The list of things the Patriots could have done differently against the Broncos in the AFC Championship game has been picked over and analyzed again and again since the final second ticked off the clock in the Mile High city.
Patriots fans can’t Marty McFly back in time to try to prevent Stephen Gostkowski’s missed extra point or convince Bill Belichick to kick a field goal on either of the fourth down attempts in the second half.
But they can certainly chew on the idea of what might have been if it was their team facing the NFC Champion Panthers in Super Bowl 50.
So, here is a look at what a Patriots-Panthers Super Bowl might have been like:
New England and Carolina shared eight common opponents — the AFC South and the NFC East. Combined, they went 15-1 against those teams, with the Patriots’ loss to the Eagles accounting for the only blemish in the loss column. They rolled up a combined 499 points and allowed 286, a 13.3-point margin of victory.
Although both teams essentially cruised against their common opponents (except the Patriots against the Eagles), the New York Giants gave the Patriots and Panthers trouble. New England escaped the Meadowlands with a 1-point win and Carolina held off a late New York comeback for a 3-point win.
The Patriots engaged the Giants in a back-and-forth battle that featured five lead changes, including Stephen Gostkowski’s 54-yard field goal in the waning seconds. The Panthers jumped out to 21-7 halftime lead, but left the door open for the Giants in the second half, much like Carolina did in the divisional round against Seattle. Graham Gano hit a 43-yard field goal for the win as time expired.
In each contest, the Giants sacked the quarterback three times and hit him five.
Tale of the tape
How do the teams compare on the stat sheet? Here’s a look at some of the more interesting categories (stats are for regular-season only):
■ Total offense: Patriots 6th (374.4 yards per game), Panthers 11th (366.9)
■ Total defense: Panthers 6th (322.9 yards allowed per game), Patriots 9th (339.4)
■ Scoring: Panthers 1st (31.2 points per game), Patriots 3rd (29.1)
■ Points allowed: Panthers 6th (19.2 points per game), Patriots 10th (19.7)
■ Turnover differential: Panthers 1st (+20), Patriots 7th (+7)
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton would present a new preparation challenge for New England, whose defense features versatile athletes who could adequately spy him when necessary and tackle him in the open field. But the Patriots faced only one true dual-threat quarterback this season: Buffalo’s Tyrod Taylor, who was the third-highest rusher among quarterbacks.
Yes, Ben Roethlisberger is difficult to bring down because of his escape ability and size (6-5, 240). But he certainly is not the running threat Newton is with just 29 rushing yards this season.
Yes, Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles can run and has Newton’s size, but Bortles was in his second season with a Jaguars team still trying to climb out of the league cellar.
To put it simply, none of the quarterbacks New England faced this season can do what Newton does. The only comparable talent is Russell Wilson, whom the Patriots beat in Super Bowl XLIX, and he is one of the smaller quarterbacks in the NFL.
The Patriots were able to contain Taylor in their second matchup with the Bills, limiting him to 1 yard on four carries after he had 43 yards on five carries in the first contest. But Taylor lacks many of the qualities that have helped Newton flourish into the soon-to-be-MVP.
Conversely, the Panthers faced three pure pocket passers of Tom Brady’s caliber: Drew Brees, Carson Palmer, and Eli Manning. Carolina also faced Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, and Andrew Luck. Though those three are also among the league’s top quarterbacks, they are more fleet-footed than the Brady-esque prototype.
The Carolina defense, which finished the regular season fifth in Football Outsider’s DVOA rankings, held those five of those quarterbacks to lower completion percentages and passer ratings than their season totals, sometimes even significantly lower. (Manning was the lone exception.)
|Comp % vs. CAR
|Season comp %
|Rating vs. CAR
About a third of the Panthers’ interceptions in 18 games came against this group of quarterbacks, who combined for 18 touchdown passes, 12 picks, and seven losses against Carolina.
Brady faced five teams ranked in the DVOA top 10 seven times. Against those teams — the Steelers, Jets, Texans, Chiefs, and Broncos — Brady’s numbers fell slightly, but nowhere near as much as five of those six quarterbacks who faced the Panthers.
Against those five defenses, Brady threw 15 touchdowns, was picked off just three times, and had a 5-2 record, with the two losses coming against Denver.
Brady’s numbers suggest that with a healthy stable of skill players hitting their groove entering Super Bowl 50, the postseason’s most prolific passer could chip away at Carolina’s defense.
Last time out
These two teams did in fact meet in the preseason. Cornerback Robert McClain, picked up by the Panthers in December, was in a Patriots uniform. Brady played only the first half, Newton played through the first series of the third quarter, and New England eked out a 17-16 road victory.
Yes, preseason games hold little meaning and exist to evaluate players while padding the bottom line with a couple extra home games for each team. And though it may seem inconsequential to draw any concrete conclusions from an exhibition game, we have already entered into this hypothetical exercise. So here are two takeaways from when the starters were on the field during that game that could be telling if these teams were actually meeting in Super Bowl 50:
New England forced Carolina to settle for two first-half field goals in the red zone. The Panthers’ first field goal came after an incomplete pass on third-and-goal from the 2. Likely deterred from a failed fourth-down attempt on their first possession — a Jonathan Stewart rush that was stopped for no gain by Jamie Collins and Jerod Mayo — Carolina opted for three points.
Their second was after two straight incompletions from the Patriots’ 12-yard line. For the game, Carolina scored a touchdown on just one of four trips to the red zone against. Its regular-season rate was 72.9 percent.
Brady threw interceptions on back-to-back possessions, both over the middle, in the first quarter. (One to Charles Tillman, one to Kurt Coleman.) Of Brady’s last 22 interceptions — regular season and postseason since the start of the 2014 season — eight were over the middle. (Half were to the left, three were to the right.) Fifteen of the Panthers’ 30 total interceptions this season were over the middle.
What do you think?
Follow Rachel G. Bowers on Twitter @RachelGBowers.