To listen to the media and the betting public, you’d think a Carolina rout was a foregone conclusion. Carolina opened as a (-3.5) favorite over Denver in the Super Bowl, has been bet up as high as six in some places and seems to have settled in as a consensus (-5.5) favorite. The only real debate among pundits is whether the Panthers will put a Seahawks-esque trouncing on Peyton Manning and the Broncos come Sunday night.
But while there are very truisms in sports handicapping (the reason bookmakers get rich and gamblers go to 12-step programs), there is this one—when everyone says one thing will happen, go the other way. Here are valid reasons to believe the Broncos can beat the Panthers on Sunday…
*Denver’s defense is better than Carolina’s. Whether you measure it by statistical ranking in points allowed (4th compared to 6th) or the raw depth of talent, this single point is the biggest reason why a replay of the Seattle-Denver debacle from two years ago is unlikely.
That Bronco team was finesse-oriented, reliant on Peyton’s MVP greatness and completely unsuited to handle the Legion of Boom. This Bronco team, painstakingly retooled by John Elway, is much more physical, much tougher and is now the team with the best defense on the field.
*Specifically, Denver simply has more good football players on defense than Carolina does. The Panthers have the single best defender on the field in linebacker Luke Kuechly, but Denver has an array of talent at all three levels of defense. From Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware rushing the passer, to Derek Wolfe stuffing the interior to Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall at linebacker to a secondary that excels at all four spots.
*Let’s narrow it down even further—the Broncos have the best lockdown corner tandem in the game. Chris Harris and Aqib Talib can play single coverage on any receiver all over the field. They can handle man-to-man isolation coverage on Ted Ginn and Jerricho Cotchery. This leaves the rest of the Denver defense free to deal with tight end Greg Olsen underneath and the all-important task of keeping Cam Newton in the pocket.
*Carolina’s own secondary is a soft spot. Apart from Josh Norman, the Panthers’ defensive backs are mostly beat up and mediocre. It didn’t matter in the NFC Championship Game against Arizona because the front seven got after Carson Palmer and the Cardinal quarterback forced the deep ball. Paradoxically, Peyton’s diminished arm strength may work to Denver’s advantage—he won’t be tempted to force throws deep into coverage and will settle in underneath.
*Denver’s running backs are better suited than Arizona’s to beat the attacking Carolina defense. The best available weapon to stall an aggressive pass rush is a shifty little running back that you can use on draws and traps to slip past the rushing defenders. The Broncos have not one, but two such backs in Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson. Arizona had a nice back in David Johnson, but not nearly enough depth.
*Denver has been outstanding in the underdog role this year. Five times, the Broncos have been getting points. They’re 4-1. That includes two wins over New England, another at Kansas City and a beatdown of Green Bay. The only loss came at Pittsburgh late in the season, 34-27 as a six-point underdog.
This last point is a good segueway to the big storyline of this Super Bowl which is Peyton Manning vs. Cam Newton. The fact Peyton is on his last legs, may literally be playing his last game and isn’t the quarterback who’s going to put up 35 points with ease anymore has obscured just how effective he can be when in the underdog role. He still plays a smart game.
He still completes clutch throws. Need a late drive to beat Pittsburgh in the playoffs? Peyton did it, including a play where he fell down, got back up and made the completion. Need an early lead against New England to allow the defense to take over? Peyton did that too. He’s not a machine anymore, but there’s nothing wrong with that.
There you have it—Denver has the best defense in the league, which can not only stop opponents, but make plays themselves. They have a smart veteran quarterback and a suitable running game for this particular matchup. I’m not saying there aren’t significant challenges—notably protecting the perimeter of the pocket against the Carolina pass rush. But there’s enough here to believe that a Bronco win would not be some huge upset. And I’m picking it to happen.