After an early-season win over Houston (No. 3) and a sweep of the Seahawks (No. 2), Sunday's rout of Arizona (No. 5) improved the Panthers' record versus top-five defenses to 4-0. Now the NFL's top scoring team gets the best defense of the bunch.
Few can frustrate and batter Tom Brady the way Denver's No. 1 defense did in the AFC Championship, and that's why the Broncos are in the Super Bowl.
But when you take a closer look at who they've played this season, something sticks out. They haven't matched up with many mobile quarterbacks, let alone someone as lethal with his legs as Carolina's Cam Newton.
"I don't know that we've faced a dual-threat guy like him this year with our schedule," Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak said. "It will be different for us. Having to tackle him out in the open field, having to defend the quarterback runs and those types of things will be something different for us."
Including the playoffs, Newton has rushed 153 times for 686 yards and 12 touchdowns in his soon-to-become-official MVP season.
In their 18 games, the Broncos have watched 13 opposing quarterbacks gain just 207 yards on only 44 carries. None of those were a touchdown, let alone the high-flying, flipping kind Newton scored against the Cardinals.
"I've thought of this moment way before this moment," he said. "You played it out so many times in your mind, so when you run for a touchdown, when you throw, when you're flipping into the end zone, it's kind of like that dream has now become the reality."
There is another side of the coin, of course. Even if opposing quarterbacks wanted to be more mobile, the Broncos might not have allowed it. The Denver defense finished fourth against the run while giving up the fewest yards per carry (3.3). The Broncos don't just have guys who can terrorize the passer, they can also stuff the run, and no one is as scary as outside linebacker Von Miller.
After making Brady's life miserable in the AFC Championship, Miller will next take aim at Newton. Perhaps that's why Newton, the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft, buttered up the player who was taken at No. 2.
"I'm a fan of him," Newton said of Miller. "I'm trying to find any and every way to alleviate him being a pain."
SERIES HISTORY: Fifth meeting. Broncos lead series, 3-1. The last meeting was the only head-to-head matchup between Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning. In that 2012 game, Newton threw two interceptions and was sacked seven times while Manning led the Broncos to a 36-14 win.
--The most intriguing matchup of Super Bowl 50 features the Panthers' No. 1 scoring offense against Denver's top-ranked defense. Carolina averaged 31.2 points in the regular season and they've scored at least 31 points in eight of their past nine games. Denver has allowed 30-plus just once.
The Broncos will be the best defense the Panthers have faced, but the Broncos haven't played a quarterback like Newton. The key for him will be to keep calm under the pressure that's sure to come. Because it's his first Super Bowl, he may have some nerves, so it would be smart for the Panthers to get Newton going in the run game early.
Defensively, the Panthers would be wise to copy their game plan from the NFC Championship. Like Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer, Peyton Manning won't be able to do much under duress. The Panthers shouldn't have trouble shutting down the Broncos' subpar run game, so they can focus on dialing up the pressure on Manning, who could serve some mistakes to Carolina's opportunistic defense.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
--Panthers LT Michael Oher, who's had a surprisingly solid season protecting QB Cam Newton's blind side, vs. Broncos OLB DeMarcus Ware, who will be playing in the first Super Bowl of his storied career.
Panthers CB Josh Norman, who allowed just three touchdowns in coverage this season, vs. Broncos WR Demaryius Thomas, who's totaled 41 touchdowns over his past four seasons.