In Denver’s AFC championship game victory over New England on Jan. 24, the Broncos’ defense forced two interceptions and turned Tom Brady into a human piñata. The Patriots quarterback found few opportunities down the field, as Denver’s defensive backs locked down his receivers in man coverage.
Denver can’t play Carolina the same way. Brady is a statue in the pocket, while Cam Newton is a gazelle. Smother the Panthers’ receivers, and Newton will run for 100 yards with back-breaking conversions on third-and-long. Newton’s the game’s brightest star, a mega-version of what Washington once hoped Robert Griffin III would become. Denver must rely on a bigger spy network than the CIA to stop Newton.
Nine of 11 top-ranked defenses that made it to the Super Bowl finished victorious. Denver’s not the current version of the great 1985 Chicago Bears’ championship defense. Still, this year’s No. 1 unit has an elite pass rush and is solid in coverage. The Panthers won’t run well against the Broncos either — aside from Newton’s scrambles.
This will be a low-scoring game. Forget recent Super Bowl shootouts like Baltimore beating San Francisco 34-31 in 2013 or New England outlasting Carolina 32-29 in 2004. This game will resemble the 2012 version, when the New York Giants beat New England 21-17. Better serve energy drinks at your Super Bowl party so everyone stays awake to the end.
Mostly, this game will be three quarters of middling offenses, followed by a fourth-quarter eruption of scoring drives that will total 17 points. Watch both teams trade leads, with Denver getting the last chance. And that Hollywood ending mentioned earlier? Well, Manning is expected to retire after the game and getting one last chance to end in glory is the stuff of John Wayne movies. Sure, Wayne didn’t always make it to the end of his films, but all anyone remembers is The Duke riding off into the sunset.
And that’s how Manning will exit — with a game-winning drive and a 35-yard field goal to beat the clock. Manning, 39, may finish with mediocre stats, but the oldest passer ever to start a Super Bowl game will claim his second ring.
A great defensive effort will be overlooked. Manning will be covered with confetti and ride off — John Wayne-style — in a new vehicle as the game’s MVP. Too bad it won’t be a Mustang.