Super Bowl 50 Preview: An Analytical Guide to Sunday's Big Game

Cam Newton has played like the league's MVP this year, but can he cap off his season with a Super Bowl victory?

In a year when the top seed from each conference is headed to the Super Bowl, why does it still feel like a meeting between two unexpected teams?

The Broncos weren't supposed to win the AFC. New England, a team driven by a "we're pissed off at the world" narrative, was the squad to beat. They were the team of destiny, at least on that side of the bracket.

And while the Panthers won 15 regular season contests, the world wasn't convinced. A weak division and an unbelievably talented group from Arizona kept football fans from confidently picking the NFC's top seed to go to the Super Bowl.

But here we are: two 1 seeds, two intriguing stories, and only one survivor.

Entering Super Bowl 50, Carolina leads the league with an 11.36 nERD. For those unaware, nERD is a signature metric we use at numberFire to show how many points we'd expect a team to win by against an average one on a neutral field.

That 11.36 mark is fourth best since the turn of the century.

Denver, on the other hand, has a nERD of 4.31, which is ninth best in the NFL. Among Super Bowl teams since 2000, our numbers have seen only seven teams worse than Denver.

Of course, football games aren't won and lost through algorithms. In fact, three of the seven teams ranked worse than Denver -- two of them being Eli Manning's Giants -- ended up winning the Super Bowl.

It's a one-game elimination. Anything can happen. And crazy things probably will happen.

Denver's Game Plan

On Offense

If we go off of what Peyton Manning did in 2015, then there's no way the Broncos are hoisting the Lombardi if the game falls into his hands.

On the year, only four quarterbacks had lower Passing Net Expected Points (or NEP, which you can read about more in our glossary) totals than Manning: Nick Foles, Blaine Gabbert, Colin Kaepernick, and Matt Cassel. And while Bronco fans probably want to believe that Manning's improved drastically in the playoffs, that hasn't really been the case. His Passing NEP per drop back rate in the regular season was -0.04, and it's been -0.06 in his two playoff games. He's also thrown to a lower Success Rate, or the percentage of positive Net Expected Points plays made by a player, watching his 41.38% season rate fall to 38.36%.

It's not as though the Panthers are an easy team to pass on, either. It's not all personnel-related, as the secondary is a bit depleted aside from stud Josh Norman, who's capable of taking away half of the field. It's also pressure-related -- on the year, only six teams generated more quarterback hurries than the Panthers did.

That, in the end, forces turnovers. No team generated more takeaways than the Panthers this season, who finished with 10 more than the second-place Chiefs. That allowed Carolina to catapult into the number-two spot in our schedule-adjusted pass defense rankings, trailing only Denver.

Manning, meanwhile, had the highest interception rate among 200-plus attempt passers this season -- it was 5.14%, which was more than a percentage point ahead of second-worst Andrew Luck.

The Broncos need to run the football on offense -- Carolina ranked far worse against the run (15th) than the pass (2nd) this season -- while limiting turnovers. 

Thanks, Captain Obvious.

The question is -- can they?

I'll tell you what they can't do, and that's run Ronnie Hillman like they inexplicably have over the last, well, over the course of the entire 2015 season and into the playoffs.

On the year, Hillman ranked 28th of the 44 running backs with 100 or more carries in Rushing Net Expected Points, which was one spot below teammate C.J. Anderson. Both players actually had incredibly similar rushing numbers, with Anderson edging Hillman by a hair.

Name Rushing NEP Per Rush Success Rate
Anderson -7.85 -0.05 37.50%
Hillman -9.32 -0.05 36.23%

The difference here -- aside from the fact that Anderson has far outplayed Hillman in the playoffs -- is versatility. Anderson is the superior pass-catcher, as evidenced by our Net Expected Points numbers.

NameReceptionsReception NEPTargetsTarget NEPReception NEP/Target

On nearly the same number of catches, Anderson generated a far better Reception NEP per target average than Hillman did this season, something that stems from last season. It's very clear that he's the stronger option to catch passes out of the backfield.

As I said and showed earlier, the Panthers can create pressure on opposing quarterbacks. A huge way to combat that is to utilize your running back in dump-off situations -- this is why the Panthers allowed the second most receptions to running backs this season.

Using Anderson more is almost too obvious. And he's a key component to Denver moving the ball on Sunday.

On Defense

Stopping Cam Newton is no easy task.

It's true that Newton hasn't faced the toughest schedule in the world this season -- per our numbers, he's squared off against a top-10 defense just four times. But in those four games, he didn't exactly disappoint.

Opponent Drop Backs Passing NEP per Drop Back 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

For reference, the Passing NEP per drop back average among quarterbacks this season was 0.11, meaning Cam was essentially average or better through the air against three of the four toughest opponents he's faced. And in the playoffs, he's been masterful.

Cam's game isn't flawless, though. 

A huge part of what the Panthers do is try to beat teams vertically. On the year, 5.9% of Newton's drop backs (attempts plus sacks) ended with a 25-plus yard reception, which was a top-10 number among relevant quarterbacks. And within the subset of quarterbacks who threw more than 200 times in 2015, only Carson Palmer, Ben Roethlisberger and Tyrod Taylor averaged more air yards (yards gained through the air, which excludes yards after the catch) per attempt than Newton.

Fortunately for Denver, they've been sound at stopping the big play this year -- only the Buccaneers, Bengals, and, funny enough, Panthers have seen fewer 25-plus yard plays against them on the season.

Of course, any team needs to stop the splash play in order to be victorious, but you could argue it's more important against a team like Carolina. The Panthers ended up scoring touchdowns on 10 of their 31 big passing plays, which gave them the fifth highest rate of scoring on these types of plays in the entire NFL this season.

Denver needs to focus on allowing only short gains on early downs though, too. During the regular season, Newton completed just 57.1% of his passes on third-and-long (10 yards or more), which was a rate that ranked in the 25th percentile among quarterbacks. And when you compare his third-and-long rate to the other top passers in the game -- the top-10 ones according to NEP from 2015, a group Newton is part of -- Cam's 36.17% Success Rate on such plays is better than only Tom Brady.

Speaking of which, in the AFC Championship, Brady and company ended up converting just 2 of their 15 third downs. And the Patriots faced a 3rd-and-short (five or fewer yards to go) just three times.

This is why the Broncos' defensive line play is going to be so crucial in the Super Bowl. Getting pressure on Newton is important, as he fared much better with a clean pocket than when guys were in his face this season. But sending multiple guys after Newton opens the Broncos' defense up to allowing the big plays the Panthers are so good at producing -- when teams blitzed Newton this season, he threw to a 109.1 quarterback rating.

Denver was able to beat New England in the AFC Championship -- not because they blitzed -- but because they generated pressure. In fact, as Tyler Buecher pointed out earlier in the week, only three teams blitzed more than the Broncos this season, as Wade Phillips called blitz on 41.7% of their plays. Against the Patriots, while putting a ton of pressure on Brady, the Broncos blitzed on just 17.2% of their defensive plays.

So what does this all mean? Well, to stop Newton and this offense, you can't simply blitz. Doing so opens up the defense for big plays, as well as Greg Olsen across the middle of the field -- Denver's blitzing tendency is part of the reason why tight ends were able to find success against them this season. Instead, the Broncos have to do their best to contain the Panthers' offense on early downs through pressure from the defensive line, forcing Newton to convert third-and-longs. Making those big third-down plays hasn't been Newton's strength this season.

Carolina's Game Plan

On Offense

Denver had the best defensive unit in the NFL in 2015, and it wasn't particularly close according to our Net Expected Points metric. Their -80.31 schedule-adjusted Defensive NEP total in the regular seasons means they prevented about 80 points from being scored on them versus what a league-average group would have, and that's not even accounting for era. The fact is, today's NFL is much friendlier for offenses than what we saw 10 or 15 years ago -- the 16th-ranked (or average) defense this season, Buffalo, posted a 75.75 Adjusted Defensive NEP score.

In other words, throw Denver's defense in Buffalo -- the most average defense in the league -- and you'd see a 156-point swing in the Bills' favor across the entire season. That's almost 10 points per game. 

It's not easy to move the ball on Denver.

Only the Colts and the Steelers -- Pittsburgh did it twice -- have topped 350 total yards against the Broncos this season. And a reason for their success was due to -- wait for it -- the big play, as well as strong offensive line performances.

Without Antonio Brown in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, Pittsburgh ended up producing passing plays of 58, 52 and 37 yards to three different receivers while also seeing a 40-yard run from wideout Martavis Bryant. During the regular season, Denver averaged 1.56 plays of 25 yards or more per game.

When the Colts beat the Broncos -- back when Andrew Luck was healthy -- they completed four of these types of passes.

As I said before, Carolina likes to chuck it deep in order to utilize their receivers' biggest strength: speed. With Bronco safeties T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart hobbled, there could be more of an opportunity to make these plays happen in the Super Bowl.

But these deep balls can't develop without strong offensive line play. In the three contests mentioned above, the Broncos compiled a combined seven sacks (six against Pittsburgh and one against Indianapolis). Denver averaged 3.25 sacks per game, providing some evidence that the offensive lines of Pittsburgh and Indianapolis did their jobs during those games.

And, of course, if the Broncos don't end up sending heavy blitzes, then it'll be up to the Panthers' offensive line -- a group that's sort of been the unsung hero of the team this season -- to step up.

It'd also be a surprise if we didn't see a lot of Greg Olsen in this matchup.

On the season, 32.52% of the receptions made by non-running backs against Denver were caught by tight ends. That was the fourth highest rate in the NFL. The ratio of tight end yards to total pass-catcher yards was 32.41% (third highest in football), while 50.00% of receiving touchdowns versus Denver came from tight ends (fourth highest).

Remember the whole "Carolina can't do what New England did on third downs in the AFC Championship" thing mentioned above? Well, Olsen was second among NFL tight ends this past year in first downs, and given this matchup, it shouldn't shock anyone if he's the one making the big third-down plays the team so desperately will need.

On Defense

The Panthers' defense has been effective in 2015 because it's found ways to put crazy-good pressure on opposing quarterbacks, which has allowed the team to then capitalize on turnovers.

Like I said above, no team in football generated more takeaways than Carolina this season. Meanwhile, no quarterback had a higher interception rate than Peyton Manning.

Carolina does have to generate pressure against Manning, but as is the case with Denver's game plan surrounding Cam Newton, it's not that simple. Yes, Manning's seen the second-highest sack rate of his career at 4.6%, but that's still a relatively low number compared to the NFL average. The truth is, when Manning's been blitzed this season, he's actually seen a higher quarterback rating compared to his season-long rating. 

Manning is still picking apart defenses, if you look at things comparatively. He's just not very good overall anymore.

Carolina, as a result of this, is more than likely going to play to stop the run and let Manning beat them with his arm. It's tough to blame that way of thinking -- the main way Denver's going to be able to move the ball is on the ground (hopefully, for their sake, with C.J. Anderson), which is where Carolina's struggled (if there's a place they've struggled).

It's really hard to envision how an offense that ranked 30th according to our schedule-adjusted metrics this season is going to move the ball consistently against the second best defense in football. And, really, it seems like the only way they do it is if the Panthers don't play a fairly conservative, sound defensive game. Yes, the Panthers need to create the turnovers they're so good at generating, but against 2015's Peyton Manning, that can be done without exotic blitzing.

The Predictions

I asked our writers and staff members to jot down their predictions for Super Bowl 50, and the results were, predictably, one-sided.

Of the 42 folks who participated, only 8 think the Broncos will be lifting the Lombardi on Sunday. The highest number of points anyone thought the Broncos would score is 24, while 12 people think the Panthers are going to end up scoring 30-plus points.

In the end, the staff's average scores for both teams generated a 25.10 to 18.14 final in favor of Carolina.

That, of course, is an unscientific way of doing things. You can check out our premium game picks to see what our algorithm thinks the score will be, but according to numberFire Live (which you should use to follow the game on Sunday), the Panthers are sitting at a 66% chance to win the contest prior to kickoff.

Let's hope, for the sake of football fans across the country, that number gets close to 50% as the game enters the fourth quarter. 

Because who doesn't want to see another historic Super Bowl ending?