By James Gike

The Carolina Panthers are a blip on the radar.  They truly encapsulate the idea of a team on a mission.  Last year they were 7-8-1, made the playoffs and were taken apart by the Seattle Seahawks.  Questions have been asked about the maturity of Cam Newton – questions that he answered this season. He took an offence that struggled to produce to the top of the league.  His game changed too – what I mean is that before he was a quarterback that could bomb the ball from the pocket or run; he wasn’t a leader under centre.  Cam Newton’s game existed in two parts – now it’s all one.  The Panther’s and Newton have endured media scrutiny, and stuck with guys like Newton and Rivera because management believed in them. Now look where they are.  They’re so skilled on both sides of the ball.  Many are fixated on the story line of the game’s Sherriff winning one and riding off into the sunset.  But you can’t ignore the other story line about the enigma doing things differently – he’s got everything to prove and nothing to lose.

Here’s The Waterboy Report’s three keys to the game for Carolina.

Continue Their Ground Game

The Carolina Panthers’ running game is off the charts. This is in part due to the best dual threat QB at the helm of their offence.  Super Cam as he’s come to be known as is the best dual-threat QB in NFL history – statically speaking Cam Newton produced the best dual-threat season in NFL history.  That running game will be the key to victory against Denver on Sunday.  Yes Cam has evolved into a prolific pocket passer. When he entered the league he was known from two separate offensive elements: running and the deep ball. But somehow he has connected the two – by way of the read option bridge. This season Cam’s favourite target was not Kelvin Benjamin; Benjamin was, since he was drafted a dazzling deep threat and on the receiving end of many Newtown long bombs.  Maybe it’s a blessing he got injured this season; Greg Olsen all of a sudden steps into the role of favourite target. He’s 6-5 253lbs – almost identical size to Cam Newton. Olsen posted a 4.51 40 yard at the combine, so he has the wheels as well; this Cam Newton-esque skill set has made him the most dangerous component of the Panthers’ offence aside from Newton.  During the game against the Arizona Cardinals Newton froze 6 and 7 defensive back sets by showing them these basic run reads on overloads and sweeps.  He’ll need to use similar looks on the Broncos.  The Orange Crush cannot become Super Cam’s Kryptonite. They will be doing everything they can to shut down Cam’s legs.  He needs to keep them guessing with different looks.

Jonathan Stewart rushed for 989 yards and 6 TD’s during the regular season.  He was 8th among running backs and the only one in the top 10 to be playing with a running quarter back. All six of Stewart’s TD’s came in the red zone. His size and stature have served him well throughout the season.  The offensive line of the Panthers has contributed to the success of the running game. If Newton is able to utilize similar tactics to the NFC Championship game he can use Stewart’s size and speed on sweep and draw plays to gain first downs if the Broncos can shut down Newton’s legs. But don’t think that Cam is going to be an easy job – in the regular season he rushed for 56 1st downs, 3rd most in the league.  Of course let’s not forget his 10 TD’s. With how skill-full the Broncos are of D, Newton’s arms will be huge in this game. On the read-audible plays, coverage is drawn off of Greg Olsen.

Be Efficient Redzone

Only Carson Palmer and Tom Brady were better in the red-zone than Cam Newton. Where are they now? At home answering calls on who they think will win the Super Bowl. 26 of their 35 passing touchdowns were scored from in the red zone; the favourite target? None other than Ted Ginn, demonstrating the depth at the wide receiver position; even though he has 33 fewer receptions than Greg Olsen (77 for Olsen and 44 for Ginn) he still boasts an impressive 16.8 yards per catch.  You best bet that Newton is looking for Ginn from the 20.  In the regular season Ginn caught 6 touchdowns in the red zone and fellow wide receiver Devin Funchess caught 5. I’ve chosen to list this second as I feel like this will be a difficult task for the receivers.  The Broncos corners have learned how to read and undercut routes – and you best believe that’s item number 1 on Wade Phillips walk through list this week. Watch out for Talib and Harris to take Ginn and Funchess out of the game; as well, look out for number 2 corner Bradley Roby who impressed during the Pittsburgh game.

Newton has proven throughout the season that he can thread the needle when it comes to getting his wide-outs involved, and Ted Ginn has shown his usefulness with the odd carry in the run game. Newton will need his offensive line led by Centre and team Capitan Ryan Kahlil to be on their toes.  Giving Newtown as much time as possible to read the formation will avoid his INT count going up.

Got to play like the best

On a play late in the game versus Arizona, line backer Thomas Davis suffered a broken arm when an Arizona Tight-End leaped shin first into it. There has been much doubt surrounding the status of Davis and it wasn’t until Super Bowl Opening Night that he put the doubt to rest.  He is not fully recovered and will play with what I can assume is a Gronkowski-esque brace on his arm.  The Panthers’ linebackers have gained the nickname thieves row. Luke Kuechly has had a friendly competition going with Davis all year. Kuechly is very disruptive force on offence with 7 picks during the regular season and 2 in the post season; his two interceptions both turned into touchdowns.  Peyton Manning after 6 games during the regular season had thrown 10 interceptions, the most since his rookie season in 1998.  It’s interesting to note that most of his interceptions have come from plays 10 yards off the line of scrimmage. Manning is put under pressure thanks to missed blocks and broken tackles, forcing the aging signal caller to under or over throw his passes.  Kawann Short was the team leader in Sacks during the regular with 11 and 2 in the playoffs.

When the Broncos offence come with a three receiver set or try to run a read option led to most of Peyton Manning’s interceptions through the regular season; most of those plays were 10 yards off the line of scrimmage after the defensive came with a four or five man rush.  It seems like the Broncos offence have tightened things up this post season. But if you were to compare the Panthers to the 2014 Seahawks on the defensive side of the ball, you’ll find a lot of similarities; corners that can undercut routes like nobody’s business and linebackers that bring the pain. If the Panther’s D can take a page out of the Seahawk’s playbook than this should be interesting.

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