07 February, 2016

The Monday Morning Quarterback

What History Tells Us About Super Bowl 50

Photo: NFL
February 7, 2016
Peter Solari

Super Sunday is finally upon us and Super Bowl 50 has all the makings of a great matchup, with the Carolina Panthers and their number one offense, taking on the Denver Broncos and their top defense. Historically, these types of match-ups tend to favor the teams with better defenses. Just two years ago, in Super Bowl XLVIII, Peyton Manning and his Broncos were the highest scoring offense in the history of the NFL, yet they were dominated by Seattle Seahawks' hard-hitting defense from beginning to end.

By now you've probably heard a ton of analysis on this game, and rather than provide more of the same, we're going to take a look at what history says about these two franchises heading into Sunday. But first, here are some historical facts about Super Bowl 50:

  • This will be the first Super Bowl where the two starting quarterback are former #1 overall draft picks. Peyton Manning was drafted first overall by the Colts in 1998, while the Panthers selected Cam Newton #1 in 2011.
  • 13 years and 48 days is the largest age gap between two starting quarterback, in Super Bowl history. 
  • This is the first Super Bowl in which both head coaches, won the big game as players, also. The Panthers' Ron Rivera was a linebacker on the 1985 Chicago Bears who won Super Bowl XX. The Brocos' Gary Kubiak was a backup quarterback on the 1994 San Francisco 49ers (Super Bowl XXIX), as well as the 1997 and 1998 Broncos (Super Bowls XXXII and XXXIII). Kubiak never appeared in a Super Bowl as a player. 
  • Rivera or Kubiak, whoever comes out on top, will join Tom Flores, Mike Ditka, and Tony Dungy, as only the fourth person to win Super Bowls as both a player and a head coach. Flores and Ditka also won as assistant coaches. 
  • When Rivera and Kubiak were hired as coaches of their respective teams, they both replaced current-Bears coach John Fox. Rivera succeeded Fox in Carolina prior to the 2011 season, and Kubiak succeeded him prior to the 2015 season. The last time either of these franchises appeared in a Super Bowl, Fox was the coach. He lead the 2003 Panthers to Super Bowl XXXVIII, and the 2013 Broncos to Super Bowl XLVIII. Fox is 0-2 in the Super Bowl in his head coaching career.
  • This will be the first time in history that the top two picks from the same draft, will face off in the Super Bowl. Panthers quarterback Newton was selected first overall in 2011, while Broncos linebacker Von Miller was taken second overall in that draft. 
  • Denver's John Elway is seeking to become the first person in history to win Super Bowls as both a player and a general manager. Elway quarterbacked the Broncos to five Super Bowls over his career and won Super Bowls XXXII and XXXIII. Elway was named the most valuable player in Super Bowl XXXIII, the final game of his Hall-of-Fame career. 
  • With a win in Super Bowl 50, Manning will surpass Brett Favre as the NFL's all-time winningest quarterback (regular season + postseason), and would become the first quarterback in history to win 200 career games. Manning and Favre are currently tied with 199 win apiece. 
  • After being named 2015 NFL MVP on Saturday, Newton joins Marcus Allen and O.J. Simpson as the only players in history to win a Heisman Trophy, an NCAA national championship, and an NFL MVP award. Should the Panthers win Super Bowl 50, he and Allen would be the only players in history to win a Heisman, an NFL MVP, a national championship, and a Super Bowl. If Carolina wins and Newton is named MVP, he would be the first player to ever win a Heisman, an NFL MVP, a national championship, a Super Bowl, and a Super Bowl MVP. More from ESPN
Now that we've got those tidbits out of the way, let's take a look at the history facing both of these teams in Super Bowl 50. We'll start with the AFC champion Denver Broncos, who finished the season with a 12-4 record.

The Broncos are making their eighth Super Bowl appearance, tying the Pittsburgh Steelers, Dallas Cowboys, and New England Patriots for most all-time. Unlike Pittsburgh, Dallas, and New England, the Broncos have a losing record in the Super Bowl. They're 2-5 in their previous seven. 

Not only have the Broncos had their fair-share of difficulties in the Super Bowl, but they've gotten blown out in the five instances that they came up short. The Broncos lost Super Bowl XII 27-10 to Dallas. They lost Super Bowl XXI 39-20 to the New York Giants, Super Bowl XXII 42-10 to the Washington Redskins, Super Bowl XXIV 55-10 to the San Francisco 49ers, and Super Bowl XLVIII 43-8 against the Seattle Seahawks. 

In their previous seven Super Bowl appearances, the Broncos are 1-2 against teams seeking their franchises first Super Bowl title. The Giants beat Denver 39-20 in Super Bowl XXI to win their first title, in their first Super Bowl appearance. The Broncos beat the Falcons 34-19 in Super Bowl XXXIII, Atlanta's only appearance in the big game. Two years ago, the Seahawks dominated the Broncos 43-8 in Super Bowl XLVIII, to give Seattle it's first Super Bowl title. 

Broncos general manager John Elway was the starting quarterback in three of Denver's five Super Bowl losses. Peyton Manning started in Denver's most recent Super Bowl defeat. Elway also quarterbacked Denver to their only two Super Bowl titles in Super Bowls XXXII and XXXIII. Current Broncos coach Gary Kubiak was a backup quarterback on those two championship teams, but didn't see any action in the Super Bowl.

Needless to say, history hasn't been very kind to the Broncos in the Super Bowl. While that will have no bearing on Sunday's game, it is worth noting that in their two playoff wins this year, the Panthers have jumped out to big leads on two other top-five defenses. In the divisional round, Carolina took a 31-0 lead on the Seahawks into halftime. A furious second half rally by Seattle wasn't enough as the Panthers held on for a 31-24 win. In the NFC Championship, the Panthers jumped out to a 17-0 lead on the Arizona Cardinals, on their way to a 49-15 rout. 

The Panthers don't fear great defenses, they thrive against them. Should Carolina take a significant lead in Super Bowl 50, it could be another very long super Sunday in Denver.

Now, we'll take a look at the NFC Champion Carolina Panthers. The Panthers only came into existence in 1995, and don't have as storied a past as their opponent, the Denver Broncos, but are a very interesting story from a historical standpoint. 

The Panthers were the darlings of the NFL in 2015, compiling a 15-1 record. And believe it or not, that one loss, at the hands of Atlanta in week 16, might have been the best thing to happen to them all year. 

The 1972 Miami Dolphins were 16-0 when they took the field against Washington in Super Bowl VII. Miami held on for a 14-7 win, becoming the only team in the Super Bowl era, to finish the season undefeated, after winning a Super Bowl. 35 years later, the New England Patriots became the first team to carry an 18-0 record into the Super Bowl. At the time, they had the highest scoring offense in NFL history, but as history has shown, that's no match for a great defense. Quarterback Tom Brady was under constant pressure from the Giants' front seven, who lead the league in sacks that year. Brady and his normally-explosive offense, only put up 14 points that day, as the Giants pulled off the biggest upset in Super Bowl history, a 17-14 win in Super Bowl XLII. 

While undefeated teams are only 1-1 in Super Bowl history, one-loss teams are 3-2 in the big game, and teams that are 15-1, are 2-0 in Super Bowls. The 1984 San Francisco 49ers were 15-1 before beating Dan Marino and the Dolphins easily in Super Bowl XIX, 38-16. One year later, the 1985 Chicago Bears, of which Panthers coach Ron Rivera was a member, routed the Patriots 46-10 in Super Bowl XX. 

The '84 49ers and '85 Bears were the first teams in NFL history to reach the 18-win plateau. Both of those teams were 18-1 after winning those respective Super Bowls. The '07 Patriots matched that mark with their win in the AFC Championship Game that year. With a win in Super Bowl XLII, the Patriots would have been the NFL's first ever 19-win team. Instead, they became the league's third 18-1 team. 

Of the 32 current NFL franchises, 28 of them have made at least one appearance in the Super Bowl (Detroit, Cleveland, Jacksonville, and Houston have never appeared in a Super Bowl. Of the 28 teams to appear in a Super Bowl, 19 of them (including both Denver and Carolina) have lost their franchises first Super Bowl appearance. Of the 19 franchises to lose their first Super Bowl, 15 of them have made a return-trip to the big game (San Diego, Atlanta, Tennessee, and Arizona are all 0-1 in Super Bowls). Of the previous 14 franchises to do so (Carolina is the 15th), eight franchises have won their first title, in their second Super Bowl appearance (Kansas City, Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders, Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts, Dallas, Miami, Washington, Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams, Seattle). Of the six franchises to lose both their first and second Super Bowls, only two (Denver and New England) have gone on to actually win on super Sunday. Minnesota and Buffalo are each 0-4 in Super Bowls, while Cincinnati and Philadelphia are each 0-2.

While only two of the six teams that have lost their first two Super Bowls, have gone on to win one, six of the eight franchises to lose their first Super Bowl and win their second, have gone on to win a second NFL championship. If history is any indication, the results of Super Bowl could dictate in which direction the Carolina franchise will move forward in.  

Though looking at the Super Bowl in this historical context can be fun, it really means nothing when it comes to Super Bowl 50, so in the interest of making a prediction, let's have a look at how this years versions of the two teams stack up.

Denver had the top defense in the NFL this season, giving up a stingy 283 yards per game, which lead the league. They also lead the league with 52 sacks. Opponents only scored 19 points per game against the Broncos and their defense picked up 14 interceptions and 27 takeaways on the season. Even with their 27 takeaways, however, the team ranked near the bottom of the NFL in turnover differential at an unimpressive -4. 

On the offensive side of the ball, the Broncos are a middle-of-the-road team, ranking 16 out of 32 in total offense this season, and statistically, they've been worse in the postseason than they were in the regular. In these playoffs, the Broncos are averaging 284 yards of offense per game, down from 354 yards per game in the regular season. They're also scoring 21.5 points per game, down slightly from 22 in the regular season. The team's postseason rushing statistics are, for the most part, on par with where they were in the regular season. The Broncos are rushing for 104 yards per game in the playoffs and rushed for 107 yards per game in the regular season. Their passing game, on the other hand, has suffered greatly. Manning and the Broncos are averaging only 180 yards per game in the playoffs, down from 248 yards per game in the regular season. 

The Broncos deserve some credit for how they've rebuilt their team. Two years ago, they had the highest scoring offense in league history, only to get spanked in the Super Bowl. The team's front office has done an impressive job in revamping its defense to make another run at the title. 

The Panthers were the best offensive team in the NFL this year, scoring a league-best 31 points per game. The team averaged 367 yards of offense per game in 2015, 143 of which, came on the ground. Carolina has rushed for at least 100 yards in all 18 games they've played this season (including playoffs) and have done so in 31 straight games overall. MVP Cam Newton and his Panthers have taken their game to a whole new level in the playoffs, where they're averaging 386 yards of offense per game, an astounding 148 of which, are coming on the ground. And they're scoring more, too. Carolina is averaging 40 points per game in the postseason.

While offense is their bread-and-butter, Carolina is pretty good on defense, too. They were number six in the NFL in total team defense this season. Like their counterparts in Denver, the Panthers defense only surrendered 19 points per game to opponents. They're especially tough against the run, giving up a meager 88 yard per game. The defense also contributed 44 sacks and a league-leading 24 interceptions in 2015. Their 39 takeaways also lead the NFL, as did their +20 turnover differential

Denver is a six-point underdog in the game, but Super Bowl 50 can go one of two ways. If Carolina is able to get off to a quick start, there's a very real possibility that they'll go onto win handedly. However, if Denver's defense is able to contain the Panthers early, we should be in for a treat, in the form of a hard-fought, defensive battle, that could go down to the last possession. Here are three areas of Super Bowl 50  that can swing the game in either team's favor:

  1. Denver's defense will have to contain Newton if they hope to have any success. In the AFC Championship Game, the Broncos hit Patriots quarterback Tom Brady 17 times. Denver's ability to keep Brady in check, greatly contributed to their winning the game. On the season, Newton has not been hit more than six times in any game. In a battle of Denver's defense against Carolina's offense, whichever team controls the line of scrimmage, will have the upper hand.
  2. While we're talking about the battle up front, consider this: in the regular season, Denver defense only surrendered 84 rushing yards per game (3rd in the NFL), while Carolina's offense averaged 143 yards per game on the ground (2nd in the NFL). In the playoffs, the Panthers are rushing for 148 yards per game. 
  3. Carolina's defense has returned an interception for a touchdown in each of their two playoff games this postseason. Historically, teams who return an interception for a touchdown in the Super Bowl, are 12-0 in the game. Peyton Manning, who is 1-2 for his career on super Sunday, has thrown a pick-six in each of the two Super Bowls his teams have lost. 
With all of this in mind, I expect Super Bowl 50 to be a close game. After being embarrassed at the hands of Seattle in Super Bowl XLVIII, I expect Denver's defense to rise to the occassion, and keep the Broncos in this one. That might not be enough, however. 

Obviously, anything can happen on any given Sunday, but as observers, all we can hope for and expect, is for both teams to come out at the top of their games. Assuming both teams play to their maximum potential, Carolina might just be too much for Denver to handle. 

The Broncos have a great defense, but their offense is inconsistent at best. Asking their top defense to stop a top offense is one thing, but expecting their mediocre offense to run over another top defense, is a tall task. 

I expect both teams to play well on Sunday, and I'm looking forward to a close game, but Carolina's dominanc on both sides of the ball, will be too much for Denver to overcome.

Final score: Panthers 24, Broncos 20.

Enjoy the game, everybody. 

The Monday Morning Quarterback

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