Whichever team wins the NFL championship is headed to Disney World, but only one player can take the Super Bowl 50 MVP trophy along for the ride.
The showdown between the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos isn’t exactly a star-studded matchup to the casual fan, so name power basically only applies to the quarterbacks on both sides.
Be sure to watch for these players regardless because with or without the MVP, they’ll be significant factors in the outcome.
6. C.J. Anderson, RB, Denver Broncos
Although running on the Panthers is not easily accomplished, the Broncos won’t shy away from the ground attack.
C.J. Anderson has recently been the productive back, tallying 72 yards in both the Divisional Round and AFC Championship and adding five catches for 29 yards. Ronnie Hillman has mustered just 54 yards on 27 carries and a single reception.
Denver likely will continue using both runners, but Anderson should have a larger role given his recent contributions. Plus, in Carolina’s last five games, it surrendered at least seven catches to four different backs.
Anderson will enter the MVP picture with a couple explosive runs, a handful of decent pickups as a receiver and a touchdown or two in the box score.
5. Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina Panthers
Von Miller is an intriguing choice for the Denver defense, but he’ll need multiple sacks and a takeaway to have an argument. Plus, no every-down rusher has earned the hardware since Richard Dent in 1986.
Luke Kuechly has a slightly more favorable historical outlook, since Malcolm Smith won MVP in 2014 for the Seattle Seahawks after recording nine tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery. The Panthers middle linebacker is also on a tremendous streak.
In two playoff appearances, Kuechly has registered 19 total tackles and returned two interceptions for touchdowns. Another outing with near-double-digit stops and a pick would put Kuechly in the chase.
Considering Manning has tossed 17 interceptions in 12 games this season, the Panthers should have a chance on a few passes. Kuechly’s recent play would give a nice boost if one of those errant throws falls into his hands.
4. Greg Olsen, TE, Carolina Panthers
When in doubt, find Greg Olsen. That might be Carolina’s most important strategy on Sunday when Broncos cornerbacks Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib defend an unheralded group of wideouts.
Olsen has recorded six catches in each postseason outing so far, beating Seattle for 77 yards and a score then shredding the Arizona Cardinals for 113 yards.
The veteran tight end also carried the Panthers with 77 receptions and 1,104 yards during the regular season. Olsen has served as the consistent pass-catching presence for Cam Newton.
Additionally, the Denver secondary has only allowed seven touchdowns to opposing receivers all year, while tight ends have managed eight. Considering the per-play ratio is usually three wideouts to one tight end, that’s a massive discrepancy. Not only can Olsen capitalize on that, the Panthers need him to.
3. Emmanuel Sanders, WR, Denver Broncos
Demaryius Thomas spends enough time in the slot that he won’t receive the whole “Josh Norman treatment,” but Emmanuel Sanders is Denver’s game-breaking receiver.
Sanders grabbed a team-best five passes for 62 yards against the New England Patriots, which followed by a Broncos-high five receptions for 85 yards vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers. Thomas, on the other hand, has just six catches and 52 yards during the postseason.
Now, Owen Daniels was Peyton Manning’s top red-zone option in the AFC Championship. Dynamic inside receivers have given the Panthers some problems, though, and Sanders can take advantage of any slot matchup on Sunday — especially inside the Carolina 20.
Sanders is in a precarious MVP possibility position. He needs to dominate the receiving numbers and score a touchdown, but that catch can’t be a game-winner. Otherwise, a certain quarterback will claim the award.
2. Peyton Manning, QB, Denver Broncos
Eleven of the last 17 Super Bowl MVPs were quarterbacks. Right or wrong, the position usually garners the most praise for a team’s win or criticism for a loss. In Manning’s case, the predictable headlines will read he either led Denver to a championship or choked on the big stage once again.
Let’s be clear: No matter what the click-baiters may suggest, a loss in Super Bowl 50 will not tarnish Manning’s legacy. Conversely, a win strengthens the notion he’s the second-best gunslinger of his era, but behind Tom Brady at No. 1, the ranking is subjective anyway.
Manning, to be perfectly honest, probably won’t have a convincing argument for MVP. He no longer puts up gaudy numbers that fill the box score.
But if the Broncos win while Manning throws a couple touchdowns and avoids a hideous turnover, the future Hall of Famer could end his playing days with a lifetime achievement award. And we wouldn’t be mad about it.
1. Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers
Newton had a solid performance in the win over Seattle. He picked apart and steamrolled the vaunted Arizona defense. Now, the NFL’s best dual-threat quarterback must overcome the league’s top defense.
Should the Panthers lift the Lombardi Trophy — particularly if the defense and special teams don’t score touchdowns — Newton will have earned every shred of this honor.
The Broncos haven’t faced tremendously mobile quarterbacks for most of the 2015 campaign, but the three most capable running options (Alex Smith, Aaron Rodgers and Andrew Luck) combined to tally 113 yards on 17 attempts over a four-game sample.
If Newton guides Carolina past a tremendous secondary, regularly slides by pressure from a pesky defensive line and notches a few touchdowns, the quarterback will dab his way to a Super Bowl MVP award.