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Milt Northrop’s Playbook: Can Wade Phillips paint a defensive masterpiece?

Reputations are sometimes won and lost on the outcome of Super Bowls.

Bill Belichick first gained fame as the architect of the New York Giants’ defense against the Buffalo Bills and the famed K-Gun offense in Super Bowl XXV. Pete Carroll of the Seattle Seahawks will never be forgotten for the disastrous play call that led to an interception in the last Super Bowl.

With an extra week to think about it and with lot of different brains to pick, Super Bowl preparation is maximized. The result is some game-planning masterpieces, but not all the time.

Many observers are wary of Denver defensive coordinator Wade Phillips creating a defensive plan that will drag Carolina’s Super QB Cam Newton down to mere mortal dimension. Watch out for Wade. Then again, this is only the second time in 40 years in the NFL, most as a defensive coordinator or head coach, that he’s reached the ultimate game.

Another fear is that Denver has the big-game experience, having lost to Seattle two years ago in Super Bowl 48. However, only six Broncos that started that game are expected to start Sunday. Two others that played in the game two years ago will start Sunday. (Von Miller, Denver’s leading pass rusher, was injured and did not face the Seahawks.)

On the other hand, Newton and many of the Panthers now have five games of postseason experience over the last three seasons. So the experience factor and the big-game jitters might be a wash.

It’s best not to over-think the issue. Here’s a capsule look at Sunday’s game:

Panthers (17-1) vs. Broncos (14-4)

The line: Carolina (-6)

TV: CBS, 6:30 p.m.

The scoop on the Panthers: Everything revolves around Cam Newton, the super-sized, super-talented quarterback. He passed or ran for 45 of the Panthers’ 54 offensive touchdowns. Newton completed 59.8 percent of his passes in the regular season. Not outstanding, but he threw only 10 interceptions. His passer rating was 99.4. … The Panthers’ receiving corps has been called ordinary, but it may be a bit underrated. TE Greg Olsen led the team with 77 receptions and a 14.3 average gain. He had 10 touchdowns. Every time the Panthers need a play, he seems to provide it. … Ted Ginn Jr. is still regarded as a bust by those who remember his early NFL years. He’s well-traveled but still has top-end speed. He caught 10 for touchdowns in the regular season, the longest 74 yards. Third-year receiver Corey Brown had 31 catches. The 86-yard bomb he caught was the dagger that broke the Cardinals’ backs in the NFC Championship game. Former Jet Jericho Cotchery, a 12-year-veteran, had 39 catches and Devin Funchess, a rangy 232-pound rookie from Michigan, came on late in the year. Lead RB Jonathan Stewart (989 yards in 242 attempts) carried on more than half of Carolina’s running plays in the regular season despite missing the final two games. The Panthers use a true fullback, Mike Tolbert. … The Carolina offensive line, made up mostly of castoffs and free agents, gave up 33 sacks during the regular season, not bad considering the Newton is a daredevil in the pocket. … Defensively, the Panthers’ front four is very physical. Tackle Kawann Short is the ringleader with 11 sacks. Star Lotulelei is a run plugger at the other tackle. Veteran Jared Allen has been cleared to start at RDE. … Luke Kuechly is a tireless pursuer and a good pass defender from his MLB position. Veteran Thomas Davis will play with a rod in the arm he broke in the NFC Championship Game. Will he be as effective as usual? … There are knocks on the Panthers’ secondary, especially on right corner Robert McClain, but LCB Josh Norman is one of the most effective in the league. Veteran safety Roman Harper is a hitter. Free safety Kurt Coleman had seven interceptions. No doubt Manning will try to take advantage of McClain if he gets a matchup he likes. Carolina signed Cortland Finnegan off the streets for secondary depth.

The scoop on the Broncos: Denver has come a long way from the vertically striped socks of its early AFL years. In the 33 seasons since John Elway’s rookie year (1983), the Broncos have had only three losing campaigns and made the playoffs 19 times. … Denver’s chances depend mostly on the NFL’s No. 1-ranked defense and the belief that Peyton Manning can guide the offense without a ton of turnovers. … Denver has speed at the receiver position with DeMaryius Thomas (105 regular season catches for a 12.4 average but only two catches for 12 yards in the AFC title game) and Emmanuel Sanders (76 catches, 14.9). However, both of the Denver touchdowns against New England were on passes to tight end Owen Daniels. a 10-year veteran who is no Gronk or even a Greg Olsen. … The Broncos lean on their running game, splitting the duties with C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman, who was nearly the goat of the AFC championship when he didn’t cover a backwards pass by Manning, leading to a New England TD. … Carolina must frustrate the outside rush of Von Miller (11 sacks) on one side and veteran DeMarcus Ware (7.5 sacks). They allow a talented secondary of Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr., T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart to operate very effectively. Bradley Roby is the third corner. Ward is a head-hunter along the lines of past Denver All-Pro Steve Atwater. Ward’s hit, as a Cleveland Brown in 2013, on E.J. Manuel disrupted the QB’s rookie season with the Bills. … Many believe the Broncos’ Achilles heel is an offensive line that gave up 39 sacks in the regular season − Denver had 52. Only one, RT Mike Schofield, was a high draft pick. They’re not even household names in their own households. Elway did good job piecing together an effective OL, and unsung Clancy Barone has taught the unit well. Rick Dennison, Denver’s offensive coordinator, has been with the team, off and on, since 1982. A linebacker from Colorado State, was let go by the Bills in the summer of 1982 ended up with a long playing and coaching career in Denver.

Matchup to watch: Carolina offensive tackles Michael Oher and Mike Remmers, one a castoff, the other an undrafted college free agent, protecting Newton against the Denver speed rushers, Von Miller and Ware. … Strategy duel between Denver defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and Carolina offensive coordinator Mike Shula. On the other side, Manning, with his calls and signals at the line, going against Carolina defensive mind Sean McDermott.

Outlook: It would take a defensive masterpiece by the Denver defense and opportunism on offense to upset Cam and the Panthers. … Just don’t believe Broncos are good enough offensively. Carolina, 24-13.

Championship weekend results: 2-0 straight up, 1-1 versus spread.

Season’s record: 154-91 straight up; 127-116-5 versus spread.


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