The Super Bowl 50 matchup is set. In the end, second best didn’t cut it. The team with the very best defense in the NFL this season – Denver – won a pair of tight home playoff games against banged up foes to return to the big game for the second time in three seasons. The Broncos are set to face the team with the very best quarterback in the NFL this season – Carolina, with Cam Newton behind center; a Panthers team that finished with the best record in the league.
The best quarterback vs. the best defense! We saw this two years ago, when Peyton Manning set records with his play, but Manning tailed off down the stretch and the Seattle Seahawks elite defense controlled the flow right from the get-go in the biggest Super Bowl Blowout of the 21st century.
The irony here, of course, is that two years ago, Denver was here due to Peyton Manning, and they lost the Super Bowl to the league’s best defensive team. Only two years later, Denver is here because THEY have the best defense in the NFL, facing off against an emerging yet elite dual threat quarterback. That defense didn’t perform well against Russell Wilson in the big game two years ago, but that Super Bowl losing defense wasn’t coached by Wade Phillips, nor did it have the same level of playmakers on all three units that this year’s version does.
The Broncos defense is every bit as good this year as Seattle’s defense was two years ago. Denver won three games this year when they trailed by at least two touchdowns because they repeatedly shut opposing teams down with the game on the line in the fourth quarter.
That fourth quarter defensive intensity was on full display in the win over New England. They stopped the Patriots on downs twice in the fourth quarter with the game on the line, then blew up the all-important two point conversion try after the Pats had finally punched in a late TD. The Patriots finished the game with a 4.4 yards per play average, exactly what Denver had allowed during the course of the regular season. The #2 defenses – Seattle and Carolina – were both at 4.9 yards per play; not even close to posting Denver’s elite defensive numbers.
While the betting markets have been reluctant to anoint Denver as a truly elite defensive squad, they’ve been even more reluctant to accept Carolina as an elite level offensive team. Yet the numbers don’t lie. This Panthers offense has hung 31+ on eight of their last nine opponents down the stretch of the regular season and here in the playoffs. In fact, they scored 27 or more points 15 times in their last 16 games, an offense that just hasn’t gotten the respect they deserve.
Greg Olson, Ted Ginn and Devin Funchess all averaged better than 14 yards per catch this season, taking advantage of Carolina’s aggressive downfield passing game. Second year pro Corey Brown was the hero in the win over the Cardinals, thanks to an 86 yard catch and run TD that blew the game open in the first quarter. RB Jonathan Stewart has averaged a full five yards per carry on his 38 rushing attempts in the postseason, against a pair of rock solid stop units.
But make no mistake about it – the Panthers are here, now, because of elite level quarterback play more than any other factor. Cam Newton finished the season with only ten interceptions and a 99.4 QB rating, but even that doesn’t tell the true story, because it doesn’t factor in his scrambling ability as the team’s second leading rusher with ten touchdowns on the ground. And even those stats don’t tell the story of Newton’s leadership abilities, proven since his tenure at Auburn when he ‘came out of nowhere’ to lead the Tigers to an undefeated season and a national title, handing the added pressure and the media blitz effectively throughout the entire process.
Last year’s Super Bowl was priced as a pick ‘em right through kickoff at many books. Prior to that, the underdog had covered six of the previous seven Super Bowls, winning five of those in outright fashion. Green Bay over Pittsburgh is the only Super Bowl favorite to win and cover since the Colts beat the Bears following the 2006 campaign. In fact, since the Ravens Super Bowl win over the Giants following the 2000 campaign, underdogs are 10-3 in the Super Bowl ATS (not counting last year’s pick ‘em priced contest).
When it comes to the pointspread for the Super Bowl, it’s the same story, year after year. Bettors remember what they last saw and react accordingly. The lookahead lines for the potential Super Bowl matchups after Denver knocked off New England in the first game on Sunday had the Broncos in the +2.5 or +3 range as an underdog – no higher and no lower – in a matchup against either Carolina or Arizona in the Super Bowl. These were global marketplace lines, not unique to any one or two sportsbooks.
Then Carolina blew out Arizona and all hell broke loose on Sunday Night. The Panthers -2.5’s were snapped up in an instant. So were the -3’s. Pinnacle opened offshore with a Carolina -3.5 and many books copied that number. But that wasn’t a ‘keeper’ pointspread either as the Sunday Night flow of Carolina money continued.
The Westgate Superbook then posted an off market number, hanging the Panthers as -5.5 point favorites. At the time, no other major book was higher than -4, and the prevailing market number was still -3.5. It was a rather prescient move, as the markets continued to slide towards the Carolina side. While that -5.5 at the Westgate was bet down to -4 almost immediately, the market as a whole was shifting to -4. On Monday morning, most of those -4’s had become -4.5’s.
So, we essentially saw a 1.5 or 2 point line move off the key number of +/-3 as the NFC Championship Game was turning into a rout and the Super Bowl matchup was certain. For all the talk about ‘season long stats’ and ‘advanced defensive metrics’, the end result is that big money bettors have initially fallen in love with Carolina – finally – after disrespecting the Panthers for extended stretches this season.
This initial betting market love for Carolina in the Super Bowl has come despite the fact that the defense wins championships mantra hasn’t changed in the modern NFL. Perhaps it’s a measure of disrespect for the Broncos coaching staff in a big game. Let’s not forget that both Gary Kubiak and Wade Phillips were unceremoniously fired following a miserable 2013 season with the Texans, a 2-14 campaign as head coach and defensive coordinator. Talk about redemption! We’ll have to wait two more weeks to see if that Kubiak/Phillips coaching duo will get their full measure of redemption with a Super Bowl victory.
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