1) A lot of Bronco fans aren't familiar with today's Carolina Panthers (different conferences, haven't played each other in awhile, etc). What are the 3 key things that makes this team tick and why?
1. Cam Newton: Obviously it all starts with Cam. I'm sure non-Panthers fans have heard his name so many times this year they're getting sick of it, but he makes everything happen on offense. It's not just his running that garners attention, but he improved so much as a passer in 2015 that the change is huge.
2. Pass rush: While edges aren't as good as they were a year ago we saw Kawann Short take HUGE steps in 2015 to becoming one of the league's best defensive tackles. He takes advantage of slower players on the inside and uses his speed to collapse the pocket. When you have players on the edge like Charles Johnson, Kony Ealy and Jared Allen it really helps make the line work.
3. They have a chip on their shoulder: This isn't a team that is used to being favored or respected. All year long we heard how they were the worst undefeated team in the league, to the worst one-loss team in the league, to how they were going to get STOMPED by the NFC West in the playoffs. They thrive on being underestimated and use that perceived disrespect to fuel them.
2) Every team has a few guys who aren't big names but mean a great deal to the team's winning ways. Tell us about a couple of those guys on the Panthers we don't hear about, but who impress your fan base.
Thomas Davis. This is FINALLY the year Davis is starting to get some recognition and love outside of the Carolinas. He's played outside linebacker for the past decade without much fanfare, but he's always been a great player. None of us thought he could come back from three ACL tears -- but he did -- and he's a better player now than he's ever been. Luke Kuechly gets all the love, but Davis is the team's unrecognized heart.
3) Has anyone been able to slow down Cam Newton? If so, how did they do it?
The key to throwing off Cam is to force him into making uncomfortable throws. He's very different to most quarterbacks in that edge rush doesn't really phase him. Many times he can use space to shake them or out-run rushers. Pressure up the middle gives Newton problems. It flushes him outside earlier than he'd like and if a defensive tackle or blitzing linebacker can get in his face before routes develop -- then that becomes a problem. This is easier said than done, but that's the key.
4) As a fan of good defensive football, I love what I've been seeing from your defense. They are opportunistic and have big time play makers. Tell us about the biggest defensive names on your team and what problems they cause opposing offenses.
The aforementioned Kawann Short deserves love here. Luke Kuechly gets a lot of props for his ludicrous tackling numbers, but it's his innate understanding of football at a fundamental level is what separates him. His first step is almost-always correct, even on a misdirected play or a trick. The dude just understands what play is being called and where he needs to be. Honestly, it's unreal. Josh Norman takes that concept of playing with a chip on his shoulder and dials it up to 11. He's always flying around as if every play could be his last and he's never afraid to make a big play at the ball -- even if it's not the safest. This year he's pulled it off more often than he's failed.
5) What are your 3 keys to the Super Bowl for a Panther victory and what's your prediction?
1. Pressure to the quarterbacks on both sides of the ball. This is going to decide the Super Bowl, in my opinion.
2. Whether the moment isn't too big for Carolina. This team is young and the players aren't used to the attention. There's a risk they'll let it get in their heads instead of playing like they have all season.
3. Can this version of Peyton hang in a shootout? The Panthers can score points in bunches, and quickly. Manning is still the smartest QB in the game, but I feel his game has morphed. If this becomes a shootout I don't know if his arm can manage it.
Prediction is so tough for a game this big. I'm sure we both expect our team to win. Ultimately I think the Panthers get out to a first half lead, the Broncos come back -- but the Panthers survive.
I'll say 27-20, Panthers.