Perfect game plans and stellar coaching only matter if the players on the field execute. After all, the fate of Super Bowl 50 truly depends on it.
Everyone who steps across the white lines is important, but a few Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos will matter most to the outcome.
A strong performance from these players will give their team a better chance to hoist the Lombardi Trophy when the clock hits zero.
8. Ted Ginn Jr., WR, Carolina Panthers
If Ted Ginn Jr. manages to avoid a nauseating drop, the speedster might give the Panthers their most critical offensive gain.
During his last four appearances of the regular season, he scored six touchdowns. Ginn’s 16.8 yards per reception ranked fifth among NFL receivers with at least 40 catches. The Ohio State product also juked his way to an impressive 22-yard score on a reverse against the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship.
But Ginn’s involvement is not limited to offense. Carolina is excellent at forcing opposing offenses into punting situations. Normally, a fan base breathes a sigh of relief, “Ahh, we’re getting the ball back.” Not so with the Panthers. They’re praying Ginn, quite literally, won’t drop the ball.
He has big-play potential, but Ginn might stone-hands a perfect pass or lose a costly turnover.
7. Peyton Manning, QB, Denver Broncos
Denver’s offensive scheme is intended to lessen the pressure on Peyton Manning. Regardless, he’s thrown 69 passes during two playoff appearances, which is not a small amount of attempts.
Fortunately for the Broncos, ol’ noodle arm has avoided an interception so far. Manning even tossed a couple touchdowns to help earn the AFC Championship victory over the New England Patriots.
But the Carolina defense is ruthless. It picked off Carson Palmer four times and Russell Wilson twice to waltz into the Super Bowl. Although Manning seems destined for a turnover or two, the key is avoiding a red-zone interception and not giving up favorable field position.
The future Hall of Famer needs to be a game manager, otherwise known as Alex Smith. If Manning protects the football and leads two touchdown drives, Denver will have an excellent chance to win.
6. Michael Oher, LT, Carolina Panthers
Many non-football fans know Michael Oher’s story thanks to Academy Award-nominated film “The Blind Side.” But his NFL career is moving toward a major award, too.
Oher spent five marginally successful seasons with the Baltimore Ravens but never developed into the left or right tackle his first-round billing would suggest. Though he did win a Super Bowl with Baltimore, the team didn’t re-sign him the next year.
The Ole Miss graduate caught on with the Tennessee Titans in 2014. However, poor play and an injury led to Oher being cut last offseason. He’s been a solid blocker for the Panthers this season, but Oher must be prepared for the dynamic duo of Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware.
During the regular season, Denver led the NFL in sacks. Oher allowed a career-low four this year. Something has to give when Oher protects Cam Newton — yes, his blind side.
5. Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina Panthers
Thomas Davis — in another eye-popping display of why he’s playing football and we’re not — will appear in Super Bowl 50 after having a five-inch plate and 10 screws inserted into his broken right forearm.
Will it hamper Davis? Perhaps. Luke Kuechly is already a major piece of the Carolina defense, but if Davis is limited in any fashion, Kuechly will need to pick up the slack. The All-Pro linebacker has a pick-six in both playoff games this year as well as 19 total stops.
Denver will likely try to pound the ball inside because the Panthers defense is tremendous at closing gaps laterally. Kuechly must be a constant presence up the middle, even if that means shaking a blocker to force a running back into a Carolina teammate for a tackle.
Plus, Kuechly has the honor of matching Manning’s genius at the line of scrimmage. Whenever the Broncos quarterback calls an audible, Kuechly must be ready to counter.
4. Emmanuel Sanders, WR, Denver Broncos
Long third-down conversions are inevitable. The Broncos will rely on Emmanuel Sanders to consistently get open.
Demaryius Thomas won’t spend the entire game lining up outside against Josh Norman, but Denver would be wise to place Thomas there on third down. He’s struggled this season anyway, so essentially sacrificing the wideout at the expense of keeping Norman out of the play is a net win.
Additionally, that should leave Sanders with a favorable matchup in the slot, likely opposite Cortland Finnegan. A strong majority of non-Panthers fans will take Sanders in that battle every time.
Manning must be aware of a safety providing help for Finnegan, but Sanders’ route-running ability is a major weapon even against double coverage.
3. Greg Olsen, TE, Carolina Panthers
The Panthers have heard the criticisms of a no-star group of wide receivers, but the offense doesn’t lack an elite target. Greg Olsen paced Carolina with 77 catches and 1,104 yards, adding seven scores in the regular season.
He’s been a reliable weapon during the playoffs, too, reeling in 12 of 14 targets for 190 yards and a touchdown. Olsen is a prolific late-down and red-zone threat.
Denver surrendered a measly seven touchdowns to wide receivers in 2015. Tight ends — who typically don’t play a significant role compared to wideout — on the other hand, notched eight scores.
When the Panthers inch closer toward the end zone, don’t be surprised when the Broncos start focusing on Olsen. They’ve seen the tape. They know where Newton looks to throw.
2. Von Miller, OLB, Denver Broncos
Miller is an outstanding pass-rusher. That’s a generally known fact. But what isn’t always discussed on a national level is his outrageous burst.
Sometimes, as the All-Pro linebacker showed against the Patriots, Miller has taken a complete step before an offensive lineman has even flinched. Good luck, Oher and Mike Remmers.
In the AFC Championship, Miller finished with 2.5 sacks and an interception. Tom Brady is legitimately evasive as a pocket passer, so that was an impressive feat. He’s clearly not mobile like Newton, though, so Miller will be mindful on containing scrambling lanes on Sunday.
Miller forced four fumbles during the regular season, and that strip-sack prowess may be valuable if he gets a run at Newton.
1. Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers
Behind only Manning, Newton is the biggest name in Super Bowl 50. He’s No. 1 on this list for a bigger reason than that.
The Panthers are 17-1 this season, boasting three total victories over the Seattle Seahawks and Cardinals. Still, looking objectively at the wins, Newton really only dominated Arizona. Like Manning, Newton has received plenty of help from a spectacular defense.
Could he post a similar day against Denver? Sure. No one should be doubting Carolina’s merit, and we’re not starting right now. Nevertheless, the Broncos are the most difficult task Newton will have faced this season.
Will Newton ace the test? If the defense doesn’t shred Manning like it did Wilson and Palmer, can Newton carry the Panthers past a stout Denver team without that boost? Similarly, could Manning do the same?
We have questions. Newton has the answers.