It’s a battle of wits that the Panthers will need Kuechly to dominate.