Testing, testing: The Broncos might be the league's tight-game champs this season. Going into the AFC Championship Game, the Broncos were 10-3 in games decided by seven or fewer points -- including their AFC divisional-round win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. While it means the Broncos didn't always finish teams off the way you would expect a Super Bowl team to, it also means when the chips are in the middle of the table they have usually found a way to win. Denver is a tough team that is used to making plays when the game is on the line. The Broncos have the league's No. 1 defense and two wins over Tom Brady since Nov. 29. The Panthers played four games in the regular season against teams that were in the playoff field -- and were 4-0 -- but only one of those games was after Nov. 8. And while the Panthers' offensive muscle certainly contributed, the other three teams in the NFC South finished 14th (Atlanta), 26th (Tampa Bay) and 32nd (New Orleans) in scoring defense this season.
Capital D in Denver: The Broncos tried to succeed by dominating at the other end of the spectrum. In the 2013 season, they sprinted into the Super Bowl with the highest-scoring offense in league history -- a record 606 points -- and proceeded to get blown out by 35 points by the Seattle Seahawks. They took that painful lesson and reworked the roster and coaching staff to get back. The Broncos finished No. 1 in total defense, No. 1 in pass defense and No. 1 in sacks, while a long list of the team's defenders consistently made the plays to decide games in the biggest moments. The Broncos scored five defensive touchdowns, won tough games on the road, battled back in home games and are an all-weather group that consistently made life difficult for some of the league's most accomplished offenses.
Last rodeo: Every player wants to win a Super Bowl, there are no exceptions. But rare, accomplished players are respected by their teammates and the quest of those players can provide added motivation. The Broncos have two such players in quarterback Peyton Manning and linebacker DeMarcus Ware. Manning, 39, missed seven starts because of a left foot injury, and even some Broncos players privately believe this could be it for the future Hall of Famer. If it is his last season, they would all like to send Manning off with another ring. Ware played in his first conference championship game in 10 seasons Sunday. The two are important, respected voices in the locker room and the desire their teammates have to help them win a ring is very real.
Experience matters: Cam Newton is the kind of multidimensional player who can take over a game at any time. And the Panthers have seemingly found the sweet spot in terms of what he can do best as Newton has grown into the role of franchise quarterback. The Panthers have enough star power to get it done on the big stage. However, playing in the frenetic swirl that is Super Bowl week has taken down plenty of the uninitiated, especially first-timers at quarterback. The Broncos were in the big game only two seasons ago and have won five consecutive division titles. They've played a difficult schedule -- five wins over playoff teams in the regular season -- and they beat the Patriots twice. They are built to survive the Super Bowl hype.
Room to work: The Panthers led the league in the regular season in interceptions (24) and turnover margin (plus-24). But when they faced the more accomplished passers on their schedule, those quarterbacks were able to move the ball against the defense. Aaron Rodgers threw for 369 and four touchdowns, Drew Brees threw for 282 and three touchdowns, Eli Manning threw for four touchdowns and Matt Ryan threw for 306 yards in Week 16. That's to go with Russell Wilson's 366 yards and three touchdowns (the Panthers did intercept him twice) in the NFC divisional round. Though Peyton Manning was leading the league in interceptions at the time when he was benched against the Kansas City Chiefs, he has been far more judicious with the ball in his return after seven missed starts. He has shown a little better arm strength since the foot injury has begun to heal. And the Broncos have the kind of catch-and-run receivers in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders to create big plays out of play-action. As much as the Broncos like a two-tight end set when they want to protect Manning, they probably will spread the Panthers' defense out with a three-wide look to see if they can find some of the same kind of room the other quarterbacks did.