Super Bowl 50: The basics

As the countdown continues toward Super Bowl 50, and fans of the Denver Broncos wonder whether they should prepare for the worst or the ultimate fantasy, most unbiased observers (and gamblers) are convinced this championship game will produce another crash landing for Orange Nation.

The spread appears likely to favor Carolina by 5 to 6 points, but with more than 90 percent of wagers taking the Panthers. Admittedly, it's easier to argue for Carolina and quarterback Cam Newton whipping Denver, perhaps as thoroughly as Seattle did (43-8) two years ago. Denver's Peyton Manning no longer is capable of dominating a Super Bowl, or any game for that matter. Carolina's defense just dismantled Arizona and shackled its not-so-mobile quarterback, Carson Palmer.

But when others have asked for an opinion over the past week, based on my experience of covering 12 Super Bowls in person and watching the other 37 on TV, my answer has been this: I've seen more defenses win Super Bowls than offenses. No matter what the score.

I've also seen juggernauts freeze on the big stage, with these among the multiple examples: Dallas against Baltimore in 1971, Miami against San Francisco in 1985, St. Louis against New England in 2002, New England against the New York Giants in 2008 and 2012, and of course the Broncos two years ago.

If Denver defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has a strategy as shrewd as his plan against the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, the Broncos are able to force Newton into some big mistakes and Manning can be crisp and effective, Denver can win a lower-scoring game. It might take a defensive or special-teams touchdown, but why not?

So, what basic information does the once-a-year fan need to know for conversations leading into Super Bowl 50? Here's some fodder to make you look smart:

• This is Denver's eighth Super Bowl, tying the most of any franchise (with Pittsburgh, Dallas and New England), and only the second time for Carolina. It will be Manning's fourth Super Bowl (he's 1-2, including a win and a loss with Indianapolis), trailing only New England's Tom Brady (six) and Denver's John Elway (five) among quarterbacks.

• The younger starting quarterbacks have won 12 of the past 14 Super Bowls, which would favor Newton. The two exceptions: Manning vs. Chicago's Rex Grossman in 2007, and Baltimore's Joe Flacco vs. San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick (then considered a diamond in the rough) in 2013.

• Several star quarterbacks lost their first Super Bowl appearance, including Bob Griese of Miami (1972), Dan Marino of Miami (1985), Elway (1987), Jim Kelly of Buffalo (1991), Steve McNair of Tennessee (2000) and Donovan McNabb of Philadelphia (2005).

• Historical factors in Denver's favor: In the past 20 Super Bowls, favorites have won only five times. And the last five highly rated defenses to reach the Super Bowl have gone 5-0.

• Here's a case for Manning as sentimental favorite: He has 199 career victories, tied for No. 1 all-time in the NFL with Brett Favre. With one more win, Manning would have that record all to himself (and he'd likely retire).

• Some Heisman Trophy-related trivia questions: Who was the last Heisman-winning quarterback to play in the Super Bowl? Jim Plunkett of Oakland (and Stanford) in 1984, more than five years before Cam Newton was born in May 1989. Plunkett and Dallas' Roger Staubach (Navy) are the only Heisman quarterbacks to start Super Bowls, so Newton will be the third.

• More than 114 million people watched last year's Super Bowl, when New England defeated Seattle (28-24). That's why each 30-second TV ad costs a reported $5 million. CBS is televising this Super Bowl, with Jim Nantz doing play-by-play and Phil Simms the analysis. Denver fans have hated Simms since he led the Giants to victory over Denver and Elway in Super Bowl XXI (1987). This is the fourth title game for Nantz and Simms; the first was Manning and the Colts winning in 2007.

• What happened to the Roman numerals? This year the NFL made the change to go with standard numbers, so it's Super Bowl 50, not Super Bowl L.

• Need a prediction? If you pick with your head, go with Carolina by something like 34-13. If you go with your heart, as I'm doing, take Denver by 24-20.