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Scouting the enemy: Carolina Panthers

With the Super Bowl just a day away, it is the right time to take a deeper look into the Denver Broncos opponent this weekend — the Carolina Panthers.

Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

It all comes down to one game. The Denver Broncos will face their strongest opponent to date when they square off against the Carolina Panthers.

But who exactly are the Carolina Panthers?

The Panthers were the NFL's hottest team through the duration of the season, finishing with a 15-1 regular season mark.  There is no question that the Panthers are a formidable unit on both sides of the ball. The led the NFL in scoring in 2015 and had an offense that was 11th in total yardage.

Cam Newton, dubbed as 'Superman', arguably had the best year of his career and an MVP caliber season, throwing for 3,837 yards and 35 touchdowns.  His dynamic play wasn't limited to his aerial assault, as he added an extra 636 yards on the ground and ten rushing scores to signify his game changing dual-threat capabilities.

His favorite target through the course of the year was tight end Greg Olsen, who registered a career highs in yardage with 1,104 yards and a 14.3 yards per reception average. He reeled in 7 touchdowns and 52 of his 77 receptions went for first downs which helped earn him Pro-Bowl and second-team All-Pro honors.

The rest of their receivers put up pedestrian numbers, but their big play ability was enough to help keep their offense in motion.  After being considered a bust given his draft position many years ago, Ted Ginn Jr. had an impact season highlighted by big plays which resulted in ten touchdown receptions.  After a disappointing career, Ginn showed the NFL he still has the ability to take it the distance any time he has the ball due to his fantastic speed and elusiveness on the field.

While many NFL pundits and analysts give credit to Cam Newton for the success of the Panthers this season, one must recognize the importance their running game.  Second only to the Buffalo Bills, Carolina ran the ball for 2,282 yards and sported a 142.6 yard per game average on the ground.  Their 19 rushing touchdowns was tied for the best in the league and their 4.3 yard per carry average helped churn out continuous first downs and helped control the clock and pace in a majority of their games.

Alas, it wasn't just their offense who was a terror to go up against.

Their defense also flexed their muscles and ended up ranking very well statistically, finishing sixth in points and yardage allowed. As a unit, they accumulated 44 sacks (sixth best) and forced an NFL best 39 turnovers. They played at a high level most of the year, but showed vulnerability against some teams, specifically those with upper level quarterbacks who were able to pinpoint weaknesses in their secondary (corner depth and strong safety) and take advantages of blown assignments and miscommunication.

Nevertheless, players such as Luke Kuechly, Josh Norman, Kurt Coleman, Thomas Davis and Kawann Short were some of the best at their respective positions and made play after play for the Panthers formidable defense.

It won't be an easy task for the Broncos offense, who have been running on fumes for most of 2015 to move the ball consistently, but a well-formulated game plan will provide them with the opportunity to beat Carolina if they run the ball well and don't turn the ball over.

The Broncos enter the Super Bowl as underdogs with chips on their shoulder. Most of the reporting world isn't given them a chance and are already crowning the Panthers as a team of destiny, but a feeling deep inside of me believes that the Broncos can silence the doubters and do what is necessary to earn their third Lombardi Trophy.

And this is how they will get it done. . .

Concocting the Supreme Scheme Defensively

The first thing the Broncos will have to do in order to even the odds on the playing field is stop the potent zone-read rushing attack of the Carolina Panthers.  Shutting down Jonathan Stewart and company should be the primary order of business for Wade Phillips and the Broncos number one ranked defense.  If Carolina isn't able to run the ball effectively, it will put pressure on Cam Newton to make the big plays necessary to catapult the Panthers to victory.

Newton put together a stellar season and had a very good quarterback rating, but when under duress, his numbers fizzled a great deal.  When the Broncos are playing man coverage, it is a virtual certainty that one player on defense will be designated as a 'spy' in order to account for Newton's ability to run if nobody is open downfield.  By doing this, they Broncos defense will be able to limit his ability to earn extra time in the pocket on his feet and when necessary, combat his prowess of earning first downs when taking off in running.

One big aspect to consider is for the Broncos to run more Cover 3 and Cover 4 looks during the course of the game.  A healthy Darian Stewart and T.J. Ward will make this possible.

In a Cover 3 scheme, the two primary corners and free safety will cut their coverage responsibilities into thirds, which will allow the strong safety to roam the field as an extra linebacker, which will be beneficial in helping stop the run. Additionally, the Cover 3 coverage shell helps limit the big play passing ability the Panthers have demonstrated the capability of being able to do all season long.

The Cover 4 (which will drop the extra safety into coverage to where everyone is playing quarters) can also provide the same benefits of negating pass plays down the field, and will force Newton to making short reads and taking what the defense gives him. It must be noted that if the Broncos enact such coverage shells, it will put added responsibility on the linebackers to be able to make plays in coverage and account for short-to-intermediate routes the offense will impose.

Getting after Newton will also be essential in order for the Broncos defense to stop the advance of the Panthers offense.  A match-up I like a great deal in this game is Von Miller going against right tackle Mike Remmers, who was ranked as one of the worst pass blocking tackles in all of the NFL.  This is an area of vulnerability I believe the Broncos will take advantage of, but won't necessarily be as easy as it seems.

The Panthers offensive line often employs max protection schemes in order to give Newton the time he needs to operate in the pocket.  As of now, I would be hesitant to say that the Broncos will be able to get to him efficiently by using the three to four man rushes they devised against the New England Patriots.  Expect Phillips to get crafty with several fire zone blitzes from the linebackers and even some blitzing action from T.J. Ward and a defense back in certain sub-packages.

Ground Game Efficacy and Passing Precision

Stopping the Panthers offense is only one part of the formula to a Super Bowl winning formula.  In order for Denver to beat Carolina, they will have to show more efficacy than they have in recent memory on the offensive side of the ball.

Running against the defensive front of the Panthers will be a huge task, but the Broncos cannot abandon the running game and rely strictly on the passing game to win on Sunday.  Getting C.J. Anderson involved early should be a priority for the Broncos, as he encompasses the best ability of any back in the Broncos stable to get the job done on the field.  The interior of the offensive line will need to have the performance of their lives going up against two of the best defensive tackles in football and will need to get consistent push and leverage at the point of attack to open up holes and cut-back lanes for our rushers to bulldoze through.

While Josh Norman and Kurt Coleman had great years for the Panthers secondary, the rest of their unit is suspect and definitely beatable.  I like Emmanuel Sanders' chances of having a big game going up against either Cortland Finnegan or Robert McClain. Moreover, I believe that Denver can expose strong safety Roman Harper by using tight ends on vertical routes down the field, as he has been a consistent weak spot on their back end.

Since the Panthers are so good at getting after the quarterback, quick timing routes and taking what the defense may give them will be essential.  Peyton Manning will have to be sharp and precise on his reads and delivering the ball to his receivers to keep the chains moving offensively.  Don't be surprised to see a few wide receiver bubble screens to catch the Panthers' defense off guard which could pay big dividends for the Broncos.

Ultimately, the Broncos will need their wide receivers and tight ends to show up big.  Demaryius Thomas needs to have the game of his life and someone unexpected, perhaps a Benny Fowler or Vernon Davis will need to come up with a few key plays to help give a boost to an offense that has had trouble being consistent week in and week out.

Hart's Prediction

This is it.  The culmination of a season's worth of blood, sweat and tears from both teams that have amalgamated into a desire for one goal — to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.  

The Carolina Panthers stormed through the season on the arm and legs of star quarterback Cam Newton, who has been backed by a defense whose front 7 has created havoc all season long for opposing squads.  On the other side are our beloved Broncos, who endured a roller coaster ride of a season, yet were able to keep their Super Bowl dreams alive by the play of a ferocious defense that will likely go down as one of the best to ever roam the gridiron.

I don't expect a ton of points to be wracked up this game.  I firmly believe that it will be a nail biter that is decided in the final minutes of regulation. The team that wins the turnover battle and holds the advantage in time of possession will be the victor of Super Bowl 50. The battle in the trenches will also be pinnacle to who reigns supreme in this battle of two heavyweight teams.

I expect the Broncos defense, under the tutelage of Wade Philips to have a diverse game plan that is able to stop the big-play offense of the Panthers. On the other side of the ball, I believe the Broncos to come up with a formula that sustains long drives and is able to put enough points on the board that will bring the franchise its third championship.It won't be easy, but nothing ever was for the Denver Broncos in 2015.

When it is all said and done, the orange, blue and white confetti will be flying through the air and the euphoric aura of the Broncos players, fans and coaches will be felt around the world.

Denver 23, Carolina 20  | Super Bowl MVP:  Demaryius Thomas