Sunday, 6:30 p.m. ET, at Levi's Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif. - TV: CBS
*TV announcers: Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Tracy Wolfson, Evan Washburn
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
The Broncos need pass rushers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware to have a major impact in flipping field position and possibly generating a turnover or two. In order for that to happen, Denver must first contain the Panthers' power ground game. The Broncos finished third in the league in run defense, allowing only 3.6 yards per carry during the regular season. But Carolina's ground game is a different beast with QB Cam Newton an integral part of moving the chains.
The Panthers' offensive line is unheralded but very solid. And it begins in the pivot with C Ryan Kalil. He works well in tandem with Gs Andrew Norwell and Trai Turner, creating lanes for RB Jonathan Stewart between the tackles, where his compact, bowling ball frame is tough to locate and even harder to bring down. Those early down plays will be critical because Newton thrives in short yardage, where he can use his massive frame to pick up first downs or attack vertically to TE Greg Olsen and WR Ted Ginn.
If Carolina is able to be productive in the power ground game, it will greatly negate Miller and Ware. But if Denver holds Stewart in check and keeps Newton in the pocket, the Broncos have a significant advantage on the edges. The big question then becomes whether Newton can buy that extra few seconds to find his wideouts working in man coverage.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
As much of a fairytale ending it could be, the Broncos aren't going to win Super Bowl 50 with QB Peyton Manning slinging the ball downfield. He clearly doesn't have the arm strength to consistently attack vertically and Denver will need to engineer lengthy drives.
The key to Denver's late-season surge has been the much-maligned offensive line getting healthier and building more chemistry. RBs C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman have been the beneficiaries and must be productive from the outset Sunday. Carolina owns a massive edge inside with DTs Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei likely to cause Broncos C Matt Paradis massive fits. To be effective in the ground game, Anderson and Hillman will have to do most of their damage by getting to the edge.
Given time, Manning can pepper the Panthers with a steady diet of short and intermediate throws. Outside of All-Pro CB Josh Norman, the secondary is Carolina's biggest vulnerability. Robert McClain, who was unemployed two months ago, is now a starter because of injuries and has been targeted 27 times through two playoff games. Manning isn't going to be working off a bunch of rollouts, but Denver might choose to slid the pocket to buy more time against Short.
*Matchup to watch - Panthers TE Greg Olsen vs. Broncos' pass defense: Olsen has 12 receptions for 190 yards and a touchdown in this year's playoffs, averaging 15.8 yards per catch. He's the team's leading receiver and has consistently beaten double teams. Meanwhile, covering tight ends has been a team effort for the Broncos, who have game-planned for Pittsburgh's Heath Miller and New England's Rob Gronkowski already this postseason. Denver will vary its looks and assignment responsibilities, but the Broncos struggled to keep tabs on Gronkowski while the Patriots made a desperate second-half comeback.
*Player spotlight - Panthers WR Ted Ginn: He didn't start the NFC Championship Game, but Ginn did catch two passes for 52 yards and had a weaving 22-yard touchdown run in 45 offensive snaps. Ginn is who Newton often looks for on deep shots, and his speed in man coverage can prove a back-breaking element -- when he holds onto the ball.
*Fast facts: This is the second Super Bowl appearance in Panthers history (lost Super Bowl XXXVIII to New England). ... Of the 33 runs of 10-plus yards the Broncos allowed this season, 10 came to opposing quarterbacks.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
The Panthers have been installed as heavy favorites for a reason. Their blowout first halves in two playoff games thus far has shown a deadly recipe - a strong ground game to negate the opposing pass rush combined with a defense that can dominate between the trenches and consistently put quarterbacks in long passing situations. Carolina has been playing dominating football with a blueprint that works to great success on the ultimate stage.
*Our pick: Panthers 30-23.