Welcome to almost the last Ultimate Fan Guide of the year (I say "almost" because you just never know when we'll need another one!!)
But in honor of this super Super Bowl edition, I have a super treat for you - "styg50" (also known in a few circles as the ever-brilliant Jeremy Bolander) is going to give us the breakdown and help us understand what our favorite team needs to do to win. Spoiler Alert - it shouldn't be the Panthers' blowout the "analysts" want to think it will be (who gives those people jobs anyway?)
You may have heard rumblings that Whorfin was going to join in on this one, but being the true teammate he is, Whorfin decided that the glory from this touchdown belonged all to styg.
Wow! The game went very close to what I thought would happen - low scoring, about even on penalties, and I actually predicted the 52-yard long field goal by McManus. What I definitely didn't expect was the amazing level of defense that pummeled Tom Brady to the tune of 23 HITS, four of them sacks. This game almost became a blowout, but thanks to Jordan Norwood not being six inches taller and Emmanuel Sanders' hesitation, the margin was much tighter. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter, and the Broncos are going to the Super Bowl! The offense has ONE MORE CHANCE to figure it all out and fire on all cylinders. All I ask now is please don't blow this chance. I can't handle another 43-8 skunking.
Super Bowl 50 - Denver Broncos v. Carolina Panthers
MHR - Before we are "On to Carolina," let's celebrate/critique the Patriots win for just a moment. Was there a point in that game you knew the Broncos would win it, and if so, what was it?
styg50: I felt good about the game going in, and except for the incomplete fumble, it never felt like we would lose. At 17-9 going into the half, I was quietly confident the Patriots simply wouldn't find enough offense to put us away, while we had a strategic advantage with the missed XP.
Could our offense avoid turnovers and eat clock? I was confident that it could, and win-probability bears that out: Denver's win-probability was 80 percent at the half, and New England never pressed higher than 26 percent during the fourth quarter, a +11WPA reception by Edelman to set the Pats up at the Broncos' 25. Broncos followed soon after with a brilliant fourth-down stop by Harris (-19WPA). It may have felt close at the end, and anyone who watches football knows anything can happen, but while the Pats achieved a couple of highly improbable results at the end, winning would have required several more consecutive and highly improbable results.
MHR - From the Patriots game, what did you like about how the Broncos pulled out that win and how can that be useful in the next game?
styg50: What I liked most, but that can't be taken with us, was the crowd factor. Not since the Green Bay game did we see the fans so charged up and the environment so electric. The Pats were on a silent count for the whole game, and while you can change up a silent count a little bit, it didn't help, because our rushers, Von especially, were getting the best jump on the snap I had seen all year, and that pressure was the ultimate engine of the winning game plan.
But what we can take with us was how we closed that game out. Fans get frustrated with the offense in situations like that, but the coaching staff recognized several important factors in that game: First, both teams were well designed that day. There were no free plays, no weak spots exposed for exploitation.
Second, both squads were at similar production levels, with Denver ever so slightly out-producing the Pats. In that situation, you don't "go for the throat" or try to press a non-existent advantage; that leads to turnovers and huge momentum-shifting plays the OTHER way as often as they help.
They kept their shields up, protected their flanks and edged over the victory line while Pats battered themselves against an improbable win percentage. Pats win with a Denver mistake, and they lost because that mistake never came. That understanding of the ebb and flow of a game, of a team's true leverage and position will serve us well against the well-designed and very productive Panthers - as it has served us well all year.
MHR - What didn't you like in that Patriots' win that needs to be improved upon to compete well against Carolina?
styg50: The same thing that has needed improvement all year - offensive player production. We are simply leaving too many plays on the field.
A lot of this has to do with the personnel groups we are fielding. Our 2 TE package is our best-designed group, but defenses know if they can get us out of that personnel, we will struggle to run and they can cheat away from play-action. They do this by tempting us with heavier defenses, and when passes are off the mark, routes aren't in sync with the pass and players just don't get after the ball or hang onto it, promising drives whither on the vine. That they keep grinding without a meltdown is really impressive to me as of late because they have had every excuse to go full-Carson and haven't succumbed to that temptation.
MHR - So much of the focus on Carolina is Cam Newton, an athletic QB who was NFC's Offensive Player of the Week five times this season. What problems will Newton present our No. 1 defense and what is the best way to contain him?
styg50: The first and biggest problem will be the variety of personnel and formations they present, and they can do this because as the sun around which that offense orbits, Cam can do it all. The read and triple-option, along with called runs for Cam, has to be the starting point for the defensive focus in terms of shutting things down, which is where the preparation comes in. Denver has two weeks to develop an instinctual reaction to the Panthers' formations and shifts. The key to defending the option is to play fundamentally sound: maintain your gap discipline, make smart tackles. The problem is that with Carolina, and especially Cam, they are fast and strong at the point of attack, and he who hesitates will be trailing the play in no time.
So Denver needs to prepare well enough that it can be moving instinctually against this offense - which is no small task. When Cam keeps the ball, they need to go low and avoid the stiff arm, and they need to hustle to take away the confidence in those calls for Carolina. This in turn can affect the decision-making that is critical to the option, and get Denver opportunities for negative plays. No one player is more critical than another here, because Carolina's variety could put almost anyone on the spot. We have been asking players to step up all across the team and from all levels of depth this year. This game will be the ultimate test of whether the message has been received or not.
MHR - Newton hasn't had his No. 1 receiver the entire season, yet he's connected with Greg Olsen all season with great success. Is forcing him into the pocket to beat you with his arm all that advisable? Or just the lesser of two evils given his 10+ rushing touchdowns this season?
styg50: There is an element of lesser of two evils, but the more important thing is to limit the multiplicity of the offense. Cam passing is better than Cam passing AND running. Making him pass is more about putting our defensive line into position to do what WE do best, which is pressure the passer. Our zone dogs are ideal for this matchup, but we use a lot of stunting and twisting to make them work, as well as smart safety play, and so if the Panther running game is generating first downs, we may find ourselves having to gamble to generate pressure instead of safely zone-dogging them into oblivion like we did against Rodgers.
In addition, his receivers, much like ours, leave plays on the field and create opportunities for defenders. It is worth noting that scrambling won't be Denver's first concern with Cam. More than ever he looks to be hanging in the pocket and going through his progressions. If Cam is scrambling, it means our defense is working. It also, of course, means that their work has just begun. The big thing is not to let their play action game get going.
MHR - Panthers have had 31 consecutive games with 100+ yards on the ground behind Jonathan Stewart and Newton. But the Broncos' run defense has been among the best. Will the Broncos be the team to break the Panthers' streak?
styg50: I don't know what kind of situation you would have to force in order for the Panthers to give up on the run. They certainly never gave up on it at any time this season, in large part because Cam's runs are always an option. I would be surprised if we broke the streak, but Super Bowls are outlier type games, so I wouldn't rule it out.
Cam Newton has not been hit more than 6 times in one game this season. Denver sacked Newton 7 times last time the two teams played.— The Orange Page (@theorangepage) February 4, 2016
MHR - If you were Wade Phillips, how would you game plan for this explosive Panthers offense?
styg50: First, I wouldn't describe the Panthers as explosive. I would call them consistent, and I would call them opportunistic. They have the second best average starting field position, and they haven't wasted that opportunity. But "explosive," while usually a complimentary term, in my mind is a bit of a pejorative. Arizona was an "explosive" team, the 2013 Broncos were an "explosive" team, and we see where that gets you - into a high variance game plan where anything can happen.
As to an effective game plan against the Panthers offense, it starts with field position, which is Kubes/Manning's job and DeCamillis and Co. Without their help, Wade's defense could maintain it's league leading (by a healthy margin) yds/drive allowed, and yet still surrender a bushel of points. Number one is limiting turnovers, and number two is handling business when it comes to Ted Ginn Jr. in the return game.
For Wade's squad, I would put more weight on prep than on game planning. The defense needs to be prepared for myriad looks they will see, and then doubly prepared for the unconventional QB runs and reads from those looks. Additionally, in all of those looks, there will be tendencies in play calling or personnel, and you want a laundry list of those, because I expect that the game plan itself will be pretty simple: five-man zone dog rush for passing downs with man-to-man in hand-off zones behind them (pattern-match).
We'll stay home in the running game and try to win individual battles without getting fancy, see if they can force us to adjust. But I am hoping to see one or two creative run blitzes early, based on tendencies we spot. The sooner we get them out of their running game - and thus their play action game - the better.
MHR - The Broncos offense has been frustratingly inconsistent all season. Just when it looks like they have clicked, there is a string of mistakes or miscues that leads to punts rather than scores. What are three things this offense must do to stay in front of Carolina on the scoring?
styg50: No. 1, by far, is protect the football. Greedy offenses employ risky plays, and with our defense, we can afford to be lean. The best way to prevent turnovers? That would be No. 2...
Don't press. Carolina has proven themselves time and again against opponents who try to take more than they are being given. The Carolina defense gives plenty - be patient, make the play that is there, and let the YAC, the jump-cut, the spin move come in due time. Don't force them.
No. 3, there are a lot of plays in the Broncos' playbook that may or not be there based on what Carolina is doing, but there is one play that will be there, guaranteed, and we have to connect on it, which is something we have struggled with all season, and in the playoffs especially - the hole shot fade along the sideline, with or without a double move, dropped in behind the corner and in front of the safety.
The shot alone sets up the seam routes for the TE, but if we actually start toconnect on it, drive productivity will jump significantly, meaning more first downs, more sustained drives, more time gone. A slow no-huddle is generally a good strategy, but Carolina won't be hurt as much by substitution issues as Denver will by not getting in and out of 12 and 11 packages at will. We may run it to open the game or half, or to jump start a drive, but I don't expect us to stay with it, as Carolina WILL adjust, and frankly, a hasty approach feeds right into their strengths and where they like to take risks.
MHR - With so much focus on the Panthers' offense, it's easy to forget that the defense has been a major factor in stopping other big teams like Green Bay, Seattle and Arizona - especially with Kuwan Short and his 12 sacks and Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly each with four-plus interceptions. What player(s) will be key on our offense to keeping this defense from getting the upper hand - or are they overmatched?
styg50: Our offense is definitely not overmatched, but if we don't get certain things working, we may get OUTmatched. The running game can keep our offensive line from getting onto their heels, and C.J. Anderson especially has a talent we need. I believe C.J.'s vision is ahead of Ronnie's at this point, and C.J. has shown an ability to press the hole tight, until he is practically in it before cutting. This has the effect of committing the linebackers, and with Kuechly and Davis' speed and smarts, it could be the difference between first downs or TFLs.
Anything the running backs can do to help the offensive line will be magnified in this game. In the passing game, all of our receivers will have opportunities against the Carolina secondary, including against Norman who is a gambler. Demaryius Thomas, in particular, could have a huge impact on routes that work him back to Peyton. He has shown he can catch these consistently, and if he can start to gain some confidence in the game, it could put Norman on the spot to produce. In those situations DT's physicality could set up some truly explosive plays.
MHR - What is your hope for how this plays out for Peyton Manning (the game and future)?
styg50: It's easy to hope for a ring, and for a third Lombardi in the Broncos' trophy case. It's easy to imagine him riding off into the sunset on top; we've seen it before. But can it be understood that, win or lose, I want this to play out for the Broncos, and for Manning not to be alone in all of this? From coaches preparing and listening to their players, to contributions from players on IR and unpaid interns being recognized and rewarded, this team says that no one man has had to shoulder the burden alone this year. They say that they are in it together.
With a week of preparation for this game behind them, and more laborious days ahead, can they keep this grip on each other long enough to see this through with integrity? Unlike Elway's career, this game isn't needed to prove anything for Peyton. But in its own way, this game could be a definitive endorsement of a career played the right way, with integrity, with a love of the game and of the teams the game creates around us. Super Bowl 48 was mute on this subject; if anything it condemned it. Can Super Bowl 50 live up to this standard? A game played the right way, with fun and enthusiasm, with two great teams? Is that asking for too much?
MHR - So many analysts believe this game will be a blowout by the Panthers (even the Super Bowl info website lists great stats for the Panthers versus bad ones for the Broncos in their "mind-blowing stats" post). What do you think - great game or will the commercials be better?
styg50: I don't believe it will be a blowout, and I don't think the Panthers believe that either. If they are the team everyone says they are, then they have studied the film and concluded, correctly, that Denver will be an obstacle to be reckoned with.
MHR - Do you like the decision to go with white jerseys? Does/should it matter?
styg50: The decision does matter, but not because superstition has any relevance, but because the presence of superstition needs to be dealt with. I would go so far as to say that the decision actually speaks a lot about the Broncos this year, and the type of team they have become.
White is a safe choice on many levels. It was the choice the Panthers would have made if given the chance, so it starts a trend taking something from them. It is a jersey we have won Super Bowls in, so it doesn't set some unattained pseudo-risk in front of our psyches. As far as not being Spirit Horse Orange, you must not remember the blue uniforms. Those too were "Predominantly Orange."
MHR - Beyoncé performed at halftime in 2013. Should Broncos' fans find a way to kidnap her and keep her from going on stage this time?
styg50: Already being taken care of. Negotiations are going smoothly, and we are primarily demanding that she be a bit more specific this time about "putting a ring on it."
MHR - What kind of celebrations do you do whenever the Broncos have a great play?
styg50: I'm mostly a hoot and fistpump guy and for the really big moments I often find myself on my knees in front of the TV, not quite remembering how I got there. It is awkward in public. For the DT in overtime catch, I tossed my foster daughter about five feet up in the air three times. She's been a Broncos fan to this day.
MHR - Best Super Bowl commercial ever?
styg50: I grew up on Bud Bowls 1-8 and they were pretty entertaining for a kid. Lately there have been a lot of over the top comedy and parody that get a chuckle out of me, but the one with most staying power was the Majestic Budweiser horses that "usually go for 2."
MHR - Odds Whorfin wears pants during the game?
styg50: The thing I found most surprising about Whorfin's debriefity was the tastefulness and tact he exhibited. There was always a well-placed tray of appetizers as he tended to guests, or a convenient cupboard door as he searched for a tupperware lid. I thought him cheering would be more of a problem, but it actually reminded me to clap more.
MHR- Favorite part about the Super Bowl?
styg50: For any given Super Bowl, I would have to say those first tense plays where anything could still happen...when the best possible result for the season is still a possibility, before you settle into the give and take of the game itself.
This is only trumped by the moment when you feel that THE BRONCOS ARE ACTUALLY GOING TO WIN THIS.
Sometimes that feeling lasts longer than others, but it is always awesome.