It has been a tough year for picking the NFL. I'm tempted to call it The Year of Injury, because so many key players were lost, some before the season even began, and some teams had extreme runs at certain positions or position groupings, which made their progress tougher to predict. My straight up record for the season was 62.5 per cent, exactly 5/8, but most seasons I've been closer to 2/3, and once or twice knocking on the door of 70%.
The Carolina Panthers were one of the tough teams to pick this season. They lost their best wide receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, before the season had even started. They were reigning division champions, but as that had come with a 7-8-1 record last year, most of us wrote them off this season. What did we know? A group of no-name receivers rose to the occasion, an offensive line put together a la the Patriots, from bits and bobs off the draft and the street, worked surprisingly well, and Michael Oher, whose story's already been told in The Blind Side, proved effective as their blind side tackle.
But the Panthers' story was Cam Newton, the wonderfully exuberant and mobile quarterback, and their defense led by linebackers Luke Kuchley and Thomas Davis, corner Josh Norman, and the tackle pair of Kawaan Short and Star Lotuleilei. I drew comparisons all season between them and the Seattle Seahawks, and at least partly because they had a relatively easy schedule, the Panthers finished the season 15-1 (including a win in Seattle), then bulldozed Seattle and Arizona in the playoffs.
Denver, on the other hand, rode their defense to a 12-4 mark and an unexpected home field advantage when the Pats lost their season's closer to Miami. Peyton Manning, buttoned down, committed to the pocket, and 39 years old, appeared to lose his fastball, and was replaced by Brock Osweiler, only to relieve Osweiler at season's end and steer the Broncos through their two playoff wins with a workmanlike bit of what we call 'game managing'. The Bronco D were the stars, bedevilling Tom Brady in the Conference Championship, but only just managing to hold on as the offense stalled completely in the game's final ten minutes.
I have been looking for reasons to pick the underdog Broncos, but I don't think this team is as good as the Ravens whom I picked to beat Denver two years ago in New York. That Denver team was the league's best offensive unit; two years later they are the league's best D. Turnarounds like that are unusual. But each time I look at the Panthers I think their stat line is for real. You can argue they won't win the turnover battle as they did so massively in their playoffs. You can argue Von Miller and company, who got to Brady so easily, will do the same to Cam. You can argue Demariyus Thomas has to stop dropping catchable balls some time. But so does Ted Ginn. Cam doesn't go down like Brady. And if Thomas Davis can play effectively with a newly-broken arm, I think Denver will have their work cut out for them.
BEST BET: OVER 43.5 AT 1.83 We are expecting this will be a tight defensive game, and the Broncos under Peyton have trouble passing the 20 point margin. But I'm looking for a defensive score, or at least a short field to set up a score, and that may create more points, and I'm looking at the Panthers to manage something like 24-27. So if you have faith in Peyton this may be the way to go.
VALUE BET: PANTHERS OVER 24.5 AT 1.98 This follows on from the above analysis; I think Carolina cross that 24 threshold. If you don't like that, last week I picked Owen Daniels to score and suggested he could score first. I still like OWEN DANIELS TO SCORE AT 3.10
OUTSIDE BET: DENVER TO WIN AT 3.00. Like I said, I tried to convince myself the Broncos can win, but I'm sure there are some of you out there who think they will, and if that's the case getting 2/1 on them is pretty rare for any team in a Super Bowl. They wouldn't be in the game if they weren't quality, and the odds make this one very attractive.
SUPER BOWL SPECIALS: The Prop Bets on the Super Bowl are always fun. I know nothing about Coldplay except I find their music anodyne AOR, which makes them perfect for a Super Bowl halftime show! But I'm told by those who do know that PARADISE TO BE COLDPLAY'S FIRST SONG AT 9.00 is a good bet. I also like the NATIONAL ANTHEM OVER 133 SECONDS AT 1.85. I'm not sure Lady Gaga can stay serious that long, but I think she'll want to milk her facetime. For an outside bet, how about boring old school YELLOW GATORADE TO BE DUMPED OVER THE WINNING COACH AT 7.00. Iron Mike is nothing if not old school.