With 13 days between championship weekend and the Super Bowl, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer number of storylines involving the final two teams.
With that in mind, let this serve as your cheat sheet. Here are the 10 things you need to know if you plan on placing a wager, making a prediction or just want to sound smart when talking about the big game.
1. The Peyton Manning nostalgia can ruin you.
You want to remember the good times. The 49-touchdown season when he was 28 years old and the 55-touchdown performance nine years later. The comeback win against the New England Patriots in 2007 and the Super Bowl title that followed.
You’ve been flooded with memories this week that make you want to believe. A young Peyton playing in the yard with brothers Eli and Cooper. The "Saturday Night Live" skits that made you laugh. And the chicken parm line delivered flawlessly. It will almost be too much to handle. There will come a time when you’ll convince yourself that his arm might be damaged, but his mind is not. That he has enough magic left to pull out one more victory.
But such thinking will leave you shaken and regretful midway through the first quarter Sunday.
The truth is, that version of Manning is gone. Since returning from a foot injury in Week 17, he has completed 55.1 percent of his passes while averaging 5.99 yards per attempt and 5.25 yards per dropback. To put those numbers into context, no NFL starter had a completion percentage or yards per dropback average that bad this season. Only Ryan Mallett (Ryan Mallett!) had a worse YPA number.
Manning is an all-time great. But the bottom line is if the Broncos win this game, it will be because he avoids mistakes, not because he lifts them to victory.
2. The most interesting matchup is the Panthers’ offense versus the Broncos’ defense.
During the regular season, Carolina’s offense averaged 29.13 points per game (tops in the league) and placed eighth in Football Outsiders’ efficiency rankings for DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average). The Broncos’ defense allowed 18.5 points per game (fourth) and ranked first in DVOA.
This is truly strength versus strength. If you need to get up to grab a drink, go to the bathroom or make sure the neighbor’s kid isn’t destroying your house, don’t do it when Cam Newton and the Panthers have the ball.
3. Speaking of Newton, avoid any and all arguments about his pants.
As a parent, you learn to choose your battles. Little Johnny thinks it’s funny to throw his breakfast at his kid sister? You tell him to stop. Little Johnny has a stain on his shirt and wants to wear his pants backward to school? Whatever it takes to get him out the door.
This is the same idea. On one hand, if you say the pants aren’t your thing, you’ll get labeled a curmudgeon who doesn’t understand the fashion sense of athletes in their 20s.
If you loudly defend Newton, you are saying it’s OK to sport clingy, zebra-print pants that cost nearly $900.
This is the very definition of a no-win situation. When the conversation shifts to Newton, point out that he has thrown 39 red zone touchdowns and one interception the past two years. Or that his 17 red zone rushing touchdowns in the past two years are fourth-most in the NFL.
But just avoid the pants conversation. Your Super Bowl experience will be greatly enhanced. I promise.
4. Wade Phillips is the Broncos’ X-factor.
The NFL lifer has a Texas drawl, an amazing Twitter game and is one of the smartest defensive minds in the NFL. Phillips’ game plan against the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game was a classic. During the regular season the Broncos were a pressure-heavy defense, sending five rushers or more 41.7 percent of the time, fourth-most in the NFL.
Against the Patriots, Phillips switched it up only sent extra pressure and 16.4 percent of the time. He relied on three- and four-man rushes, mixed up his coverages brilliantly and had Tom Brady on his heels. It was the first time in Brady’s 31-game postseason career that he completed less than 50 percent of his passes and averaged worse than 6.0 yards per attempt.
Certain defenses -- such as the Seattle Seahawks' -- run the same coverages every week and rely on execution. The Broncos are different. Phillips has shown he can adjust the scheme and tendencies while still getting his guys to play at a high level.
Denver’s best chance to pull out a victory is for Phillips to cook up a special game plan to slow down Newton.
5. The biggest mismatch is the Broncos’ offense against the Panthers’ defense.
Denver’s offense ranked 25th in DVOA during the regular season. Football Outsiders has compiled DVOA rankings going back to 1989, and since then, no team that has played in the Super Bowl has had a worse offensive efficiency ranking -- not even the Baltimore Ravens squad that won it all in 2000. They were 22nd.
The Panthers’ defense ranked second in the NFL in DVOA. They have talent at every level and forced turnovers on 19.6 percent of their opponents’ drives during the regular season. That’s the highest percentage of any team in the past two seasons.
6. Gamble on Stephen Curry’s jersey choice.
The best prop bet on the board involves the reigning NBA MVP and die-hard Panthers fan.
If Curry is shown on TV, he’s even money (1-1) to be wearing a personalized jersey; 2-1 to be wearing no jersey; 3-1 to be wearing a Newton jersey; and 5-1 to be wearing any other Panthers' jersey.
A quick Google images search shows that Curry owns both a black and white personalized jersey, along with a white Newton jersey. Most recently, he was rocking the No. 30 white personalized jersey during a Golden State Warriors practice before the NFC title game.
Curry is no dummy. He knows the result of Sunday’s game will be determined by which team’s fans better follow through on their superstitions. He wore the “Curry” Panthers jersey before the Arizona Cardinals game, and Carolina won easily. That’s the no-brainer choice for the Super Bowl.
Bet the house and thank me later.
7. The Broncos’ pass rush can change the game.
What was most impressive about the Broncos’ performance against New England was how they produced pressure without sending extra defenders, hitting Brady a total of 23 times.
Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware get most of the credit for winning off the edge. When those two have been on the field together, the Broncos have produced sacks on 9.1 percent of their opponents’ dropbacks.
But just as important against Carolina is interior pressure. Defensive tackles Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson were extremely disruptive during the AFC Championship Game. Their job this time around will be to prevent Newton from climbing the pocket and scrambling for big yards.
8. The Panthers pass protect differently than the Patriots.
New England used just five blockers in pass protection on 55 of Tom Brady’s 61 dropbacks, or 90.2 percent of the time.
That’s not how the Panthers operate. This season, they’ve used five blockers on just 58.4 percent of Newton’s dropbacks. In other words, they will be more willing to devote extra bodies with six- and seven-man protections to help out their offensive linemen and slow down the Broncos’ pass rush.
Of course, that will mean fewer players going out into pass routes against one of the best secondaries in the league. This will be part of the chess match between Phillips and Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula.
9. Don’t be the one to complain about the halftime musical act.
This is an annual epidemic typically found in the sportswriter community. At about 8:15 p.m. EST on Sunday, your Twitter feed will become saturated with people complaining about Coldplay, Beyonce, the acoustics at Levi’s Stadium and the music industry in general.
One segment of the population will weigh in with the same suggestion as always: Why can’t they just go with Bruce Springsteen every year?
Another will argue for a local indie rock band or hip-hop artist that you’ve never heard of.
We get it. Your musical tastes are superior to everyone else’s. But let this be the year you spare others from the complaining.
10. On paper, the Panthers should win.
Carolina’s path to a victory is straightforward. It’s what they’ve been doing all season. Force turnovers on defense. String together drives with a balanced attack on offense. And convert in the red zone.
The Broncos’ path is more complicated. They’ll need a dominant performance from their defensive line. Phillips will have to find a way to pressure Newton without allowing him to scramble. Manning will have to avoid turnovers at all costs. And they might need a defensive or special-teams touchdown.
It could happen, but the most likely scenario is that the Panthers win their 18th game and hoist the Lombardi Trophy in Santa Clara.
Carolina 28, Denver 13.