FOUR PLAYERS TO WATCH
Greg Olsen, Panthers tight end
Cam Newton’s most reliable target will challenge Denver the same way New England’s Rob Gronkowski did (eight catches, 144 yards, TD) in the AFC Championship Game. Denver played six defensive backs, doubled Gronkowski and still hit Tom Brady a season-high 17 times. But Carolina isn’t New England. The Panthers have a much better offensive line and a formidable running game to worry about. Olsen had 77 catches — only six fewer than Carolina’s top two wideouts combined — during the regular season.
T.J. Ward, Broncos safety
Denver ranks eighth in defending tight ends, according to Football Outsiders. But keep an eye on safeties T.J. Ward (ankle) and Darian Stewart (knee), both of whom were injured in the AFC title game. When Denver single-covers Greg Olsen, watch Ward. The 5-11, 200-pounder plays big and was one of Denver’s key upgrades when General Manager John Elway set out to improve his team’s toughness following its 43-8 Super Bowl loss two years ago.
Luke Kuechly, Panthers linebacker
Peyton Manning throws an awful lot of floating wobblers. Meanwhile, Kuechly might be the best among all NFL linebackers at reading, reacting to and running down poorly thrown passes. The Panthers and Broncos each have played two postseason games. Kuechly has two touchdowns. Broncos receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders have zero. Kuechly has a pick-six in each of Carolina’s postseason wins. Manning has thrown a pick-six in each of his last two Super Bowls, both losses.
Owen Daniels, Broncos tight end
The beauty of Peyton Manning is finding a way to win with his tool box almost empty. Against New England, Demaryius Thomas continued his postseason slump while Emmanuel Sanders faced schemes designed to contain him. That’s two receivers who combined to catch 181 passes for 2,439 passes and 12 TDs in the regular season. No problem. Nearing the goal line and needing TDs, Manning turned to Daniels, whose only two catches against New England were TDs.
THREE KEYS TO THE GAME
1. Will Cam force Peyton to chase him?
The Broncos aren’t built to play from behind. Weaker pass protectors and a stationary 39-year-old quarterback will be a problem if Denver allows Carolina to build its customary big lead. In their past 18 games, the Panthers have a 321-128 scoring advantage, including 31-0 against Seattle and 24-7 against Arizona this postseason. Denver won the AFC title game in part because it led early and dictated how the game was played. The Broncos protected Peyton Manning with a calm, balanced attack, while the Patriots’ one-dimensional chase mode created overwhelming pressure on Tom Brady.
2. Can Wade retain defensive genius title?
No coach understands the fickleness of NFL perceptions better than 68-year-old Broncos coordinator Wade Phillips. He has spent a career yo-yoing between clueless and priceless in the minds of many. Taking down Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in the AFC title game is Phillips’ finest moment. He flooded passing lanes with six defensive backs and still hit Brady 17 times while blitzing only 17.2 percent of the time, according to Pro Football Focus. Carolina is more challenging. The Panthers have topped 100 yards rushing 31 straight times, and Newton has been hit only three times in two playoff games.
3. Will Denver’s playmakers make plays?
As good as the Denver defense is, the Broncos can’t expect to win scoring fewer than 24 points. Carolina led the league in scoring (31.2) and is too strong up front to be denied repeatedly. The Broncos are unlikely to win with Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas remaining quiet. Carolina likely will put elite cornerback Josh Norman on the faster Sanders, leaving Thomas with a mismatch on Robert McClain, who wasn’t even on the roster early this season. Thomas, who has only six catches for 52 yards this postseason, needs to win this matchup for Peyton Manning to succeed.
ONE UNSUNG HERO
Derek Wolfe, Broncos DE
It’s tough to call anyone on Denver’s top-ranked defense “unsung.” But the bulk of the attention goes to edge rushers DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller or shutdown corners Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib. Wolfe has 10 tackles and two sacks in two playoff games, so he’s capable of turning heads. Pro Football Focus placed him on its list of top 10 breakout candidates in 2015. It also ranks him as its top run stopper among 3-4 ends. The latter will come in handy against the Panthers.
Broncos 31, Panthers 24
Five of the past eight underdogs have won the Super Bowl. So I tend to pick against my instinct. This year, my instinct says Carolina’s offensive line and league-leading knack for takeaways are too good not to overwhelm a Denver team that has more flaws, mostly on offense. My instinct says Cam Newton will be smiling, haters will be hating and Manning’s career won’t end magically. In other words, I’m guessing John Elway raises the Lombardi Trophy and declares, “This one’s for Peyton!”