Carolina Panthers: Like it or not (and somehow there are fans who don't), it's Cam Newton's league right now, everyone else is just playing in it. There are two players in the league right now who seem like they're having a blast every minute they're on the field; one is Newton and the other is Rob Gronkowski. Newton's attitude is contagious to his entire team, and they have rallied around his leadership, they love their fans, and they have beaten the hell out of opponents, rolling to a 17-1 record so far.
Like Tom Brady, one of the most impressive things about Newton is how well he's done with, to be frank, a less-than-ideal crew of receivers in his spread-option offense. Not that they're awful, but there's just no Calvin Johnson-type stud, no thousand-yard WR in the crew. Still, veterans Ted Ginn and Jerricho Cotchery make plays at the right times, rookie Devin Funchess has been steadily improving in the post-season, and tight end Greg Olsen (who leads the team by far in receptions and yards) is a reliable outlet for Newton on any and every given play.
But the Panthers' real strength is their shutdown defense. Safety Kurt Coleman tied for the league lead in interceptions this seasons, and he and cornerback Josh Norman are the cornerstones of one of the league's best secondaries. Linebacker Luke Kuechly had a game-changing pick-six against Carson Palmer in the NFC Championship Game; after that play, Palmer wasn't the same, and the Cardinals ended up turning over the ball seven times in a 49-15 blowout.
Denver Broncos: It's hard not to feel bad for Peyton Manning. After a barnstorming 2013 year in which he set season records for touchdowns and passing yards, Manning had his ass unceremoniously handed to him literally from the first play of Super Bowl 48, which turned out to be a record-setting blowout. During the 2015 season, Manning set records for career yards and touchdowns, which are unlikely to be broken in the near future.
And yet despite Denver's buzzsaw defense, featuring all-world linebackers Demarcus Ware and Von Miller, the outcome looks much the same, this time because the Donks' offense isn't quite what it was a couple years ago. Receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryious Thomas are better on paper, but Thomas has had key drops all season. Ware, Miller, and CB Aqib Talib are likely to make some plays on defense, but ultimately, the Panthers have much more talent and momentum on both sides of the ball.
The one weakness Carolina has shown repeatedly all season is a knack for building formidable leads in the first half, only to let their opponents come back in the second half. In fact, the Panthers had the worst second-half stats of just about any team in the entire league. They played to this pattern in the divisional playoffs against Seattle, leading 31-0 late n the second quarter before being forced to hold off the Seahags late in the game, ultimately winning 31-24. But the Panthers' merciless squashing of the upstart Cardinals showed that they were aware of that trend, and were finally ready to shut it down. Denver will be the unfortunate recipient of the Panthers' renewed efforts.
Final Score: Panthers 38, Broncos 17
[Update 2/7/16 11:27 PST: There ya go, after very nearly running the table throughout the entire post-season, and getting a Super Bowl matchup that should have been a no-brainer, the Donkeys go and pull off the upset. This makes the third year in a row that I have predicted the wrong team to win the Super Bowl.
There is a certain Hollywood symmetry to it, though -- this game was yet another record for Manning, his 200th career win, and his Super Bowl record now evens out to 2-2 (under four different head coaches, yet another record). Not that Manning's eventual first-ballot Hall of Fame selection was ever in doubt, but if he's going to retire -- and he really should -- this is certainly the way to go out.
As for the Panthers, what can you say? Their pass protection was poor, play execution sloppy, ball control unreliable. Turnovers and poor offensive play in general did them in. This was easily their worst game of the entire 2015 campaign. You wouldn't have known to look at them today that Carolina had gone 15-1 in the regular season, with a +6 turnover ratio and a 35:01 time-of-possession average, or that in the two previous post-season games, they had not been behind a single second, and in fact had been in the lead 112 out of 120 total minutes. Today they were in a hole for the entire game, and played like it.
The good news for the Panthers is that the team should remain largely intact for 2016, where Denver probably won't.]