Friday, February 5, 2016

Zach's Fearless NFL Predictions 2016: Super Bowl 50

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the nation's greatest sporting spectacle not on pay-per-view, here are 50 amazing facts about Super Bowl 50 (not Super Bowl L, you dummy):

1. The 2015 Broncos scored 355 points and allowed 296 points.  Amazingly, the 1973 Broncos scored 354 points and allowed 296 points.  The 2015 Broncos went 12-4 and made the Super Bowl; the 1973 Broncos went 7-5-2 and missed the playoffs.

2. Just in case you forgot, the 1973 Broncos scored 354 points in 14 games, while it took the 2015 Broncos 16 games to reach that mark.

3. In 2015, 39-year-old Broncos QB Peyton Manning threw for 2,249 yards, 9 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. In 1973, 35-year-old Broncos QB Charley Johnson threw for 2,465 yards, 20 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions. Manning finished 27th in the NFL in pass yards; Johnson finished 3rd.

4. Between Manning and Brock Osweiler, Broncos quarterbacks combined for 23 interceptions, the worst in the league.

5. Since 1990, 85 NFL teams have thrown 23 interceptions in a single season. Of those 85, only 11 made the playoffs. 

6. The combined playoff records of those previous 10 teams before the 2015 Broncos: 2-10.  None of those teams ever made it past the divisional round.

7. The 2015 Broncos committed 31 turnovers.  In the past 30 years, only one team (the 1999 Rams) committed 31 turnovers and won the Super Bowl. 

8. The Broncos joined the 4-12 Cowboys and 5-11 49ers in being the only teams in the league which never scored more than 31 points in a game all season.

9. In the last 25 years, every Super Bowl team has scored over 31 points during the season at least once.

10. Week 1, the Ravens had the football at the Denver 16 yard line with 36 seconds left.  Joe Flacco threw a pass to the end zone that was intercepted by Darian Stewart.  Denver won 19-13.

11. Week 2, the Chiefs led Denver by 7 with 40 seconds left.  The Broncos scored a touchdown, kicked off, and scored off a Jamaal Charles fumble at the 20 yard line.  Denver won 31-24.

12. In the fourth quarter of Week 4, Teddy Bridgewater completed 11 of 13 passes for 127 yards and Adrian Peterson ran for 47 yards and a touchdown.  Down by 3, the Vikings had the ball at their own 47 with 35 seconds left when Bridgewater was stripped-sacked.  Denver won 23-20.

13.  Week 6, the Raiders gained 139 yards in the fourth quarter (the Broncos gained only 30), but lost when David Carr’s pass was intercepted and returned 74 yards for a touchdown by Chris Harris.  Denver won 16-10.

14. Week 7, the Browns trailed the Broncos by 3 and had a first down at the Denver 11 with 1:47 left.  They kicked a field goal to tie the game.  Miraculously, they got the ball back in Denver territory with 53 seconds remaining, until Josh McCown threw an interception.  In overtime, they had a first down at the Denver 39.  The plays that followed: A run for a 3 yard loss, an 8-yard sack, a 2-yard sack, and a 5-yard delay of game penalty.  Denver won in overtime 26-23.

15. Week 11, the Bears trailed 17-9 and scored a touchdown with 29 seconds left.  The 2-point conversion failed.  The Broncos won 17-15 in a game where they punted 7 times.

16. Week 12, the Patriots led 21-7 in the fourth quarter and were getting the ball back.  Chris Harper, a backup signed off the practice squad, fumbled the punt return.  After Dont’a Hightower and Rob Gronkowski were knocked out of the game, the Broncos won 30-24 in overtime.

17.  Week 16, the Bengals, led by A.J. McCarron, had a 14-0 lead 29 minutes into the game before they collapsed in the second half.  Although the Broncos had a fumble and missed field goal in the fourth quarter, they still won 20-17 in overtime.

18.  Week 17, the 4-11 Chargers forced 5 turnovers and led by 3 points with 10 minutes left. San Diego scored only scored 10 points off the 5 Denver turnovers.  The Broncos won 27-20.

19.  In the AFC Divisional Round, the Steelers played without their top two runningbacks and its top wide receiver. Pittsburgh led by 4 in the fourth quarter and was driving in Denver territory until fourth-string runningback Fitzgerald Toussaint fumbled. The Broncos won 23-16 in a game where they didn’t score a touchdown in the first 57 minutes of play.
20. In the AFC Championship Game, the Patriots had the ball inside the Denver 20 yard line on three separate drives. Denver punted 9 times and was outgained by 92 yards and 8 first downs.  The Broncos won 20-18.

21. Just to review, that’s 11 victories that Denver easily could have (and in many cases, deserved to have) blown.  Including the playoffs, the Broncos went 11-3 in games decided by a touchdown or less – the most close wins ever by a Super Bowl team.  By contrast, the 2015 Giants and Ravens went a combined 8-15 in such games.

22. Combined record of Denver’s opponents away from home in 2015: 56-72.  The Broncos played only two games away from home against opponents with winning records: Kansas City (the Jamaal Charles fumble) and Pittsburgh (a game they lost 34-27).

23. Excluding playoffs, total first downs surrendered to home opponents: 118.  Total first downs surrendered to road opponents: 171.

24. The combined QB rating of the Broncos quarterbacks (76.3) was worse than the combined QB rating of all the quarterbacks Denver faced (78.8).  The other teams which fared the same (along with their records): Minnesota (11-5), Indianapolis (8-8), Philadelphia (7-9), St. Louis (7-9), New York Giants (6-10), Chicago (6-10), San Francisco (5-11), Baltimore (5-11), Jacksonville (5-11), Dallas (4-12), Tennessee (3-13), Cleveland (3-13).

25. The last quarterback to win a Super Bowl after a season in which he threw more interceptions than touchdowns?  Len Dawson in 1969.  Dawson was also the last QB to win a Super Bowl after throwing under 10 TDs for the season (min. 3 starts).  Yes, those last two stats include Brad Johnson and Trent Dilfer.

26. The 2015 Panthers won 15 regular season games, only the 7th such NFL team ever to do so. No 15-1 team has ever lost a Super Bowl.

27. Week 2, Carolina led Houston 24-10 with 7:00 remaining the fourth quarter.  Carolina won 24-17.

28. Week 3, Carolina led New Orleans 27-16 with 5:00 remaining in the fourth quarter.  Carolina won 27-22.

29. Week 4, Carolina led Tampa Bay 37-17 with 1:00 remaining in the fourth quarter.  Carolina won 37-23.

30. Week 8, Carolina led Indianapolis 23-6 with 8:00 remaining in the fourth quarter.  Carolina won 26-23 in overtime.

31. Week 9, Carolina led Green Bay 37-14 with 8:00 remaining in the fourth quarter.  Carolina won 37-29.

32. Week 11, Carolina led Washington 44-14 with 1:00 remaining in the fourth quarter.  Carolina won 44-16.

33. Week 12, Carolina led Dallas 33-6 with 5:00 remaining in the fourth quarter. Carolina won 33-14.

34. Week 16, Carolina led New York 35-21 with 6:00 remaining in the fourth quarter.  Carolina won 38-35.

35. In the NFC Divisional Round, Carolina led Seattle 31-14 with 7:00 remaining in the fourth quarter.  Carolina won 31-24. 

36. Considering all the meaningless fourth quarter points given up, it’s reasonable to say that of the 308 points Carolina surrendered on the season, 75 of them (24.4%) came in garbage time (this excludes the playoffs).

37. OK, OK, you Peyton apologists: Some of those games (such as Indianapolis, Green Bay, and New York) were admittedly not truly garbage time points because the opponent actually came back and put Carolina’s win at least temporarily in some degree of doubt.  But even if you take out those three games, that’s still 29 garbage time points on the season. Denver’s supposedly “vastly superior” defense gave up 296 total points in 2015; Carolina’s gave up 308.  Do the math.

38. Carolina gets an unfair reputation for playing an easy schedule.  In reality, they defeated Seattle twice, beat Arizona by 34 points, scored 37 points against the Packers, beat playoff teams in Washington and Houston, and defeated the Cowboys on Thanksgiving with a healthy Romo starting (but not finishing).

39. One more tidbit about Carolina’s unfairly-criticized schedule: Through the first eight weeks, the Panthers only won one game by 14 or more points.  In their ten games since then, they’ve had six victories by 14+ points. 

40. Carolina was 6-0 in games against Super Bowl-winning QBs.  Three of those wins came on the road.  Denver went 5-1 in games against Super Bowl-winning QBs, but all five of those wins were at home.  The sole loss (against Pittsburgh) came on the road.

41. This season, 23 defensive players had 4 or more interceptions.  Four of them were Panthers (Kurt Coleman, Thomas Davis, Luke Kuechly, Josh Norman).  By contrast, Denver’s leader in interceptions was Aqib Talib, with 3.

42. Carolina rushed for 144 yards against Seattle in the NFC Divisional Round.  That was the most rush yards allowed by the Seahawks’ defense in 27 games – since November 16, 2014, when they gave up 190 to the Chiefs. Going into the game, Russell Wilson had never faced a deficit larger than 21 points.  Carolina jumped out to a 31-point lead 24 minutes into the game.

43. Carolina’s 49-15 win over Arizona in the NFC Championship Game was, according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, the 8th most dominant single-game performance by a team in NFL history.  DVOA ranks it as the 2nd most dominant playoff performance ever, behind San Francisco’s 44-3 walloping of the Giants in 1994.

44. That was Phil Simms’ final game as an NFL QB.  Sorry, just had to throw that in there.

45. One more thing regarding DVOA: According to the metric, Denver is coming off wins over the 7th and 6th best teams, respectively.  Carolina is coming off victories over the 1st and 5th ranked teams, respectively.

46. As a team, Carolina has rushed for 100+ yards in 31 consecutive games, dating back to Week 5 of 2014. Denver did go 5-2 in games allowing over 100 yards rushing this season, but all five of those wins were the bullshit-style wins aforementioned in #10-18 on this list.

47. Since December 1, 2014, the Panthers have gone 22-2.  They have a +31 turnover margin over that span.

48. Since December 1, 2014, Cam Newton and Steph Curry have combined for 136 wins, 24 losses, and one championship (for now).

49. Since 2011 (Cam’s first season on the Panthers), Carolina leads the NFL in rushing touchdowns win 90, ranks 3rd in total rushing yards, 4th in yards per rush, and 7th in total wins – not bad for a team that has had only two winning seasons in five years. 

50. Cam Newton has thrown for over 340 yards only three times: His first (422 yards), second (432 yards), and fourth starts (374 yards) as an NFL quarterback.

All right, so that last fact doesn’t really supply a meaningful case for which team will win Super Bowl 50, but it’s still an amazing and quirky stat.  Cam’s most prolific passing days occurred when he was at his most raw and inexperienced.  How many other successful quarterbacks can you say that about?  By contrast, Peyton Manning’s greatest passing day (479 yards in a 2014 win over Arizona) came on his 244th regular-season start, in the middle of his 16th season.  And it’s the same case across the board: Tom Brady’s best passing day (517 yards) occurred on his 146th game, Ben Roethlisberger’s (522 yards) on his 151st game, and Eli Manning’s (510 yards) on his 123rd.
Of course, Cam has a much smaller sample size (78 regular season and 5 playoff games) and his transformation into a (somewhat) more conventional pocket passer has been well-documented.  Whatever he did in the offseason prior to 2015 to elevate his game, it has worked; going into the season, he had a win-loss record under .500, only one playoff win (over Ryan Lindlay) and a lifetime QB rating of 85.2.  In 2015, he was the presumptive league MVP and it wasn’t even close.  But the (correct) question on everyone’s minds is: How will he perform on the game’s biggest stage against the league’s best defense?
Obviously, after reading those 50 facts, you should have some coherent idea about where I stand on this game.  But it’s also true that I tend to choose games with my heart rather than my brain; three weeks ago, right after the Steelers and Seahawks pulled out unbelievable wins at the last second, I was ready to send everything to hell and proclaim another disastrous Denver-Seattle Super Bowl.  But one week later, the Patriots restored my confidence and I thought they were a lock to beat Denver.  I purposefully overlooked Brady’s shaky record in Denver and Manning’s ability to play well at home in sunny weather after two months of rest and sustenance courtesy of Rocco and Gino.
            I have a rooting interest in this game and it is the Carolina Panthers, a franchise I’ve been rooting for since the days of Steve Beuerlein and Tim Biakabutuka.  I even felt a little sad after my team beat them in the Super Bowl 12 years ago and unless they were playing the Patriots or Saints, I can’t really remember any games I ever rooted against them.  So let’s forget about my heart (or my brain) for a second, and play a game of “worst-case scenario.”  Let’s try to imagine the hypothetical circumstances enabling the Broncos to win Super Bowl 50:

            First, Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware will have to dominate the Panthers’ offensive line, particularly on the outside, where tackles Michael Oher and Mike Remmers may be vulnerable.  Of course they had little difficulty doing that against the Patriots, but if they are able to beat the tackles, the Broncos’ pass rush also must cover the middle of the field in order to prevent plays like this from happening.  Denver was successful two weeks ago because Wade Phillips never blitzed, which is something they’ll have to continue to do in the Super Bowl since the Panthers have a quarterback who isn’t exactly intimidated by blitzes.
The Denver secondary will also have to eliminate downfield passes, which of course they were also very good at this season.  It’s not unthinkable to believe that Aqib Talib, Chris Harris, and T.J. Ward can capably cover the likes of Greg Olson, Philly Brown, and Ted Ginn (who may not even require too much coverage due to his fairly egregious drop rate).  Forcing the Panthers into third-and-longs and eliminating long completions or scrambles is a great gameplan for the Broncos, and again, it’s not inconceivable that they could do this.  Denver was middle-of-the-pack when it came to picking off passes, but remember that the Broncos 14-1 (including the playoffs) when forcing at least one takeaway.
            The problem comes when you try to draw up a best-case scenario for the Denver offense.  It’s a given that Manning must be turnover-free and perhaps get some assistance from calls (or no calls) on the field.  The Broncos will need Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas to have serious YAC (yards after catch) numbers, which could be possible if Manning targets the receiver not covered by Josh Norman; Robert McClain, filling in for an injured Peanut Tillman, has looked shaky at times this postseason.  Denver hasn’t been great running the ball in the last two games, but C.J. Anderson has broken off a couple of 30-yard runs which put the Broncos in field goal range in both games.  You have to wonder about the health of Thomas Davis and Jared Allen, and if Carolina opts to send a blitz against Manning, perhaps the offensive line can give him or Anderson enough time to burn the linebackers. 
            The issue is that even if the Broncos play well on offense, they probably won’t score more than 20-24 points.  Defenses know that Manning cannot throw the ball more than 15 yards or escape from pressure, and they also know that the Broncos’ conservative gameplan calls more for clock management and field position than explosiveness.  The best case scenario for the Broncos is that they take an early lead, preferably 7-0 or 10-0.  This eliminates pressure to pick up yardage and can enable Anderson and Ronnie Hillman to run out the clock.  Denver’s special teams have quietly been strong too, so keeping the Panthers inside their own 20 yard line (like they did so often against the Patriots) will be of paramount importance.  If the Broncos make it a game of field position, eliminate Cam’s comfort in the pocket, and benefit from some timely magic from the Sheriff, they can win the game.  They’re certainly the healthier team, the more experienced team, and just beat two quarterbacks who combined for six titles.  And let’s not forget who’s announcing.

            Writing this, it admittedly makes me feel a little uneasy about the “surefire” prediction that Carolina will beat Denver.  Haven’t we seen the Broncos execute this exact gameplan all season?  After all, as the 2003-2004 Patriots famously demonstrated, winning games in the clutch is a more important skill than winning blowouts.  But after thinking about it, there are three main reasons I still like the Panthers:
            1. Denver hasn’t faced a quarterback like Cam Newton all season.  In fact, the best rushing quarterbacks they squared off against were Andrew Luck and Alex Smith – in games the Broncos both lost.  On top of this, it’s virtually impossible to gameplan against Cam Newton because (recalling stat #47) no one in the league has figured him out.  Even if you take out his top receiver (Kelvin Benjamin), give him an oft-injured, second-tier runningback (Jonathan Stewart) and a very average offensive line (with Michael Oher, for god’s sake), he still puts up a 17-1 league MVP season.  That kind of transcendent skill is impossible to prepare for and contain.
            2. I trust Carolina in a neutral site more than Denver.  No one talks about the air pressure in Denver, which certainly had an effect on players like Gronkowski two weeks ago.  It takes the wind out of opponents, and extends the kicking game, which favors a defensive-oriented team like the Broncos.  Denver is coming off four straight home games where their average margin of victory was 4.75 points.  Their most impressive road wins were at Detroit Week 3 and at San Diego Week 13.  The Panthers weren’t exactly great away from home either, but did win in Seattle, New Orleans, and New York (all of which, the last I saw, were more impressive than Detroit or San Diego).  The NFC was tougher than the AFC, and I believe that being away from home impairs the Broncos more so than the Panthers (fact #22 really sticks out here).
            3. Denver’s style of play fits right into Carolina’s hands.  Manning turns over the ball a lot; the Panthers are the league’s best team at takeaways.  Denver eliminates deep passes and pressures the QB; the Panthers are a run-first offense (not exactly the strengths of Pittsburgh and New England) and Cam Newton is the best in the league at avoiding pressure.  In close games, Denver controls the clock and slows the pace down; in 6 of the 8 quarters they’ve played this postseason, Carolina has done the same thing, except with double-digit leads.  Even if you want to concede that Denver’s defense is the best in football, you also have to say that Carolina’s offense is the best.  And if you want to say that Carolina’s defense is one of the best in football, you have to also admit that Denver’s offense . . . well, isn’t.
            Teams that finished the season ranked #1 in total defense are 9-2 in Super Bowls.  Defense wins championships more so than offenses, sure.  But for Denver to win the game, Carolina is going to have to make mistakes – mistakes like missing an extra point or having your fourth-string runningback fumble or turning the ball away with seconds remaining.  Could Carolina make these devastating mistakes?  I mean, if Russell Wilson can, anyone can.  But unlike the Patriots last year, the way this Denver team wins games necessitates that such mistakes are made.  So maybe Cam Newton fumbles at the goal-line in the fourth quarter?  Maybe Graham Gano misses a 25-yard field goal?  Maybe Josh Norman has a chance to pick off Peyton Manning’s game-winning pass, but it slips through his hands?  All of those scenarios are in the cards.  But if the game is played 100 times, how often do each of those events happen?  Once?  Twice?  That still leaves 96 or 97 other scenarios.  At first I thought picking Carolina was going with my heart, but it actually seems fairly clear that it’s really going with my head.

Prediction: Carolina 37, Denver 13.

Doppelganger: Do we really have to look that far?

Special Prop Bets:
Odds that Jim Nantz’s and Peyton Manning’s shared agent will make an appearance in the booth: 3/1

Odds that Rocco and Gino will hold a “friendly one-on-one” with Nantz and Simms before the game to avoid any mention of you-know-what-banned-substance: 4/1

Odds that such a meeting isn’t necessary because they weren’t going to bring it up anyway: No bet.

Odds that representatives from Papa Johns and Nationwide will personally hand the Lombardi trophy to Peyton Manning: 5/1

Odds that Simms, Roger Goodell and Eli Manning will actually be wearing pom-poms and giggling with each other about going steady with the leader of the pack: 7/2

Odds that Nantz and Simms introduce Manning by humming “Great-est-QB-of-all-time” to the annoying “Nationwide” theme: 6/5

Odds that I will copy-paste this column and the 2013 Super Bowl preview when Newton’s Panthers and Manning’s LA Rams meet in next year’s NFC Championship Game: Even. 

1 comment:

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