Welcome to the final On Paper of the season. This is always a bitter-sweet moment. Because while the Super Bowl remains the pinnacle of all championship games in sports (excluding Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, especially if there's overtime), this also means that we'll soon be in the midst of a seven month football-less drought. While it'll be nice to give the charts some must-needed rest, I'd gladly pound through the pain if it meant year-round football. But until man invents a way for bodies to withstand endless punishment without rest, we must prepare for the winter ahead.
Anyway, let's skip the rambling. Because there may be some new readers for the Super Bowl, here's how On Paper works for the uninitiated:
Each chart represents one unit of a team (i.e.: Bucs Pass Offense, Lions Run Defense, etc.). Therefore, there are eight total charts (four units, two teams). Each chart lists the opponents the team has played, their performance that week and season averages to compare their performance for that week.
The purpose of this is because stats can be very misleading without the proper context. If the Lions give up 250 yards, 2 TDs and 1 INT through the air, that looks bad. But if it's against the Packers, who are (hypothetically) averaging 290 yards and 3 TDs, that is actually a very good performance. So if the team performs better than average on a given week, the cell is highlighted green; a bad performance is red. The color-coding system is based on the team being analyzed, so green doesn't necessarily mean good for the Lions. Confused? You can check out my past previews, but you'll get used to it.
After analyzing each chart, I give a matchup edge to one team on a 0-5 scale. The scale is based not only on which team looks better in this matchup, but how likely this edge will affect the final outcome of the game. A +5 advantage would predict that this matchup is key and likely to win the game for the team.
Additionally, the color yellow on a chart means the team performed within 5 percent of averages.
Note: All averages and statistics are taken from the regular season only, unless otherwise stated.
Why not start with the marquee matchup of the game. Cam Newton and the Panthers pass offense have been damn-near unstoppable down the stretch of the season. In nine of his past 11 games, Newton has put up a passer rating above 105. Though Carolina doesn't tend to tally up the yards against opposing defenses, they are a highly efficient unit. During the regular season, Newton ranked eighth in passer rating (99.4) and seventh in yards per attempt (7.8). In the playoffs, he's somehow upped his game, averaging an unbelievable 9.9 yards per attempt and a passer rating of 113.4.
The Panthers success through the air starts with a good running game (which we'll get to later), but Carolina also has their fair share of deep threats. They have thrown for the 53 passes of over 20+ yards (t-14th) and 10 for more than 40 yards (t-14th). Their main threats down field are Greg Olsen -- the league's second best tight end by receiving yards -- and Ted Ginn Jr, who pulled in 10 touchdowns this season (10th-most).
Cam Newton averaged a passer rating of 99.4 for the season. The Denver Broncos did not allow a passer rating that high all season. Buckle up, this is going to be a doozy.
Overall, Denver allowed a passer rating above 90 just five times in their 18 games this season. They held Aaron Rodgers and Derek Carr -- two Pro Bowl quarterback selections -- to a combined 149 passing yards in two games.
What makes the Broncos' pass defense so good? It all starts up front. Denver topped the league with 52 sacks on the year, led by outside linebackers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, who had 11 and 7.5 sacks respectively.
Don't sleep on their secondary though. The unit allowed the third-fewest passing touchdowns this season and nabbed 14 interceptions in the process (t-13th).
Advantage: Draw. This is going to be fun to watch. Miller and Ware have been completely dismantling the opposing quarterbacks in the past month, but if there's a quarterback equipped to make their job impossible, it's Cam Newton. Not only does Newton have the ability to evade an elite pass rush, but he also has an uncanny ability to make big throws with defenders hanging off his back. Still, the Panthers don't typically cash their offensive checks via the passing game, so if they have to heavily rely on it, there could be trouble in Carolina.
Panthers run offense (6th) vs. Broncos run defense (4th)
If the Panthers do struggle passing the pass, they'll have a healthy running game to fall back on. Although they aren't averaging an astronomical yards per carry (4.3; t-ninth), they excel at cramming the running game down their opponent's throat. Not only have they surpassed 100 yards rushing in every game this season, but they've surpassed the defense's rushing yards average in 16 of 18 games this year.
Carolina specializes in wearing the defense down, averaging a league-high 32.9 rushing attempts per game. They also have no problem pounding their way into the endzone, leading the league with 19 rushing touchdowns. Jonathan Stewart will pound the rock into the heart of the defense, then Cam will Superman over you.
But hold your horses, because the Denver defense is again up for the task. Only two teams this year were able to surpass 100 rushing yards and average over 4 yards per carry in the same game against the Broncos, something the Panthers did on ten different occasions this season.
Overall, the Broncos allowed just 3.3 YPC, the lowest average in the league. And don't expect the Panthers to break out a huge, game-changing run, as Denver has only allowed five rushes of 20+ yards all season (third-fewest).
Advantage: Panthers +0.5. I give the small edge to the Panthers here only because they've been unstoppable all year. They're going to eat up yardage, whether it takes them 20 carries or 40. They will eventually beat the Broncos defense into submission. But Denver can (and likely will) mitigate the damage by holding the Panthers around 3.5 yards per carry. Still, in a tight, low-scoring game that could be enough to swing the final outcome in Carolina's favor.
Broncos pass offense (25th) vs. Panthers pass defense (2nd)
* Games started by Brock Osweiler
This may be Peyton Manning's final, poetic swansong, but this is not your typical Manning offense. There is no surgical dismantling of a defense going on in Denver. Just an average, boring offense that occasionally has a good game, but more often than not, does nothing spectacular for long periods of time.
Manning's 2015 season has been one to forget. His yards per attempt (6.8) and completion percentage (59.8 percent) are both lower than they have been since his rookie season. His passer rating (67.9) and interception percentage (5.1 percent) are both career-worsts.
But on the brighter side, Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders have provided a great one-two punch against opposing defenses, with both receivers surpassing the 1,000 yard mark this year. Additionally, both reached the end zone six times in 2015.
You've met the suffocating Broncos defense, now meet its NFC counterpart. Carolina has been nearly as dominant, holding all but one opposing quarterback below a 100 passer rating. Look no further than the NFC Championship game to see how dominant this defense can be. What the Panthers did to what many assumed one of the best passing games was shocking, devastating and highly entertaining to watch.
The Panthers do almost everything perfectly in defending the pass. They bring the heat on the opposing quarterback (sixth-most sacks in the league), they have playmakers in the secondary (lead the league with 24 interceptions), and they are extremely opportunistic (tied for most pick-sixes in the NFL).
Advantage: Panthers +3.5. This is about as lopsided of a matchup as you can expect in a Super Bowl. The Broncos have struggled to throw the ball efficiently, whether it has been Manning or Osweiler behind center. The Panthers defense hasn't let up all season. Carolina is going to feed, and there will be no mercy.
Broncos run offense (19th) vs. Panthers run defense (6th)
The Broncos offense has found much more success on the ground in 2015. They haven't been dominant, but they have been good enough to keep defenses honest. But at times, they've been even better than that. They've surpassed 150 rushing yards in five of 18 games and averaged over 4.5 yards per carry in seven games.
Still, Denver's overall running statistics are quite pedestrian. They average 4.2 YPC (t-11th) and gain first downs on 20.7 percent of rushes (22nd).
Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson split carries for the Broncos, but Anderson has been the much better back in the playoffs. Hillman is averaging just 2.0 YPC on 27 carries in the postseason, while Anderson is managing 4.6 on 31 rushes.
After an inconsistent start to the season, the Panthers have shut it down over the past two months. Only one opponent has managed over 80 rushing yards against this defense in the past 11 games. Much of that has to do with Carolina jumping out to early leads, but the Panthers are also managing to hold offenses to a very low YPC average (3.9; t-seventh).
I cannot go this entire column without mentioning Luke Kuechly, one of Carolina's biggest playmakers on defense. Kuechly leads the team with 118 total tackles, 8 of which ended in a loss of yardage. He will meet you in the backfield and won't let you see the light of the line of scrimmage. And that's not even touching his coverage skills.
Advantage: Panthers +2. The Broncos have a faint chance to win this matchup. They've excelled against good defenses in New England and Minnesota earlier in the year. But Carolina is a whole different beast. They are swarming and they are unrelentless. Just how tough is this defense? Linebacker Thomas Davis, who broke his arm two weeks ago, already had surgery and is fully expected to start and play.
Experience. I personally don't believe much in the value of experience in the playoffs, but if there's any tangible benefit, it will be with Peyton Manning and the Broncos. Peyton will be playing on the biggest stage for the fourth time in his career, while Newton will be in his first Super Bowl.
The Panthers end up with a fairly significant +6 advantage. Carolina holds the advantage in three of the matchups, but the true tipping of the scales will emerge when the Broncos offense takes the field. They are going to struggle to move the ball at all against the Panthers. In fact, I don't really see how they score any points that aren't aided by a huge play from the defense or special teams. While Denver's defense is certainly capable of forcing Carolina's young offense into a mistake, they'll have to do it all game to keep pace with this energetic Panthers team. They may keep it close in the first half, but I'm expecting a rare On Paper blowout. 34-16 Panthers.