KEYS TO THE SECOND HALF
– They can’t continue to settle for field goals. At some point, Peyton Manning is going to have to lead a touchdown drive, and to do that, he’s going to need to hit some chunk plays, perhaps to Owen Daniels in the middle of the field, or to Emmanuel Sanders, who is not drawing the coverage of Josh Norman.
– The defense has to keep up the pressure on Cam Newton. Newton has had his chances to scramble, and with the way the secondary is covering, those opportunities will still be there. But when Newton chooses to pass, the linebackers and defensive ends need to continue to bring the heat and make him make the difficult throws.
– The Broncos will only gain confidence if they can keep this game close in the second half. That’s because they’ve been in close games all season, and are 11-3 in games decided by seven points or less. When games are tight late, the defense just believes it will make the crucial stop or turnover, and it usually happens.
– The No. 1 thing the Panthers need to do is limit turnovers. Yes, Denver’s defense was one of the best this season in forcing them, but both fumbles in the first half completely sucked the rhythm from Carolina’s offensive flow. Bronco defensive coordinator Wade Phillips surely emphasized takeaways during halftime, so Carolina has to be smart and secure with the ball.
– Carolina has to keep its aggressiveness on third-down defense. It has limited Peyton Manning and the Broncos to just one conversion on eight attempts. It has been one of the biggest reasons why the Panthers have gotten back in the game. If it remains tight in the second half, this should be a big reason why.
– Cam Newton finished the half 8 of 19 for 58 yards, mainly because Denver erased 37 yards on four sacks. The Panthers simply need more out of their passing game, and the receiving corps has dropped a handful of passes. Carolina can’t afford to keep dropping passes, because it’s a certainty that the Broncos will keep generating a pass rush.
– The Panthers’ plan to eliminate Demaryius Thomas from the Broncos’ offense is working. He had just one target through midway in the second quarter – and it came when he lined up in the slot away from top Carolina corner Josh Norman. But that’s not a safe place for Thomas either, as he was blown up linebacker Luke Kuechly.
– The offense is letting its defense and special teams down. In the second quarter, the Broncos couldn’t score a touchdown after Jordan Norwood’s 61-yard punt return (a Super Bowl record), and after the defense recovered a fumble near midfield, quarterback Peyton Manning threw his first interception of the postseason as the Broncos were driving into scoring position.
– There was a reason we spent the past two weeks talking about the health of the Broncos’ starting safeties, Darian Stewart and T.J. Ward, both of whom suffered injuries in the AFC Championship Game. Their impact cannot be overstated, given the drop off from them to their backups, Shiloh Keo and Josh Bush. Stewart especially has proven to be important in this game as he broke up a pass down the seam that would have been a first down, and then forced a fumble in the second quarter.
– The Panthers better not hope there’s a questionable play the rest of the game. Coach Ron Rivera used both of his challenges in the first 18:42 of game time, losing first and winning the second. All touchdowns and turnovers are reviewed by the officiating staff, but this could come back to haunt Carolina.
– Carolina has tightened up on defense. If there’s any proof of that, look at the drive following Jordan Norwood’s 61-yard punt return. The series started at Carolina’s 14-yard line, yet the Panthers played tight man coverage on the outside and knifed through the Denver offensive line to stop the rush. Denver settled for a field goal.
– The Panthers offense has been hindered by turnovers, specifically, two fumbles. Both of them came on effort plays in which Broncos defenders have relentlessly gone for the strip. Denver led the league in TO differential at +20, and Carolina right now is -1 after Kony Ealy’s interception. They need to take better care of the ball.
– The pass rush is as good as advertised – especially Von Miller. The star linebacker’s strip sack of Cam Newton near the goal line was the most impressive play of the first quarter, both for the speed of his rush and for the strength he showed in wrestling the ball away from Cam Newton. What’s even more interesting about what Miller did in the first quarter is that he wasn’t always rushing. He appears to the player defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has tabbed to spy on Newton in the running game.
– The Achilles’ heel for the defense for much of the season was its discipline, and while the defense seemed to have gotten in together in recent weeks, the hot heads are back in the Super Bowl. Cornerback Aqib Talib, who served a one-game suspension for poking Indianapolis Colts TE Dwayne Allen in the eye earlier this year, picked up a taunting penalty late in the year that negated a third-down sack. The Broncos managed to get another stop, but Talib’s penalty enabled the Panthers to flip field position.
– The offense made a change to the starting lineup for the Super Bowl by swapping Ronnie Hillman for C.J. Anderson as the starting tailback. It was the right call – Anderson is a tougher runner, and far more reliable in pass protection. Hillman’s first carry was a three-yard loss that killed the Broncos’ first drive.
– On defense, the Panthers need to try to force Peyton Manning to throw to the outside. Manning has been effective, but the passes that have been the riskiest have all been to the numbers. If Carolina jams Denver’s tight ends and slot receivers, it could force Manning to hold on to the ball longer and should allow Carolina’s pass rush to get home.
– The Panthers need to give their offensive tackles some help when blocking Von Miller. Miller terrorized Mike Remmers on the strip sack that led to the touchdown, and if he can keep getting to Newton, the offense will continue to struggle.
– Cam Newton needs to settle down. Three of his passes in the first quarter sailed over his intended receivers. Carolina’s WRs have dropped a few passes, too, but a 10-point deficit against this defense feels far more challenging than your average 10-point deficit.
PHOTOS: Best of Super Bowl 50