Super Bowl 50 preview: Storylines and stars

Super Bowl 50 features so many storylines to savor and matchups to mull.

No. 1 seed in the AFC versus No. 1 seed in the NFC for the third straight year. The top-scoring team, the Carolina Panthers, facing the stingiest defense in yards, the Denver Broncos.

On the field, there is a lot to like about the Super Bowl 50 matchup … and so many questions. How will the Broncos try to contain Cam Newton, the likely MVP of the league? How will Peyton Manning fare against an extremely opportunistic Panthers defense? Will his brilliant football mind help him overcome his deteriorating right arm? Will it be his last game in the NFL? Will it be the start of many Super Bowl appearances for a smartly built Panthers team? Will the chirping Panthers defense and audacious offense be too much for the Broncos?

The questions are many, and the history of the season bodes well for both teams.

Denver’s defense led the NFL with 52 sacks in the regular season and added four more, along with two interceptions, in the AFC Championship Game. But will they be able to do that against the diverse skills of Newton, who has turned himself from an “athletic” quarterback to one that is now just as adept slinging bullets from the pocket.

The Panthers led the NFL with 500 points in the regular season, then backed it up with 80 more over two games in the postseason, including 49 against Arizona – the fifth-ranked defense in the NFL in 2015 – for the second-most points by a conference championship winner in league history. The Broncos defense led the NFL with a league-low 283 yards surrendered per game in the regular season, then saddled up and rode that defense to the Super Bowl.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera is trying to become the fourth person to win a Super Bowl as a player and a head coach and join Mike Ditka, Tony Dungy and Tom Flores in that club. Rivera won it as a player with the 1985 Chicago Bears, and ironically that was the last team to win at least 15 games in a regular season and win the Super Bowl.

Manning is expected to start his fourth Super Bowl, bested only by Tom Brady’s six and the five of Manning’s general manager, John Elway. For the Broncos, it will be their eighth Super Bowl appearance, tied for most in NFL history with Dallas, Pittsburgh and New England.

There is simply so much to like in this matchup, and the quarterbacks will be front and center as they always are in the Super Bowl, despite this time neither of them having a regular-season passer rating above 100.

Newton was close, at 99.4, throwing for 3,837 yards, 35 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions. Manning was limited by injury and limited to only 2,249 yards, nine touchdowns and 17 interceptions, for a frankly poor passer rating of 67.9.

The battle of the quarterbacks is so much more than young (Newton) versus old (Manning). Their styles are dramatically contrasting. Newton is the first quarterback in NFL history to throw at least 30 touchdowns and run for at least 10 in a season, accounting for a league-high 45 touchdowns in the regular season, and has tied Steve Young with 31 career games with a touchdown running and passing.

While it is Newton’s first Super Bowl appearance, Manning is the first quarterback in NFL history to lead multiple teams to multiple Super Bowl appearances, doing it twice with Indianapolis and now twice with Denver. While he has only one ring to show for it so far, his postseason accomplishments are many – second in playoff history in passing yards (7,198), completions (636) and attempts (1,004) – trailing Tom Brady in all of those. Manning is fourth all-time in postseason touchdown passes (40) and needs one more playoff win to tie Terry Bradshaw and Elway for third-most of any starting quarterback in NFL postseason history.

Despite the encompassing quarterback furor, both teams are as much about defense as their passing game. The Panthers led the NFL with 39 takeaways and 24 interceptions in the regular season, along with a league-leading plus-20 turnover differential. Their thievery continued in the playoffs with a nine takeaways, including six interceptions, for a plus-8 turnover differential.

The stars of the Carolina defense are sprinkled throughout – Kawann Short with a career-high 13 sacks (including the playoffs) and Charles Johnson has a sack in both playoff games this year; Luke Kuechly led the team with 118 tackles and became the first player in NFL history with interception returns for touchdowns in back-to-back playoff games; and Josh Norman and Kurt Coleman have been impressive interceptors throughout the season.

For the Broncos, linebackers Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall each had more than 100 tackles as the Broncos led the NFL in total defense. And the pass rush and coverage helped Denver to a league-best 199 passing yards allowed per game. Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware are the go-to pass rushers and cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. were both Pro Bowl players.

The easy prediction is to look at Newton and call it for the Panthers, but Denver’s defense can be impressive. So can Carolina’s, which is a dangerous detriment to Manning’s quest for a second ring.

Get your popcorn ready, and your chips, salsa, drinks and sweets. This one should be sweet. 

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