Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Super Bowl Pick: Exit, Stage Beatdown

Say Omaha Again, I Dare You
Walking off into the sunset a winner. It’s the dream of every athlete, but the number of times it actually happens is, well, almost never. Part of this is the very nature of athletics, where getting old gracefully rarely happens, and star players in particular have trouble managing the decline.

But the bigger part of the issue is that just being a winner is damned deadly difficult. Only one of 32 NFL teams hoist a trophy every ear, which means that just by the numbers, you start with about a 3% chance of being on the right team.

Then there's the added difficulty of being healthy enough to make that walk, which takes out a few dozen more candidates for the forever stroll. So if you want to go out on top, the only way to be sure... is to just go out whenever you win one. Sure, you might leave a decade of monster billing on the table, and become known as football's biggest non-Detroit enigma, but what's more important, really -- leaving on your own weirdly non-lucrative terms, or making a sports writer happy by writing his Not Game lede?

Which brings us to Peyton Manning. He can do something historic in what everyone is presuming to be his final NFL game. Any number of people are ready for this, as he's the second favorite to win the Super Bowl MVP. He can also decide, after six months of not getting hurt and his arm feeling fine, that another $20 million would go down like a few dozen commercials. Especially with no more than a dozen NFL teams that feel really, really good about their QB1 situation, and the rules getting to the point where being an old and slow white QB has never been safer.

Now, for the record? It seems really obvious that Manning is going to leave after this. That's what the rumors have all been saying, but what they aren't saying is that one of the bigger reasons for him to leave is that the Panthers are going to beat him silly. Kind of like how the Seahawks did two years ago, because the NFC is (shh!) wildly better than the AFC now, and the Panthers did most of the heavy lifting for winning this game by not choking away their lead in their first playoff game against Seattle. (Speaking of Seattle, jeez, Russell Wilson, why didn't you retire after your SB win? Leave on your own teams, man.)

So enjoy your walk, Peyton. It just might look more like this. 

 And with that... on to the very, very obvious pick!

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CAROLINA (-5.5) at Denver 

 The case for Carolina: 17-1 in the superior conference. Have the clear MVP in QB Cam Newton, who is fully healthy and playing at the highest level of his career. RB Jonathan Stewart has been top notch since returning from injury. TE Gregg Olsen is among the best in the game, and routinely gets open despite being the clear top choice of his QB. WR TBD Brown and Ted Ginn Jr. aren't great, but they have speed to burn and get past the defense enough for Newton to do serious damage, especially on plays where the QB extends time with his mobility. Defensive front seven is the best in football this year by a wide margin, and the pass rush has been ferocious in the post-season. No real issues on special teams or coaching to slow them down, either.

The case against: Secondary is vulnerable outside of world-class CB Josh Norman. LB Thomas Davis broke his arm in the conference championship and is trying to play anyway; if he is not able to go or play well, that is a major problem, especially since Denver’s passing game is so much about short crossing routes and YAC. No one on the roster has been on this kind of stage before. They've done bad things with a lead in a bunch of games this year, and could easily give up the back door cover or more, especially if the pass rush loses steam late. The pass rush has lost steam late.

The case for Denver: Defensive secondary is the best in football this year by a wide margin. Patient play calling that doesn't turn the ball over. QB Peyton Manning is one of the smartest QBs who has ever played the game, and routinely makes a defense jump offsides, or audibles to the right play based on a pre-snap read. WR Emmanual Sanders and DeMaryius Thomas have the physical gifts to change games, and the deeper reserve WRs made a ton of plays in the win against NE. TE Owen Daniels is a reliable target for Manning, and can gash a defense. Run game has looked better in recent weeks, and the special teams have been very good, especially K Brandon McManus. Manning actually ran around a little in his last game, and might be as healthy as can be hoped at this stage of the year, and in his career.

The case against: Offense has to play at a near perfect level now to succeed. Offensive line is just not that good, and Manning’s speed to release to camouflage that, and ability to make all of the throws, is long gone. RB Ronnie Hillman isn't big enough, RB CJ Anderson isn't fast enough, and both tend to put the ball on the ground at the worst possible time. Thomas is either playing with an injury, or is secretly a decade older than his birth certificate. Defense was utterly brilliant against New England, and still needed questionable game management, home field advantage and the skin of their teeth to get to this game. Won't have a decimated offensive line and a stationary QB to go after in this game, either.

The pick: Can Denver win this game? Sure. NFL games are decided on turnovers, and Newton hasn't always been great on that score. Manning with rest and the knowledge that it's all over after this game might be truly dangerous, especially if Thomas can somehow shake off what he's been doing for the past four months. The Denver DBs have the potential to throw a shutout at the Carolina WRs, and the game could easily turn on a single possession or special teams play. If we played this game 100 times on a perfect computer simulation, Denver wins a lot of games.

But what's possible is not what's probable, and every Super Bowl doesn't have to be close or compelling. I'm not sure I've seen a QB play better than Newton in this season, and I’ve watched football since the 1970s. Especially when you consider what he's working with at wideout. Unlike New England, Carolina will bring a realistic running game threat to the game, and string together enough drives to bring that defense to exhaustion. I don't see the same thing being true for the Broncos... and historically, teams that fall behind in this game don't come back, and it gets ugly.

Kind of like what happened to Manning when he was in much better shape, with a much better offense, on this stage two years ago.

The score: Panthers 34, Broncos 20. 

 As a bonus, here is how I would go on six different prop bets.

Over/under -- Over, 45.5

More sacks -- Carolina, 6/5

MVP, Chalk bet: Cam Newton, 8/11

MVP Longshot: Luke Kuchley, 18/1

Over/under, "Omaha" calls -- Over, 7.5

Cam Newton total TDs -- Over, 2.5

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Last week: 2-0 

Season: 141-117-4 

Past SBs: 4-5 

Career: 759-749-49

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