The New England Patriots are left thinking over dozens of what-if scenarios after their season-ending loss to the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship Game.
What if kicker Stephen Gostkowski hadn’t missed the point-after-touchdown attempt on the Patriots’ first score of the game? What if the Patriots had any semblance of a running attack against the Broncos? What if they hadn’t lost left tackle Nate Solder and running back Dion Lewis for the season long before arriving in Denver, or hadn’t been without wide receiver Julian Edelman for the final seven games of the regular season? What if they’d just beaten the Philadelphia Eagles at home in Week 13? Or the Miami Dolphins in Florida in Week 17?
All of those what-if questions lead to two more:
What if the Patriots had beaten the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game?
What if the Patriots were facing the Panthers in Super Bowl 50?
Those questions lead to yet another:
How would the Patriots have matched up against the NFC champion Panthers?
In such a what-if Super Bowl matchup against the Panthers, the Patriots would have faced different challenges than those posed by the Broncos — and a higher degree of difficulty.
In truth, not much has changed about the Panthers since the last time the Patriots faced them in November 2013. The Panthers defeated the Patriots, 24-20, in that meeting. Since then, the Panthers’ coaching staff hasn’t changed: Ron Rivera remains the head coach, Mike Shula is still the offensive coordinator, and Sean McDermott still coaches the defense. On both sides of the ball, their schemes are still largely the same.
Led by NFL MVP front-runner Cam Newton, the Panthers’ offense scored more points than any other in the league this season. They scored 35 points or more in seven of their 16 regular-season games. Newton scored more touchdowns, 45 (35 passing, 10 rushing), than any other player in the NFL, even while operating with a shortage of high-end weapons. After a preseason knee injury ruled out Kelvin Benjamin for the year, Newton has been throwing to a group of wide receivers that included Ted Ginn (44 catches), Jerricho Cotchery (39 catches), Corey Brown, and Devin Funchess (31 catches each). Tight end Greg Olsen led the team with 77 receptions. Jonathan Stewart, Mike Tolbert, Cameron Artis-Payne, and Fozzy Whittaker all combined for 374 carries, 1,536 yards (4.1 yards per carry) and nine touchdowns.
For the Patriots, matching up in the secondary would have been more about mixing up coverages than isolating certain receivers. Since the Panthers don’t have any wide-outs who stand out, the Patriots would most likely have deployed double coverage on Olsen nearly every snap. Linebacker Jamie Collins and safety Patrick Chung would likely have been given the brunt of that burden. The Patriots would have likely used a lot of zone coverage to ensure eyes on the quarterback in the event of Newton scrambling, and also because Newton ranked fourth in the NFL in deep passing accuracy (47.9 percent of his deep passes were either caught or dropped).
The Panthers’ defense has been superb all season, not allowing more than 23 points in a single game until Week 8. Overall, they only allowed more than 23 points four times during the regular season. They ranked second in net yards per pass attempt and seventh in yards per rush attempt. They led the league in turnovers (39), and ranked eighth in defensive red-zone percentage (55 percent touchdowns allowed).
The Patriots might not have struggled with the Panthers’ defensive ends quite like they struggled with Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware against the Broncos, but the Panthers’ interior combination of Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short at defensive tackle would still eat the Patriots’ guards for lunch. It’s hard to imagine a way in which the Patriots could have stopped those two from taking over the game. Against the Panthers, the Patriots might have become the first team in Super Bowl history to finish with a rushing total of less than zero yards.
For teams facing the Patriots, the main question is always how to slow down tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receiver Julian Edelman. The Patriots would probably move both men around against the Panthers to try to create different, favorable matchups. Against the Panthers, Edelman would probably have seen a lot of All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman and Gronkowski a lot of linebacker Luke Kuechly and safety Kurt Coleman.
But the more pivotal matchup would have been Patriots slot receiver Danny Amendola against Panthers cornerback Bené Benwikere. In last year’s Super Bowl, the Seahawks attempted to take away Gronkowski and Edelman, so the Patriots had to involve Amendola and running back Shane Vereen in the passing game as well. With Vereen gone and no receiving back of his equal active in the playoffs, Amendola would likely need a huge game for the Patriots to have prevailed over the Panthers.
Given what we saw from the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, it’s clear the problems on this team are more than skin deep. There’s a good chance that, if the Patriots had made it to Super Bowl 50, they might have suffered an even more devastating loss to the Panthers than the one they suffered to the Broncos.
At least then, the Patriots would have lost to the best team in the NFL.
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