5 Potential Super Bowl 50 X-Factors

Which player or matchup could be the difference maker during Sunday's Super Bowl?

With the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers first and second ranked defenses -- respectively, per numberFire metrics -- set to square off in Super Bowl 50, we could see a defensive slugfest Sunday.

While Carolina’s offense has soared behind Cam Newton all season, the Broncos have struggled, flipping between Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler looking for success. On the season, the Broncos offense ranked 30th in the league, compared to the Panthers, who ranked fourth, per our schedule-adjusted Net Expected Points (NEP) metric.

Will Newton and the Carolina offense be able keep their momentum rolling Sunday? Or can Manning summon one last great performance to be a Super Bowl champion once again?

The play of Maning and Newton will go a long way to deciding Super Bowl 50, but each and every year, there's a little-known player who steals the spotlight -- think a Malcolm Butler or David Tyree.

What matchup or which player could be the difference maker this Sunday? 

Here’s a look at five possible X-factors for Super Bowl 50.

Emmanuel Sanders

Josh Norman has emerged as a top-flight corner this season, and if he shadows Demaryius Thomas Sunday, any hopes of passing success for Denver may fall to Emmanuel Sanders.

In their first two playoff games, Sanders and Thomas have seen similar target totals, and while neither player has gotten into the endzone, Sanders has done more with his opportunities.

Denver WR Receptions Yards Targets TDs
Emmanuel Sanders 10 147 16 0
Demaryius Thomas 6 52 15 0

Over the course of the season, both Broncos receivers have posted impressive Net Expected Points totals -- Sanders posted 93.59 Reception Net Expected Points (NEP), 18th best among all wide receivers. Thomas, on the other hand, posted a 107.73 Reception NEP, 8th best in the league.

If Norman does in fact spend most of his time covering Thomas, look for Sanders to be the Broncos primary pass catcher and playmaker Sunday.

Thomas Davis Injury 

Darren Fells' attempt at leaping over Thomas Davis in the NFC Championship Game was comical for anyone watching, but it was anything but comical for the Panthers.

Davis exited the game after the play and it was later announced that he had fractured his right arm on the tackle.

Davis underwent surgery the following day, immediately announcing his intention to play in the Super Bowl. He’s now practicing in full, and the Panthers have expressed no concern over Davis missing the game.

The question is whether or not Davis will be effective just 13 days after having a plate and 12 screws inserted into his arm.

Davis has played in every game for the Panthers this year, and is second on the team in tackles behind only Luke Kuechly. He's also third on the team in sacks with 5.5.

Teammates describe Davis as a leader and inspiration on the field. If he's unable to finish the game or play a full complement of snaps, it may open up just enough opportunities for Manning to find success against the stingy Panthers defense.

C.J. Anderson

It’s been a volatile season for C.J. Anderson.

After entering the season with high expectations, Anderson stumbled out of the gates, averaging only 2.7 yards per carry through the first six weeks. From Week 8 on, Anderson displayed some flashes that made him a dynamic back over the second half of last season, but he’s continued to split time with Ronnie Hillman.

Anderson has been particularly impressive over the past four weeks, outperforming his backfield mate.

Denver RB Carries Yards Yards per carry TDs
Ronnie Hillman 51 206 4.0 1
C.J. Anderson 55 312 5.7 3

The Broncos' rushing offense has struggled all season, ranking as the third worst in the league, according to numberFire metrics. On the other side, the Panthers run defense is ranked 15th and struggled to stop David Johnson in the NFC Championship Game.

If the Broncos offense is going to be able to sustain drives on the ground Sunday, it may have to come on the back of Anderson.

Earlier this week, Barry Cohen took a deeper dive into Anderson’s importance to the Broncos, so look to there for some more detail on the situation.

Ted Ginn vs. Denver's Punt Coverage

Ted Ginn Jr. has been an electric playmaker for the Panthers over the last month of the regular season, notching six touchdowns -- including three of more than 45 yards -- on just 14 receptions. Ginn has cooled off in the Panthers two postseason games, catching only 2 passes for 52 yards.

If Ginn is going to make a significant impact Sunday, it may not be in the passing game against the Broncos top-ranked pass defense.

Instead, Ginn, the Panthers primary return man, may find his biggest opportunity to impact the game on punt returns. On the season, Ginn has returned 27 punts, averaging 10 yards per return, but hasn't taken one back for a touchdown yet. The Broncos owned the 12th best punt coverage unit in terms of yards per return in the regular season, allowing only 6.9 yards per return and no touchdowns.

Although the Broncos punt coverage has been stout, Ginn may see a number of return opportunities this weekend in a game that has the potential to turn into a defensive struggle.

Even if Ginn doesn’t find the end zone on a punt return, his returns could tilt the field position battle in favor of the Panthers.

Carolina Pass Rush Against Denver Offensive Line

I’ve already mentioned Sanders and Anderson as potential X-factors on Sunday, but if either of those players will find success, it will come because the Denver offensive line is holding up against the Panthers front.

The Denver defense led the league in sacks during the regular season with 52 and pummeled Tom Brady in the AFC Conference Championship. But the Carolina defense has been nearly as productive, totaling 44 sacks in the regular season, sixth most in the league. The Carolina defense has ratcheted up the pressure in its two postseason games, sacking Russell Wilson five times and Carson Palmer three times.

Now in his third season, defensive tackle Kawann Short has had a breakout season, notching 11 sacks during the regular season, tied for eighth most in the league. Short has added two sacks during the playoffs.

The Broncos offensive line has had its fair share of struggles this season, giving up 39 sacks in the regular season, 13th most in the league. With an immobile Peyton Manning in the backfield, the offensive line will need to contain Short and company or else Manning and the Broncos offense will feel like they're playing in Super Bowl 48 against Seattle all over again.