Can Cam Newton Succeed Against the Denver Broncos' Defense?

The Broncos' defense has been ripping quarterbacks apart this whole season. Can Newton and the Panthers buck that trend in Super Bowl 50?

Cam Newton has done it all this year. He has thrown passes faster than a speeding bullet. He has trucked linebackers with the power of a locomotive. He has leapt tall defenders in a single bound. But he hasn't met a challenge as great as the Denver Broncos.

In Super Bowl 50, Newton will go up against one of the best defenses of the century. The Broncos have already put the brakes on Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, both former MVP's and Super Bowl champions; Newton is simply next on their chopping block.

Newton has faced tough defenses in the past, but few have been able to slow him up. The Broncos have faced tough quarterbacks this year, but not many have found success. Which side should we expect to emerge victorious next Sunday?

To answer this, we'll be turning to numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP). This is the metric we use to track the efficiency of both teams and players, with the team totals being adjusted based on strength of opponent.

Here's how NEP works. Prior to each play, there is an expected number of points that an offense will score on its current drive. A positive play (such as a five-yard completion on 3rd and 4) will increase that, resulting in positive NEP. A negative play (such as a five-yard completion on 3rd and 6) will decrease that, as it means the offense will likely have to punt or settle for a field goal. NEP groups these fluctuations in expected points together to show the effectiveness of each unit.

There are two sides to look at here when dissecting the matchup. First, we have to see how Newton has done against top-shelf defenses this year. Then, we'll flip it and see how Denver has performed against the league's best quarterbacks. Can SuperCam overcome one last foe and hoist the Lombardi Trophy? Let's find out.

Newton Against Top Defenses

Overall, Newton has had things a bit easy this season when it comes to opposing defenses. Over 18 games, he has only faced a defense that finished the year in the top 10 in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play four times. Two of those came in the playoffs. NFC South life, yo.

The table below shows how he fared in those four games. They're listed in chronological order, so the first Seattle reference is from Week 6 while the second is from the playoffs. "Passing NEP/P" is his Passing NEP per drop back, and Total NEP combines the expected points he added both with his legs and his arm. For reference, he averaged 0.20 Passing NEP per drop back for the season and averaged 9.14 Total NEP per game during the regular season.

Opponent Drop Backs Passing NEP/P Total NEP
Houston 37 0.01 2.86
Seattle 36 0.10 5.75
Seattle 22 0.56 10.59
Arizona 28 0.42 18.96

I don't know what Cam has been sipping during the playoffs, but I need to get me some of that. Whew.

Andy Dalton led the league this year in Passing NEP per drop back at 0.35. Newton has destroyed that mark in each of his first two post-season games. Newton's MVP resume only strengthened as the season went along, and it seems as though he has brought that improvement and more into the playoffs.

Outside of the progression, the biggest takeaway from the chart above is that Newton hasn't been held to a negative Passing NEP per drop back in any of his games against elite defenses this year. That's only noteworthy because Denver's opponents haven't been nearly as fortuitous.

Denver Against Top Quarterbacks

Similar to Newton, Denver didn't exactly face the best of the best this season. They had their matchups with Brady and Rodgers, but overall, they only had four games against quarterbacks in the top 10 in Total NEP.

Part of this is partially due to attrition. They did go up against Rodgers, Andrew Luck, and Philip Rivers -- all of whom are regulars near the top of the NEP leaderboards -- but none of them finished in the top 10 this year due to injuries either to themselves or to the rest of their offense.

Just for fun, I've included those three guys in the table below. This shows how the Broncos' defense fared against top-10 quarterbacks this year and those who generally find themselves in that conversation. Again, the list is in chronological order.

Quarterback Drop Backs Passing NEP/P Total NEP
Aaron Rodgers 22 -0.40 -7.31
Andrew Luck 56 0.28 19.06
Tom Brady 42 0.17 7.29
Philip Rivers 35 -0.48 -16.88
Ben Roethlisberger 55 0.17 9.55
Philip Rivers 35 -0.12 -5.15
Ben Roethlisberger 37 0.04 1.45
Tom Brady 56 -0.13 -5.62

Well, it's no wonder Rodgers and Rivers finished outside of the top 10. The Broncos wrecked those poor dudes.

The interesting thing to me is looking at the healthiest of these offenses going against the Broncos. The second time they faced Denver, Brady's offensive line was in shambles, and Ben Roethlisberger was without Antonio Brown. The first time the teams squared off, though, things really weren't that bad.

The most intriguing game to me was when the Broncos faced Luck and the Indianapolis Colts. This is the game in which the Colts were able to build up an early lead and hang on for a 27-24 victory. It was easily Luck's best game of the season, as he struggled even before the injuries started to mount.

What this says to me is that Cam can have success if he avoids negative game script. That's an idiotic statement on its face because being in positive game script would indicate he's likely already had success, but it's important to emphasize how critical it is for the Panthers to get off to a fast start.

If Denver builds a lead, that'll force the Panthers to drop back to pass more often. When this happens, defensive linemen are able to utilize the pass rush better, as they don't have to worry as much about the run. Remember what happened to Brady this past weekend? Most of the hits were the result of negative game script. Carolina can't let that happen again. If they do, Newton may find himself in the same predicament as many other great quarterbacks before him against this stout unit.


After looking at these numbers, it seems as though there is a chance Newton truly could succeed against Denver. Although most quarterbacks have struggled mightily when facing the Broncos, there have been some exceptions. When they've gone up against fully-healthy offenses (as the Panthers seem to have), the quarterback hasn't been a complete dumpster fire.

Additionally, Newton has come up big of late against great defenses. Neither Seattle nor Arizona had an answer for him the past two weeks. Denver has a defense that goes beyond those two, making things tougher, but Newton's success appears legitimate.

However, there is one major caveat here. If Denver gets out to an early lead, all bets are off. Things go south real quick when Denver puts a quarterback in negative game script. This is the scenario in which it could go up in flames for Newton and his comrades.

Newton has deserved the hype he has gotten this season, and his performance on the field has only gotten better of late. He will face his biggest task of the season when Super Bowl 50 kicks off, but if his production thus far is any indication, Newton has the tools to do what few have done and top the Broncos' formidable defense.