If the National Football League proves anything year in and year out, it is that one team will almost certainly break every trend. In 2015, said team was clearly the Carolina Panthers.
A proverbial thorn in the side of this column week after week, karma dictated that the Panthers would be playing in the final game of the year. Despite another successful season — finishing in the top-two for experts’ against the spread picks for the second consecutive regular season, according to NFLPickwatch — this column was outright stumped by Carolina — 7-11 against the spread in Panthers games, including the playoffs. Then again, Carolina simply refused to follow the trends and logic path that leads to most picks. The Panthers were the outlier.
The irony in the inability to pinpoint Carolina throughout the year is not in the suggestion that the Panthers aren’t deserving of playing in the Super Bowl, but, rather, a disbelief in the dominance that the team enacts on its opponents. Furthermore, when the Panthers were steamrolling teams like the Buccaneers, Falcons, and Cowboys, it was reasonable to discredit their accomplishments. However, when a team thoroughly dismantles the Seahawks and Cardinals in back-to-back playoff games, the narrative changes.
This year, the Carolina Panthers are undoubtedly the best team in the National Football League. The outcome of Sunday’s game will not change that belief. To that point — and, especially with two weeks between Carolina’s last game and its next — there is always a clear separation between a team’s level of play and the expectation for a single game. Even if it is the single game.
As the Panthers cruised through the past few contests, there remains one question to be asked of the team: what happens if Carolina doesn’t jump out to an early lead? What Carolina has achieved over the course of the season is nothing short of remarkable. Constantly, the squad was at risk for a collapse — or, at least, a regression of any sort — and it continued to fight gravity. In fact, the second-half nail-biters against the Seahawks and Giants may have been enough of a return to earth that an outright loss wasn’t necessary.
The one blemish on the Panthers’ otherwise perfect record — the team’s loss in Atlanta — is as justified as any game they played in 2015. Only one week removed from slaughtering the Falcons — in a shutout, nonetheless — the natural ‘letdown’ was impossible to avoid any longer. A loss was evident as soon as the Panthers began dismantling teams, and a division road game against a foe that was just embarrassed is as dangerous as it gets for an undefeated team.
In addition to the Panthers’ lone loss being a rather expected outcome, it is also the perfect blueprint for a misstep. Simply put, Carolina — the top-scoring team of the National Football League — has eclipsed 30 points in each game since Week 11 through the playoffs except one — a thirteen-point dud in Atlanta. As far as outliers go, the Panthers averaged 39-points-per-game in the other eight contests, tripling the output of their Week 16 performance.
Even including the loss to Atlanta in the equation, the Panthers are living in rarefied air. While we normally expect flying too close to the sun to result in melted wings, Carolina refuses to play along. Of course, if every team could jump out to massive leads in the early minutes of a game, they would, but the Panthers obviously exhibit a characteristic not shared with the average team: Carolina is special.
The Panthers are obviously exhibiting everything that would be desired of a potential Super Bowl champion, but they are also doing so with conditions working perfectly in their favor. Returning to the question of how the Panthers would play without a massive lead to protect yields an answer that suggests Carolina is, if nothing else, beatable.
In their last nine games, the Panthers have held halftime leads of at least fourteen points seven times. In all but one of those seven games, Carolina won by double-digits. However, in the two games where the Panthers weren’t running away with the win by halftime — they were tied with the Falcons and trailing the Saints by three points — Carolina went 1-1 with a three-point victory. Reversing the angle at which this trend is viewed, only one of Carolina’s six games — the 21-7 halftime lead against the Giants that resulted in a field goal-win — decided by five points or less — including the Panthers’ loss — featured Carolina tied or trailing at halftime.
Perhaps this isn’t a recipe to beat the Panthers, but it is the most practical method by which the Broncos will remain competitive. Luckily for Denver, the Broncos feature the league’s stingiest defense in yards allowed, and the fourth-best scoring defense. They have allowed more than twenty points only once in their last seven games, and they will be facing a Carolina team that was on fire prior to a two-week break.
Removing all other aspects of the game — trends, momentum, statistical matchups, etc. — the one critical signal for a potential outcome is the spread. Whenever the number is curiously low, we give it more weight — a small spread, in itself, is rarely noteworthy, but a small spread that fails to align with perception is golden. In the case of the Panthers and Broncos, the spread is basically jumping off the screen.
Did anybody watch what the Panthers did to Arizona? Did anybody that tuned in for the AFC Championship Game, took a mental note of the Broncos’ performance, then witness Carolina assault another team think that Denver stood a chance in two weeks? Of all the conclusions that could be drawn from the Conference Championship games, the most prevalent was that the Panthers were about to win the Super Bowl. And, most likely, win big.
The spread opened at three-and-a-half points. Within a day, it had jumped to five. Even now, it creeps larger in an attempt to balance how heavy the support is for Carolina. But, wasn’t it obvious that the Panthers were going to be heavy favorites for the Super Bowl? Why didn’t it just start at six or seven points? Probably because Denver is the team best suited to thwart an early attack from Carolina and remain competitive throughout the course of the game.
In the end, Denver has two forces working against it that will ultimately cost the team a championship: the inevitable decline of quarterback Peyton Manning — whose postseason numbers historically are worse than his regular season performance, regardless — and the combination of weapons that Carolina has utilized to perfection nearly all season. The Panthers closed 2014 with a fury that resulted in a 7-8-1 division title. Instead of hovering around .500 for another year, Carolina proved that its second-half burst in ’14 would create a carry-over effect in ’15. In reality, the Panthers have been rising for more than one calendar year.
The ascension to the top concludes on Sunday. The Broncos fight for sixty minutes and beat the spread, but the Panthers win by four.
Pick: Denver +5.5 against the spread, Carolina to win
*Confidence Picks – 2015 Season: 69-45-2
(2014 Season: 61-46-2)
All Picks Against Spread – 2015 Season: 142-117-7 (Last Week: 1-1)
(2014 Season: 149-114-4)