CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Denver Broncos have seen this scouting report before, and the familiarity has to be troubling.
When Broncos coaches roll film of the Carolina Panthers stomping the Arizona Cardinals, they'll see a defense that can pressure from all angles. One that comes off the edges like cannon fire, or employs brute force to pierce the belly of an offensive line. They'll note linebackers and cornerbacks who flip turnovers into instant points, and wide receivers whose middling reputations contradict their ability to wreck secondaries. They'll see a cornerback who wants to be challenged, but rarely is. And at the center of it all, they'll find a quarterback with mobility, an arm, and a sense of manifest destiny.
It should have a familiar, Seattle Seahawks-ish ring to it, circa February of 2014. Carolina looks ready to ascend to that moment. It looks ready to dominate consistently.
Much like the team that destroyed quarterback Peyton Manning and the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII, the Panthers enter this matchup with a frenzied defensive intensity that can turn the best quarterbacks inside out. Not to mention a seemingly unshakable quarterback who has yet to see a blitz package he can't manhandle or dismantle.
No two teams are ever the same. But it would be a mistake to look at the Panthers and not see some of the hallmarks of a Seattle team that hit its peak two years ago against Manning and the Broncos. Particularly after Carolina dispatched two elite quarterbacks who could have garnered MVP votes this season. Sunday it was Carson Palmer, who had one of the worst games of his career, en route to six crushing turnovers. A week earlier, it was the Seahawks' Russell Wilson, who face-planted into a 31-0 first-half hole that ultimately scuttled Seattle's chance to streak to another Super Bowl appearance.
Even one of the architects of that Seahawks team – the one that drummed Manning and Denver 43-8 in the Super Bowl – limped away from Carolina impressed.
"I don't even know who we were in that first half," a Seahawks personnel man said last week, rehashing the team's playoff loss to Carolina. "It was unbelievable what [the Panthers] did."
For a brutal half, what Seattle found was a team that shut down Wilson's passing options, frustrated him with pressures, confused the offensive line, contained Wilson on the edges and blunted the running game for 30 minutes. After falling into a 7-0 hole, Wilson uncharacteristically threw a pick-six to linebacker Luke Kuechly, and the first half rout was on.
"We beat a great team last week," wideout Jerricho Cotchery said. "We truly beat a great team and people were able to see … they were championship guys."
While the Panthers took their foot off the gas in the second half (and Seattle made necessary adjustments), that 30 minutes – and 60 more against the Cardinals – represent who these Panthers believe they are. Their chief commodity is pressure, and it comes in two forms. First is a defense that gets sacks (sixth in the NFL this season), forces errors (first in interceptions) and shuts down the running game (fourth in the NFL) when teams adjust to save their sinking quarterback. Second is quarterback Cam Newton, who has elevated his game to the point of alternating between his less-than-celebrated offensive pieces to score. Tight end Greg Olsen may be his primary read one moment. Wideout Ted Ginn the next. Take them both away and he'll manufacture something with Corey Brown or rookie Devin Funchess.
Take them all away and Newton will hand off to running back Jonathan Stewart, who has been a workmanlike grinder when needed. And if that's not enough, Newton will take it himself, punishing blitzes or pressures that forget their contain assignments, becoming a 6-foot-5, 250-pound dump truck. If necessary, he'll flatten cornerbacks on an option play (see: Arizona's Chris Clemons late in the third quarter on third-and-10), or jump over a gang of defenders for a touchdown (see: the very next play).
Taken as a whole, there are two things that play into the Panthers' favor right now: Stationary quarterbacks, and teams with overly aggressive pressures. At times, the Broncos fall into both of those holes. Granted, Peyton Manning moved better against the New England Patriots than in maybe any other game this season. And Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has proven to be a master at tweaking game plans to confuse quarterbacks. He might be one of the best in the NFL at the kind of pre-snap looks that leave quarterbacks completely misjudging what is coming.
But there is no denying that Manning is, like Palmer, a largely immobile target whose passing acumen declines with the pressure or punishment he takes. And there is no getting around Denver's aggression. That defensive front is made to put pressure on the passer and in turn, made to take calculated risks on a regular basis. The Panthers look at both of those realities and like what they see. Namely, a team whose weaknesses match their strengths, a team that isn't wildly different than the Cardinals.
"This was a great team performance – this is who we are," linebacker Thomas Davis said. "This is what we're capable of when we come out and play together as a group. We can truly dominate football games."
Only time will tell if the Panthers can dominate the Broncos. But they fit the mold of a Seattle team that did so only two years ago, and an argument can be made that that Denver team had a much better Manning at the helm – and a far better offense surrounding him. And while the Broncos' defense might be far and away the best at its craft right now, Newton's ability to adapt and overcome this season has him looking like the best quarterback in the NFL.
Asked to describe Carolina's journey to this point, Newton described it as a slow, patient process.
"It wasn't going to be, what did I say, instant grits, quick grits," he said. "It was going to be a process like long-cooked collard greens. I think those collard greens are brewing right now. You can smell it from 100 miles away."
Right now, it's not just about smelling what is coming next, but seeing it, too. And from the way these teams match up, you don't have to look 100 miles. Just look back two years, and remember what Seattle looked like when Denver was the only thing standing in its way.