Passing the torch from one great to another?
Welcome to the AFC North predictions page!
This postseason, our AFC North feature writers will be listing their picks for every playoff game and be forced to explain why they voted as they did. Keep in mind that these picks are for entertainment purposes only, and in no way should be used to influence gambling or illegal activity, unless you’re smart enough to recognize that we know more than you because we publish things.
Super Bowl 50 match-up:
Carolina Panthers (17-1) @ Denver Broncos (14-4), Sunday 6:30pm, CBS
The Carolina Panthers and likely MVP Cam Newton take on the Denver Broncos and 5-time MVP Peyton Manning in what could (and should) be his last game as a pro. One will be off to Canton in five years, and one will be headed that way if the 2015 season is any indication of what’s to come.
Last week the AFC North writers batted .500 during championship week as a Broncos win was only predicted by Jack Crawford. His 2-0 record vaulted him to the top spot knocking off Wernike Korsakoff who had gone 8-0 heading into the week, then pulled a Bengals, a Manning, a Munson and blew his chances for an outright win this postseason. Does he have a shot at a tie?
On to the game:
Jack Crawford (record 9-1):
Panthers 28, Broncos 31
That’s right. And this isn’t just a contrarian pick.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is an immense talent, and will present a formidable challenge for the Broncos’ heralded defense, but I expect that same defense to contain the rest of the Carolina offense effectively, and force Newton to run more than usual. This approach has backfired against Newton before, but Denver’s defense is rangy enough to get it done, and as silly as it sounds, it’s unwise to underestimate a Wade Phillips-led defense.
Yes, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning is a living equivalent of an Egyptian sarcophagus; he’s warped, raisin-skinned, brittle, and worth a hell of a lot of money. But he remains one of the smartest quarterbacks I’ve ever seen, and it’s doubtful he’ll commit the killer mistake on a stage this big anymore. Denver will run a lot of quick-hitting plays – slants, hitches – to try to separate from Carolina’s solid coverage unit while protecting Manning. And they will actually work.
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Wernike Korsakoff (record 8-2):
Panthers 27, Broncos 20
This game boils down to the Panthers’ offense versus the Broncos’ defense.
Denver’s speedy defense goes against a Carolina offense built to counter playmakers like Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. The Broncos have a stout defensive line as well, so don’t expect resurgent Carolina RB Jonathan Stewart to simply run up the gut for 8 yards like he did in the NFC Championship game. Screen passes can negate an effective rush, but with QB Cam Newton’s scrambling ability, Carolina has an added weapon. Look for some designed/called read-option plays that could make Von and company think twice about heading straight for the QB. Denver’s front end is strong, so if Carolina can effectively limit them, Cam will be able to mix in some passes against an excellent, albeit, ailing Broncos secondary.
On the other side of the ball, Manning’s limitations as a passer are obvious to everyone but Phil Seems and Denver’s run game has been weak all year. Carolina CB Josh Norman will be effective on either receiver, but Man of the Year nominee, Cortland Finnegan struggles in coverage. Expect Finnegan and others to blitz Peyton until he gives them a reason not to.
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Michael Thompson (record 8-2):
Panthers 27, Broncos 17
It would be easy to frame this as another failure of Peyton Manning on the biggest stage, but there is a simpler reason that the Panthers will win this game. The Panthers are just a more complete team than the Broncos at this point. For many years, it did not matter who Manning’s receivers were, because Manning could elevate marginal talents into above average targets. As his physical skills have diminished, his ability to do that has declined along with it. As such, the lose of receivers like Julius Thomas, Wes Welker, and Eric Deckard has been devastating for a Broncos offense that is a shell of itself when compared to only two years ago.
This decline becomes clear when one considers what Cam Newton has done with a receiving corps whose biggest name is Greg Olson. His most accomplished outside target is Ted Ginn, who has failed as a wide receiver on every other team he has joined. Prior to this season, it would have been virtually impossible to name any of the other wide receivers that Newton has used to mold the Panthers’ aerial attack into a formidable threat. When combined with the dual threat nature of the Panthers’ quarterback, this ability to elevate his supporting players, that Newton has used to vault himself into rarefied company as one of the league’s elite, is the difference between these two teams at this point.
The defenses of the two teams are roughly comparable, with the Broncos perhaps holding a slight edge. However, on one hand, you have a crippled offense against an elite defense on one side and an excellent offense against an elite defense on the other. This is not to say the Broncos have no chance. In any game of football, there are a variety of factors, such as turnovers, that come into play. If enough of these unpredictable factors come into play, the Broncos could well keep the game close into the fourth quarter and pull out a win. However, in a clean game, the Panthers are just the better team at this point in time.
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Paul Johansson (record 7-3):
Panthers 23, Broncos 24
I’ll admit that because I’m out of the running for the post season top spot, I’m picking the team I want to win this game. Although I still have family out there, my Bronco ties faded away for good in the early 2000s thanks in part to their new stadium and its overly family friendly rules (it appears as though they may have loosened those rules as folks are actually standing in the lower bowl when the defense is on the field without getting scolded by fans and ushers), but mostly because I am a lifelong Baltimore fan and was finally able to find enough money in the couch to become a Ravens season ticket holder in 2002. I’m certainly not rooting for Manning the person to win. I’m rooting for Manning’s on-the-field story, rooting for the area I spent part of my life in, and not necessarily rooting against the Panthers minus maybe their instigating defensive backfield in Cortland Finnegan and Josh Norman. I’m actually a fan of Cam Newton despite some of his (in my opinion) generalities and unwarranted perceptions.
About the game… although the Broncos D isn’t quite as good or intimidating as the 2000 Ravens, I think Manning has finally come to realize he can be a game manager (like a Trent Dilfer), take sacks instead of risks, and still throw timely TD passes to help his team. In addition, he has dynamic weapons at receiver who will help his cause if throws are a little off. The Broncos running game has also picked it up lately, with AJ Anderson and Ronnie Hillman taking on some of the offensive load over the past four games (133 yards per). Another thing that can’t go overlooked is the fact that the NFL does not like to call offensive holding in the post season, and even more so in the Super Bowl.
The Broncos defense will ultimately decide this game, however. Although the Panthers do not posses the same skilled players as the Pittsburgh Steelers (who torched them in the 2nd half of their match up and was the Broncos D’s only major blip on the season), Carolina has the toughest quarterback to defend in the NFL, who can throw over and run through defenses. Denver’s D also tends to lose the tight end at times, which will play into the Panthers hands. Carolina has started fast this postseason and put up 80 points in their two games. If Manning plays like he did in Super Bowl 48, (or how Carson Palmer played last week) this game will be over quickly. He needs to manage the game in terms of turnovers, time of possession, and field position, and let his defense do the rest.
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AFC North Super Bowl Predictions
Passing the torch from one great to another?