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Well, fellow drunkards and pill enthusiasts…the day of reckoning is upon us. Two relatively “white hat” teams face off for the Lombardi, and it’s the two teams I previewed way back in the dog days of summer. At the time, I predicted my Donks would make it to the Big L and lose – but to Dallas. Whoops. Like everyone else on the planet, I sold the Panthers short, though I did at least have them winning the division and gave Cam Newton his due as a transcendent QB.
That said, this will not be a standard prediction, because I have no fucking clue who is going to win. If DFO’s imaginary gambling contest had continued, I would have bet $50 or so on the coin toss (tails, ALWAYS tails) and that is all.
For one thing, I respect each coaching staff too much. When you have the extra week to prepare (and Wade Phillips REALLY needed it, both to get his safeties heathy-ish and to find some way to contain Newton), preparation tends to narrow the personnel gap, especially in favor of the defenses. At least when you have a good coach. And EACH side has a really good coach. I would say Ron Rivera is clearly the best head coach in the NFL (disrepect intended to Belicheat), but Kubiak isn’t as far behind as you would think, especially when you consider the Broncos to be something of a two-headed coaching monster, with Wade Phillips being such a difference maker to the defense.
When I think about successful head coaches, there are three traits I want to see (the rest comes down to style, and multiple styles can work): 1) Understanding, at least on a basic-to-intermediate level, the concepts of leverage and game theory; 2) Knowing your personnel (and acting on that knowledge); and 3) A willingness to learn and adapt.
Prong 3 above is where Rivera impressed me so much, by publicly admitting he was being too conservative, and listening to people who had a better grasp of the numbers behind 4th down decisionmaking. He also noticed how applying that knowledge impacted his team AND that his personnel was pretty damn well-suited for it. This is just one, well-known example, but someone who is willing to learn on such a high profile level is surely incredibly studious and open-minded on a day-to-day basis. The one constant in the NFL is change, and failure to accept that truism and adapt is one of the reasons so many coaches ultimately fail.
Kubiak doesn’t get nearly the credit, because his decisions have led to a great deal of “winning ugly” in Denver this year. But to my eyes, he’s been remarkably flexible, holding the team together with chicken wire and duct tape. In the San Diego game, when he sensed he needed to make the move back to PeyPey, he didn’t hesitate (fearing the media backlash). He just did it. He knew his personnel. And ever since then, the plan has been fairly simple – hit with big passing plays when the defense isn’t expecting it. Otherwise, be careful with the ball, control field position, and let the defense win the game for you. When Denver lost games in the regular season, it was usually because of turnovers, trying to execute the offense at the highest level, but just not quite having it. Kubiak is, at heart, an offense-first coach. But he understands this roster is built to win a title THIS season, and he has constantly adjusted with that goal in mind. Contrary to popular criticism, he DOES go for it on 4th down, and play aggressive, but he does it based purely on a leverage basis. He picks his spots, and to me at least…they make sense. I doubt he will coach future playoff teams exactly this way. But he’s shown tremendous understanding of his players in his very first year on the job, and I couldn’t be happier with him. He could grow up and be Ron Rivera someday.
So, now that I’ve gushed about the coaches, these are the thoughts I have had over the past 12 or so days as to how I expect the teams to attack one another. Can’t wait to see it play out on the teevee box.
Panthers – When Donks Have the Ball
It really opened my eyes how Carolina absolutely mauled the Arizona offense. The Cardinals had such a dynamic, multiple attack all season long. Then…poof. Part of that can be chalked up to Carson Palmer turning back into a pumpkin, sure. But the Panthers’ D absolutely had more than a little to say about it.
First and foremost, stop the run. Not, limit Hillman and CJ to 2-3 yards like the Pats did in the first half, but stuff them at the line of scrimmage, or in the backfield. Put 8 in the box, make it 2nd and 11, 3rd and 9, force PeyPey to throw WAY more than he wants to, and disrupt the offensive mix. This also disrupts the key to what Denver wants to do, in terms of time of possession (see below).
Second, hit PeyPey. The Panthers are too classy to be dirty about it, but they can and should give up a few completions for early first downs if it means getting a free run at the QB. Imposing their will physically can lead to a Manning that comes out for the second half gassed and ineffective.
Panthers – When They Have the Ball
Bunches of Funchesses. Denver can’t take away everybody, and here’s the guy I expect will have favorable matchups and the ability to do something with it. Hit this guy on slants, and let him run away from people. Setting up the inevitable “SLUGGO” for a long score.
Score early. I can’t stress enough the importance of “inevitability” to the flow of this game. If the Panthers start to “play downhill” their big-stage inexperience will mean nothing. Denver will be hard-pressed to stick to their gameplan. Does the staff have a few plays up their sleeve they believe will be especially effective against Phillips’ crew? Use ’em on the 1st or 2nd possession.
Use Stewart and Tolbert primarily to block and as safety valve receivers. Belicheat stubbornly and stupidly refused to do this, and he is sitting in his basement watching cruh porn as a result.
Broncos – When They Have the Ball
Field goals are your friend. If you can get really good odds on Brandon McManus as Super Bowl L MVP, go ahead and lay a few rubles down.
Think medium. I expect Carolina to watch the flat like a hawk and to shadow the primary WRs all game long. What SHOULD be open are intermediate routes to guys like Bennie Fowler and perhaps Cody Latimer. PeyPey can still make those passes, I think.
Set up Sanders. That said, PeyPey probably has to hit one homerun shot to win this game. Hopefully the midrange stuff works to get the safeties cheating, and Sanders can get free up a seam. Denver will probably only get one shot, so make it count.
Control time of possession and field position. If Denver gets an early lead, this will become absolutely vital. Even if not, it’s important not to lose sight of this, and make the Panthers work for everything they get, and hopefully be gassed for the 4th quarter.
Broncos – When Cats Have the Ball
Attack the ball. I think getting an early turnover (especially if points are attached) is by far Denver’s best path to victory. This can mesh with point 2 below.
Force Cam to make throws he doesn’t want to make. By this, I mean either uncomfortable routes for him (I don’t know of any, but then again, I hven’t done 120 hours of film study) or by funneling the ball to an unreliable player who then makes an oopsie.
TRY to use disguised looks and pressure to cut off Cam’s running lanes. This is MUCH easier said than done, because Cam’s mind works remarkably fast, probably as fast as PeyPey’s now. But, you know, in fucking Cam Newton’s body. When I talk about the extra week helping Wade Phillips, this is where I am hoping and praying for something miraculous.
No matter what the final outcome, I look forward to seeing Cam and PeyPey shake hands and talk after the game. It will be a generational passing of the torch moment for the ages. Too bad Pheeeeeel and Jeeeeeem have to be there to spoil it.