Super Bowl 50 Analysis

While there will be no write-ups this season so I can spend all the time I can evaluating opportunities that give us our best shot at a great season, I thought I’d post my write-up from last seasons Super Bowl to provide an example of my work:


The top seeds in each conference square off in what has been an interesting game to analyze this past week.  The 17-1 (13-5 ATS) Carolina Panthers take on the 14-4 (9-8-1 ATS) Denver Broncos in a battle of teams that enter the game with divergent perceptions.  As is often the case, perceptions can be deceiving.  After detailed analysis, I believe the Denver Broncos are the right side in what should be a lower scoring game featuring two of the best defenses in the league.

I’ll start with the Panthers.  Recent form has been impressive with consecutive playoff victories against what had been two of the best teams in the league this season; Seattle and Arizona.  That recent form has blown perception of the Panthers out of whack.  Inspired by the home crowd, Carolina jumped out to a 31-0 halftime lead against the Seahawks and a 24-7 halftime lead against the Cardinals.  Their early game intensity in both contests was evident and sparked a snowball type effect against teams that could not match the Panthers early fire.  There are some other reasons for these lopsided scores as well, and a case can be made that their opponents were in very difficult situations.  In the Divisional Round game against the Seahawks, it’s important to keep in mind that Seattle was playing their second consecutive road game at a 10AM start time (Pacific time) and were playing their third consecutive road game overall.  The previous week they played a game in Minnesota in below zero wind chills.  Carolina was off a bye.  Although at the time I felt Seattle could overcome those circumstances because they were the better team, it was obvious that Seattle was flat early while the Panthers and their crowd were sky high.  Seattle couldn’t match the Panthers early intensity and a quick 14 point hole soon spiraled out of control into an almost insurmountable 31 point deficit.  Playing with equal rest and at a neutral site, I suspect that the game would have played out a bit differently.  It didn’t, and so Carolina next faced an Arizona Cardinals team that also had some issues coming into the game.  After winning nine consecutive games and with not a lot on the line, Arizona was flat in their season finale against the Seahawks, losing 36-6.  That game not only seemed to completely halt their momentum but it also provided an injury to Carson Palmer’s finger that, despite him claiming otherwise, clearly affected his play.  Palmer wasn’t great against the Packers and as it turns out was terrible against the Panthers with six turnovers.  So, while Carolina has beaten two of the best teams in the NFC the last two games, and looked impressive doing it, circumstances were in their favor that made them look a bit better than they actually are.  Prior to those two games, the Panthers had padded their record against the 4th easiest schedule in the league.

There’s no situational or injury related advantage in this game, however, as both teams were #1 seeds and played both playoff games at home. They’ll both have the opportunity to benefit from the bye this week as well.  While there’s no doubt that Carolina comes in as the hot team in this match-up, outscoring their two playoff opponents 31-0 in the first quarter and 55-7 in the first half, the more impressive team entering the Super Bowl isn’t always the winning team.  As reported at FiveThirtyEight; since 1970, there’s essentially no relationship between how dominant a team has been in the first quarter or first half of its playoff games and its point differential in the Super Bowl. (In fact, the top six teams according to average first-quarter win probability added all lost the Super Bowl.)  So, while Carolina has looked good, particularly early in the game the past couple of weeks, there’s no guarantee that sort of performance is going to continue.  In most cases, it has regressed in the following game.

While the Panthers had the best first half point differential in the league this season and have had the fortune of getting off to fast starts and then playing with a lead, I don’t expect that will be the case in this game.  Denver is well aware of this fact and are determined to get off to a fast start themselves.  They certainly have a defense that is capable of preventing Carolina from setting the tone early – Denver allowed just 41 opening-quarter points all season (6th best in the league) and did not surrender a first-quarter point until Week 9. If Denver can keep it close early, as they should, they have demonstrated the ability to win close games. Of games that were decided by seven or fewer points this season, Denver won 11 of those 14 games.   And if they do happen to get off to a slow start, they have shown the ability to come back – they were the first team in league history to overcome three 14-0 deficits to come back and win games against teams that made the playoffs.

From a historical perspective, teams like the Panthers that crush the spread (by 21 points or more) in their conference championship game are 2-5-1 ATS against teams with a >.700 win percentage in the Super Bowl. That record should probably be 1-6-1 as New England qualified in last years’ Super Bowl and were lucky to escape with the win.  It’s a small sample but it makes sense and supports the premise that there is value found in playing against teams that dominated recently in the public spotlight. In addition, the public loves offense and just saw Cam Newton and the Panthers offense move the ball down the field with ease, putting up 49 points against a Cardinals defense that was ranked in the top ten in points and yards allowed per game. That scoring output sets the Panthers up in a negative 2-14 ATS situation that plays against teams in Championship Games or the Super Bowl that won at home the previous week, scoring 38 or more points in the process (since 1994).  History dictates that the Panthers scoring will regress in this game as those high scoring teams that qualified in this situation average just 19.7 points in their following game.

There are a number of fundamental reasons to support that notion as well.  The Denver defense is the best they’ll face this season and it matches up well with the Panthers offense.  As has been well documented, the Broncos finished first in total defense and teams that lead the NFL in total defense are 9-2 straight up in Super Bowl history.  In addition, the Broncos led the NFL in sacks this season with 59, and have generated pressure on 35% of opponent drop-backs this season, best in the NFL.

Last week, the Broncos manhandled the Patriots offensive line, recording a pressure on 19 of Brady’s 61 drop-backs according to ESPN’s Stats & Information and was able to generate 16 of its 19 pressure plays without blitzing.  If the Broncos are able stymie the Panthers ground game, a positive defensive game script will follow that will allow Denver an even more productive pass rush. Based on my research, I’m betting that they’ll be able to do it.   Denver was the leagues’ best at stopping the run and just got better as the season progressed.  In the back half of the season (from Week 11 on), the Broncos only allowed an average of 69 rushing yards per game at an amazing 3.2 ypr.  They’re the type of unit, with elite level talent all along their front seven, that will give the Panthers run game problems.

The Panthers ran the ball more often than any other team this season (46.2 % of the time). A big part of that included a number of designed runs for Newton (103 of them), the most in the NFL since 2006.  Newton will no doubt get his carries in this game.  Denver hasn’t faced a quarterback quite like Newton this season and have faced just 41 QB runs all season – allowing 12 of them to go for 10 yards or more, tied for second most in the league.  Wade Phillips and the rest of the Denver defensive staff are well aware of this and with two weeks to prepare, I expect that they’ll have a well-designed scheme ready to attack the Panthers ground game and reduce the impact Newton will have in the run game. If there is one single key to victory for the Broncos – it’s stopping Newton and the Panthers on the ground.  If Denver can do it, they’ll have an excellent shot at winning.  That being said, they’ll likely commit to that effort by bringing T.J. Ward up into the box as the eight man (and excellent run defender) and making it that much more difficult for the Panthers to run.

Denver will have to be particularly vigilant in the red zone.  Cam is at his best in this part of the field, posting 34 total TDs inside the 20 this season (four more than any other player), converting 10 of his 29 red zone rushes into scores.  With a power run game that creates run lanes via hesitation and deception, the Panthers red zone offense is difficult to defend and this season was best in the league – scoring touchdowns 70% of the time against teams that allow touchdowns 59.6% of the time.  While Denver’s defense has been excellent on all levels – they’ve been just average when teams make it to the red zone – allowing touchdowns 61.9% of the time against teams that score TD’s 62.0% of the time.  While that rate is mildly concerning, the Broncos defense doesn’t allow teams many yards (a league best 293 yards at 4.6 yppl) and as a result only allowed 37 drives inside the 20 all season, the lowest number in the league.

It remains to be seen how the Broncos will defend Cam, but gap integrity will be key both in the run game and in their pass rush.  Denver certainly doesn’t want open lanes for Newton to take off and run through when his receivers are covered so they’ll likely have a plan in place to keep Newton within the pocket and make him attempt to beat them with his arm.  When Newton does drop back he’ll face a challenge he hasn’t faced before – two of the best edge pass rushers in the game (Miller is ranked #2 and Ware #18 at Pro Football Focus).  Miller will line up against Carolina right tackle Mike Remmers, who has been the weak spot on the Panthers’ offensive line, especially against the pass rush. This is a match-up to watch as Miller is playing out of his mind and last week was virtually unblockable with 2.5 sacks, four QB hits and an interception.   Denver had the best pass rush in the league this season overall, averaging a sack on every 12.2 opposing drop backs  and when Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware are on the field at the same time Denver registers a sack 9.1% of the time the opposing QB drops back (ESPN Stats and Information).  The last times these teams faced each other back in 2012, Newton was sacked seven times and posted a career low 5.9 Total QBR in a 36-14 Denver win.

The battle in the secondary goes to the Denver defensive backs as well.  While Carolina likes to take their shots deep (Newton threw 68 passes of 21 yards or more this season, tied for the third most overall), Denver was excellent against deep passes this season – allowing the eighth lowest Total QBR (49.7), fifth lowest yards-per-attempt average (9.0) and the third lowest completion percentage (23.5%).  With three Top 30 corners (Harris, Talib and Roby) to go along with two Top 15 safeties in T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart, the Broncos match up well against the Panthers receivers and tight ends.  Greg Olsen is a dynamic threat for the Panthers and one of the best receiving tight ends in the league but Ward and Stewart are both very good defending the pass and will likely be tasked with slowing Olsen down.  A bit concerning is the health of both Ward and Stewart as third safety David Bruton Jr. is already on injured reserve. The Broncos lost both starting safeties to injury in the Championship Game as Stewart left with a right knee injury and Ward was knocked out with a left ankle injury.  They both say they’ll play in the Super Bowl and I’d be shocked if they didn’t.

In short, it’s going to be hard for Carolina to score a lot of points in this game.  With an offense that is just average from a yards-per-play perspective (371 total yards at 5.7 yppl against teams that allow 355 yards at 5.7 yppl), Carolina’s scoring has been driven by their #1 red zone offense and their above average third down conversion percentage (converting third downs 44.0% of the time against teams that allow conversions 40.2% of the time).  While there are reasons they’ve been good in those two key areas (mainly Cam Newton’s playmaking ability), they won’t convert at that rate in either of those categories in this game while they’ll likely continue to gain yards on an average/below average rate. Not only was Denver the best in the league in allowing an average of 293 total yards at 4.6 yppl, but Denver’s defense was tied for 2nd best in preventing third down conversions – allowing a rate of just 33.1%.

When the Broncos have the ball, they’ll also likely have difficulty scoring points.  Denver’s offense has been below average when looking at season long numbers but I’m throwing out their first nine games when Manning was dealing with multiple injuries and the offense was not using the full playbook (and still getting used to a new offensive system).  When assessing just the back half of the season (from Week 11 on when Osweiler took over and Denver opened up their playbook and their run game), the Broncos have actually been better than average on the ground – averaging 128 rushing yards at 4.4 ypr.  I expect that C.J. Anderson will be the bell cow in this game as he’s a better match-up than the smaller Hillman, and he’s churned out 312 yards on 55 carries for 5.6 ypr the last four games.  Manning hasn’t looked pretty at times but is still one of the best at pre-snap identification and adjustment, getting the Broncos into good plays based on what the defense is presenting.  That being said, this is still a below average offense overall and even after eliminating the first nine games, they have only averaged 21.4 points per game.   Facing a Carolina defense that is very good (allowing 323 yards at 5.0 yppl against teams that gain 363 yards at 5.7 yppl with excellent efficiency numbers against both the run and the pass), I expect the Broncos offense will produce yards and points at a rate less than their second half of the season stats would suggest.  While teams probably don’t require any additional motivation when playing in the Super Bowl, the Panthers defense is not getting a lot of attention this week as the media has been heaping accolades instead to the Denver defense.  I’m sure the Panthers defensive players have been paying attention and will be ready to make a statement in this game.

Kubiak is also well aware that the Panthers lead the league in take-aways and overall turnover differential (+28) so I’m expecting the Denver offense will implement a conservative game-plan predicated on the short passing/run game designed to minimize risk.   They’ll rely on their strong defense and play field position when they are faced with risky situations (like going for it on 4th down) in an effort to keep this game close, particularly early.  Denver was #23 in the league with a 46.7% conversion rate on 4th downs this season and they know that a failed conversion can be as costly as a turnover.  They also know that the team that wins the turnover battle wins the game at an alarming rate.  Case in point is the fact that teams that win the turnover battle are 36-4 in the Super Bowl and this season Denver is unbeaten when getting more turnovers than their opponent (8-0).

Denver has held two of the best offenses in football, the Patriots and the Steelers, to an average of 17 points the past two games, allowing just three touchdowns, with one of those touchdowns coming on a short field after a turnover last week.  Their defense is playing at a very high level, as is Carolina’s.  The Panthers have allowed opponents to score on just 26.5 percent of drives, the lowest rate in the NFL this season.  While Denver’s defense has no real weakness, the weakness in the Panthers defense is in their secondary with replacement level players after cornerback Josh Norman.  Unfortunately for Denver, they likely won’ t be able to test the intermediate and deep coverage because Carolina’s pass rush should cause Manning to speed up his process a bit and prevent him from waiting around for those longer routes to develop.  His diminished arm strength is also a liability.  With a run/short passing game approach that eats clock and keeps the Panthers offense off the field, time will elapse, longer drives will ensue, and scoring will be reduced.

The Broncos ranked #1 and the Panthers ranked #6 in total yards allowed and my numbers suggest lower scoring output.  We do have to take into account the short fields and scores that these defenses could potentially provide – Carolina had seven defensive/special teams touchdowns and Denver had six this season so the resulting calculation adds 2.5 points to the total.  This will be a low scoring game and my adjusted total after compensating for defense/special teams is 39.9 total points.  With the most likely game script featuring a lot of running and short passing with average to below average offenses (from a yards-per-play perspective) against two of the best defenses in the game, this total is inflated.  There are reasons for that as the public likes to play ‘over’ and they’ve had success in the recent past – the last three Super Bowls and five of the last seven have all gone ‘over’.  Also, Carolina led the league in scoring this season with an average of 32.2 points per game driven by good play in the red zone and on third down.  I’m betting those rates won’t continue in this game.  In my opinion, there’s clear value in the ‘under’.  <b>This total may go higher but I like the value as it currently stands with Under 45 and will play it as a Strong Opinion.  As of send-out there were some 45.5’s available but I’ll grade at 45.

While the Broncos only averaged 22.1 points per game this season that low scoring average is actually a good sign for Denver as four of the past six teams to average that few points in the regular season won the Super Bowl.  Denver is 5-0 ATS this season as underdogs, winning straight up in four out of those five games and beating the spread by an average of 9.0 points per contest.  Using just the last nine games for Denver (eliminating those early season games where Manning was hobbled and the playbook wasn’t fully open), my adjusted model favors the Broncos by about a ½ point.  Many of the players on the Broncos were on the 2013 team that got crushed in the Super Bowl and were called soft.  They have a shot at redemption in this game and as a result I expect the very best the Broncos have in a focused effort.

While it’s early to assess market data, with 75% of the bets coming in on the Panthers according to Sports Insights, we have a game where the overwhelming majority are betting Carolina at a rate not seen before in recent Super Bowl history.  That’s just another signal to me that the Broncos are the right side at what my numbers are telling me is an inflated price.  I’m going to take the +6 now as I don’t have much confidence that it’s going any higher, but there’s always the possibility that late public money could drive this up to +6.5.  I’m not waiting around to find out.  The Broncos win a low scoring, competitive game.  Take Denver +6 (-115) for 2-Stars down to +5.5.  I’ll consider Denver a Strong Opinion at +4.5.