Denver Broncos (14-4) vs. Carolina Panthers (17-1) at San Francisco
Both of these teams finished with the #1 seed in their respective conference and won two home playoff games to get here. However, they’ve still had drastically different seasons and one team has been significantly more impressive this year. While Denver finished the year 12-4 with just 3 wins by more than a touchdown in the regular season and post-season combined, Carolina finished 15-1 with 10 wins by more than a touchdown between the regular season and post-season.
Denver might have the best defense in the NFL, finishing the regular season 2nd in rate of moving the chains allowed, despite outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, safety TJ Ward, and safety Darian Stewart all missing at least some time with injury. All three will play in this one on a Denver team that is remarkably healthy, only missing one week 1 starter (left tackle Ty Sambrailo). However, the Panthers also have a great defense (4th in rate of moving the chains allowed) and are pretty healthy too, just missing cornerback Charles Tillman, cornerback Bene Benwikere, and left guard Amini Silatolu from week 1, none of whom were key parts of the team. Outside linebacker Thomas Davis is a key part of their team and he did break his arm two weeks ago in the NFC Championship, but he’s going to play anyway.
Davis’ effectiveness is of concern, but not enough that the Panthers aren’t the significantly more talented of these two teams. In addition to a great defense, the Panthers also have a great offense, led by likely NFL MVP quarterback Cam Newton. They finished 4th in rate of moving the chains on the season, allowing them to finish the regular season 2nd in rate of moving the chains differential. The Broncos, meanwhile, finished 11th in rate of moving the chains differential, thanks to an offense that ranked 30th in rate of moving the chains. Led by soon-to-be-40-year-old Peyton Manning, their offense is the biggest reason why they have had so many more near losses than the Panthers and it should be the biggest reason they lose this game by at least a touchdown. I don’t see them scoring more than one touchdown. I jumped on the line at 4.5 right after the championship game 2 weeks ago and I would still bet money at 5.5 or 6.
Carolina Panthers 21 Denver Broncos 10
Pick against the spread: Carolina -4.5