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Advantage – Denver
By Kevin Rogers
For the third straight season, the top two seeds in the NFL meet up in the Super Bowl. The Broncos are back in the big game for the second time in this span as Peyton Manning could be suiting up for the final time in his Hall of Fame career. Denver needed two victories in its final two games of the regular season to capture the AFC West title, while holding off the Steelers and Patriots to win their eighth AFC championship in franchise history.
The Broncos (14-4 SU, 9-8-1 ATS) owned the league’s best defense this season in several categories, including total yards per game (283.1), passing yards per game (199.6), while finishing fourth in points allowed (296) and third in rushing yards per game (83.6). Standout linebacker Von Miller racked up 11 regular season sacks, while tallying 2.5 sacks in the AFC Championship victory against New England. The Broncos returned six interceptions for touchdowns this season, while the defense allowed 20 points or less 12 times in 18 games.
Although Manning’s numbers weren’t near his standards from earlier in his career, the Broncos’ quarterback didn’t turn the ball over in the two playoff wins over Pittsburgh and New England. Manning is playing his fourth career Super Bowl, but is listed as an underdog for the first time after being favored in Super Bowl XLI against the Bears, Super Bowl XLIV against the Saints, and Super Bowl XLIX against the Seahawks.
The Broncos cashed in all five opportunities as an underdog this season, including a pair of outright victories over the Patriots. Denver also knocked off Green Bay at home in the ‘dog role, while beating Kansas City on the road back in Week 2 as three-point ‘dogs in a 31-24 victory. The Broncos have been listed as this heavy of an underdog with Manning under center since getting 5 ½ points in a 31-21 defeat at New England in 2012.
Underdogs have fared well in the Super Bowl recently, covering in six of the past seven opportunities (last season’s game doesn’t factor in since it closed at pick). Taking it a step further, since 2002 favorites of five points or more own a dreadful 1-6 ATS record in the Super Bowl with the only team to cover in this span being Manning’s Colts in Super Bowl XLI against Chicago.
VegasInsider.com handicapper Joe Nelson breaks down Denver’s success against the run, especially against teams that excel on the ground, “Denver shut down the run this season despite six games vs. teams that finished in the top 10 in the league in rushing yards per attempt, with Carolina sitting as the 11th ranked team in that measure. The Panthers were one of the least productive passing teams in the NFL, gaining less than 226 yards per game in the air and Denver’s plan will be to force Cam Newton to make plays in the air rather than finding success in the running game.”
Denver’s defense faces a new challenge in Newton due to his size, but Nelson says the Broncos will get pressure on the Carolina quarterback like they did in the AFC Championship, “Newton is as physically imposing as any quarterback to ever play the game, but keep in mind the historically great performance that Denver’s defense had against Tom Brady in the AFC Championship, probably the greatest quarterback to ever play the game. The Broncos hit Brady 23 times, 11 more times than he had ever been hit in any of his previous 224 career games. Brady was sacked four times and threw two interceptions looking very little like the Hall of Fame caliber player that he generally has looked like in his career.
This is the first Super Bowl played at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, as there haven’t been many high-scoring games there since the venue opened in 2014. “Fifteen of 18 Denver opponents were held to 24 or fewer points this season and in 10 games counting the preseason at Levi’s Stadium this season, no team scored more than 24 points on the soft turf in this still new venue. Carolina outscored foes by 16 points per game at home in the regular season but out-paced opposition by just half that number on the road while also just playing one game on the west coast, the miracle comeback win at Seattle in October,” Nelson comments.
The Panthers are 3-2 SU/ATS in Newton’s five playoff games, but only one of those games took place away from Bank of America Stadium. The lone postseason contest away from Charlotte with Newton under center was a 31-17 loss at Seattle last season in the divisional round as 13 ½-point underdogs. Seven of the eight road games came against non-playoff teams, while needing to rally from a 20-7 deficit in a 27-23 victory against the Seahawks in Week 6.
The Broncos won all four games against NFC competition this season, sweeping the NFC North and holding all four squads to 20 points or less. Since Manning joined the Broncos in 2012, Denver is 13-4 in the last 17 interconference games with two of those losses coming to Seattle. The Broncos routed the Panthers in their last meeting in Charlotte back in 2012 by a 36-14 count, as Denver reached the end zone with a punt return and interception return for scores.