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The Denver Broncos are better than everyone thinks heading into Super Bowl 50

Breaking down the football geek's fantasy Super Bowl 50 matchup.

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The Denver Broncos opened as 4.5 point underdogs, and are currently favored to lose by 6 points. 94% of people placing bets on the Super Bowl are betting that the Carolina Panthers are going to win.

On the surface, it's easy to see why the Panthers are so heavily favored. They've only lost one game, they have the highest point differential in the NFL, and have scored more points of any other team. Their playoff victories have been completely dominant.

While the Broncos have been dealing with "quarterback drama" all season, have the lowest point differential of any team in the playoffs, winning almost every game they played this season by less than one score. But only looking at the surface is where the analysis is falling short. How does each aspect of Carolina's "number one" offense (only in points) match up to Denver's number one defense (in every category)? And how does Denver's mediocre offense match up with Carolina's hyped up defense?

How the number one defense matches up against the (sort of) number one offense

Team

Carolina

Denver

Statistic

Scored

Rank

Allowed

Rank

Points/game

32.2

1

18.3

3

Yards/game

369

11

292

1

Passing YPA

7.7

10

6.2

1

Rushing YPC

4.3

8

3.3

1

Starting with the reason the Panthers are considered the number one offense, points per game. The Panthers average 32.2 points per game (including playoffs), while the Broncos are allowing 18.3. Surprisingly, Panthers offense averages 369 yards per game, finishing 11th in the regular season. Compare that to the Broncos defense allowing an average of 292 yards per game and finishing first in the league for that category. The Broncos defense ranked first in yards allowed per play for both rushing and passing, while the Panthers finished 10th and 8th in those categories in the regular season.

On paper, this looks like a good matchup for a strong Denver defense, however it will be challenging because they haven't seen anything like it up to this point. Cam Newton is his own category of quarterback, and the Broncos will have to formulate a game plan to contain him and defend his throws. According to PFF the Broncos had the highest graded run defense and pass rush in the league, so if any team is equipped to deal with him and Jonathan Stewart, it's the Broncos. Pair that with the second ranked secondary in the league, and the Broncos seem like they have a good formula to contain Carolina's unique offense.

Key to win: CONTAIN THE RUN

Now, let's talk about the flip side...

How an inconsistent offense matches with a good defense

Team

Denver

Carolina

Statistic

Scored

Rank

Allowed

Rank

Points/game

22.1

19

19.3

6

Yards/game

348

16

325

11

Passing YPA

7

23

6.2

2

Rushing YPC

4.2

13

3.9

7

Carolina is dominating in points, but not in yardage. This means they are benefiting from short field position, which is indicative of a lot of forced turnovers. On average, the Panthers line of scrimmage started at the 30.5 yard line, the second best starting field position in the league. They led the league in turnovers, with 39, and their defense generated a turnover on 1 of every 5 drives (meaning their offense started with a turnover 20% of the time.

Despite generating an enormous amount of turnovers, the Panthers' defense doesn't rank the best in any other category, and Denver's improved offense is an interesting matchup. The Broncos are averaging 22 points per game, finishing 19th, while the panthers are allowing an average of 19.3, finishing 6th. Keep in mind that the Broncos have been climbing up in the rankings as well. They had a slow start to the season while they were learning a new offensive system implemented by Kubiak and dealing with Peyton Manning injuries and a carousel of offensive linemen. Pass protection has been at its peak all season in the playoffs. And finally, keep in mind that Kubiak plays with a conservative offense, trusting that the defense will keep the opponent's score low.

If the Broncos can protect the ball like they have against the Steelers and Patriots (and fall on those laterals you drop, Ronnie!), the Panthers' defense isn't much better than the average team the Broncos have played against all season. Pair that, with the fact that the Broncos have been playing their best offense in the playoffs. Evan Mathis is one of the league's best run blockers, and Schofield seems to have heard us, because he's looked like a new man in recent weeks. The Panthers' run defense is stronger than average, but they rely mostly on Luke Keuchly and Kawann Short, leaving vulnerable areas on the outside.

The Panthers' secondary doesn't seem to pose much of a threat outside of Josh Norman due to the injury to Charles Tillman exposing Robert McClain's weaknesses. If Peyton can take advantage of the sideline and get the ball out fast enough to evade the Panthers' pass rush, and most importantly not throw an interception, the Broncos can get by. Led by Peyton Manning's mastermind, the offense can take advantage of this matchup and control the game clock to keep Cam Newton off the field as much as possible.

Key to win: NO TURNOVERS

Strength of Schedule Comparison

When looking at matchups between two of the best teams in the league, it is important to consider who they have played and when they played them. We have heard the dialogue that the Panthers have benefitted from an easy schedule. That is true, but they have completely capitalized on that schedule, so it isn't valid to say they wouldn't be here if they had played tougher teams leading into the playoffs. However, it might be a telling statistic about why their stats are as good as they are.

According to Football Outsiders Defensive Efficiency Ratings, the Broncos led the league in defensive DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) with a rating of -25.8%; the Panthers are second with -18.4%. But when looking at the teams they played, we can rank the quality of each offense that the Broncos and Panthers faced. The Broncos had the 4th hardest schedule against offenses, facing offenses with an average DVOA of 3.2%; the Panthers had the 26th (of 6th easiest) schedule against offenses, with an average of -2.9%. When you look at it this way, the Broncos have the far and away best defense in the league against some of the best teams in the league seem a little more impressive.

On the other side of the ball, the Broncos finished 25th on Offensive DVOA (-8.8%) playing with the 17th hardest schedule (-0.1% Def. DVOA), while the Panthers finished 8th (9.9%) playing against the easiest schedule in the league (4.9% Def. DVOA). This statistic is a little more concerning for the Broncos, but explains why the Panthers offense seems so good statistically.

Matchup to watch: Best defensive line versus one of the best offensive lines

The Panthers boasted the second ranked offensive line in 2015 according to PFF, finishing 4th in the league for pass blocking and 6th for run blocking, led by Trai Turner and Ryan Kalil. In the regular season the Broncos played against 5 top of the top 10 rated offensive line (Browns 5th, Raiders 6th, Packers 7th, Bengals 8th, and Steelers 10th).

Of note, the Raiders have the 2nd best pass blocking grade and the Browns have the 3rd. Their performances against the Broncos compared to their averages are shown here:

Team

completion %

YPA

yards

Raiders

56%

5.6

161

average

62%

6.8

242

difference

-6%

-1.2

-81

Browns

51%

5.5

189

average

61%

6.8

237

difference

-10%

-1.3

-48

Broncos average

60%

6.2

200

The Broncos are bringing down the averages of elite offensive lines, and even allowed less than their average during those matchups (60%, 6.2 YPA, 200 yards).

The Vikings have the 7th best run blocking, and Bears have the 5th best. In both of these games the teams rushed for more than the Broncos allowed on average (3.3 YPC, 84 yards), but still less than those teams were averaging on the rest of the league.

Team

YPC

yards

Vikings

5.4

113

average

4.7

138

difference

0.7

-25

Bears

3.5

86

average

3.9

116

difference

-0.4

-30

Broncos average

3.3

84

For reference, Panthers averaged a 60% completion rate, 7.7 YPA, and 224 yards/game passing with the 4th best pass blocking, and 4.3 YPC and 152 yards/game rushing with the 6th best run blocking.

The Broncos have the highest rated defensive line in the league and the second best secondary according to PFF. Other defensive lines in the top ten that have faced the Panthers are: the Texans (5th), the Eagles (6th), and the Titans (8th). Top ten secondaries that the Panthers faced: the Texans (8th). How did they fare against those teams? Their stats are shown in the table below against each team, compared to that team's average allowed on the season.

Passing

Rushing

Team

completion %

YPA

yards

YPC

yards

Texans

48%

4.6

178

5.2

172

average

59%

6.6

210

4.1

100

difference

-11%

-2

-32

1.1

72

Eagles

58%

8.2

190

6.2

204

average

62%

7.7

299

4.5

135

difference

-4%

0.5

-109

1.7

69

Titans

84%

8.7

184

3.5

119

average

64%

7.9

230

3.9

112

difference

20%

0.8

-46

-0.4

7

Panthers Average

60%

7.7

224

4.3

152

These stats are wildly inconsistent, which may be a product of inconsistent teams or a product of an offense that relies on turnovers for great field position, but Cam was held to less than 200 yards passing in every game. The Texans recipe stopped the Panthers' passing game and the Titans stifled the rush.

One thing to note is that the Texans and Panthers played in week 2, before the Texans really started to get their defensive line to gel and start stopping other teams' rushing attempts; and they really are the closest thing to the Denver defense that the Panthers played in the regular season.

Other notes about previous matchups

The Broncos faced the number one ranked secondary in the AFC Championship and only gave up one turnover on a mental error by Ronnie Hillman. They also faced the Packers (3rd), the Chiefs (4th), the Bengals (6th), and the Lions (9th). The Panthers are ranked 10th. The Broncos faced the Raiders' 4th ranked defensive line, and the Chiefs 7th ranked line (the Panthers are outside of the top 10). The Panthers faced the number one offensive line, the Cowboys, along with the Saints (3rd), the Falcons (4th), and the Packers (7th).

Often overlooked, one thing to remember about the Denver Broncos' offense is that they face the top ranked defense in practice every single day. I realize it isn't the starting offensive players against the starting defensive players in practice, but this allows Gary Kubiak and Rick Dennison to prepare for every possible scenario that the number one defense is able to throw at them.

The Broncos haven't allowed any team to  beat them by more than one score with the exception of the Chiefs in the game Manning played injured in. They have only lost by more than 6 points two times all season, the second time was against the Steelers when TJ Ward and Darian Steward were injured, and Bruton played on a broken leg for 3 quarters. Based on this logic, I don't see why Vegas has a 6 point spread favoring the Panthers. There is a possibility that it could be a blowout, but that seems unlikely.

A final thought

The Broncos are well-equipped to handle the strengths of the Panthers. If the offense plays smart and doesn't give them the ball or set them up with good field position, they have a very good chance at winning (a heck of a lot better than the Vegas odds). The offense must play to the level they have been playing at in the last two games, and the defense needs to take advantage of their health. Having a bye week benefits the Broncos more than the Panthers; they can take advantage of designing plays for the greatest quarterback mind of all time for an extra week, ensuring that he plays like he did against the Packers and the smart play we have seen the previous two weeks. Our receivers need to catch their passes, and the offensive line needs to play their best. And perhaps it is overstated, but the Broncos have more Super Bowl experience than the Panthers which will help their mental preparations in a completely different environment.

Oh and... GO BRONCOS!