As if the golden-anniversary Super Bowl doesn’t have enough of it already, there will no shortage of significance for the one played at Levi’s Stadium today.
Either Denver Broncos quarterback Payton Manning will claim his elusive second Super Bowl victory in what may be the final game of his Hall of Fame career. Or more likely, if the 5.5-point spread is accurate, the Carolina Panthers will become recognized as one of the greatest teams in pro football history.
The Panthers are in position to join the 1984 49ers and 1985 Chicago Bears as the only NFL teams to win 15 regular-season games and the Super Bowl in the same season. They also would be the most unlikely one.
Carolina coach Ron Rivera understands what’s at stake more than anyone else. The one-time Cal linebacker played against the ’84 49ers and for the ’85 Bears in consecutive seasons.
“When you go back and look at those teams, it’d be very unfair to compare because they’re different eras, different styles of football, different types of football players,” Rivera said. “For the most part, we want to make our own mark. If we can, if we get that opportunity, we’d most certainly love to [make history]. Now what’s important is that we established who we are.”
It has taken a while for the rest of the country to know the Panthers — let alone accept them for what they’ve become. That is, a rare team that dominates on both sides of the ball.
The ’84 Niners boasted Hall of Fame-bound Ronnie Lott, Joe Montana and coach Bill Walsh, hallowed names that are recognized in football circles decades later. Ditto the ’85 Bears of coach Mike Ditka and Walter Payton, among others.
With the obvious exception of quarterback Cam Newton, the small-market Panthers are a comparatively nondescript group that had been under the radar nationally for much of the season. On the heels of an 8-7-1 season, they were widely expected to finish in the middle of the pack again.
But Newton and his supporting cast wasted no time defying doubters. They began the season with 14 consecutive victories before a loss against the Atlanta Falcons on the road. By then, the majority of critics had become convinced of their Super Bowl potential. “It means the world for us, and when I say ‘us,’ I mean everybody that has tagged along with this organization for so many years,” Newton said of the challenge at hand. “We’ve been in this moment before, but as an organization, we have yet to win the Super Bowl. If we won it, it would mean a lot to so many people.” The numbers suggest that the Panthers are as good as their 17-1 record to date, something of a combination of the Montana-led Niners and the Ditka-inspired Bears. They rank first in points scored, third in rushing and eighth in total offense. On defense, they’re among the top 10 against the run and pass and third overall.
In Newton, the NFC champions have the league’s Most Valuable Player and most visible mover and shaker, the ultimate dual threat who passed for 35 touchdowns and ran for 580 yards and 10 scores in the regular season. Nine other teammates were Pro Bowl selections, a testament to their unusual depth: center Ryan Kalil, tight end Greg Olsen, running back Jonathan Stewart, fullback Mike Tolbert, guard Trai Turner, linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, cornerback Josh Norman and defensive tackle Kawann Short.
Now the Panthers have a date with destiny, and Rivera doesn’t have to be told that it may never come this way again.
The brash, immensely talented ’85 Bears were supposed to become a dynasty, a once-in-a-lifetime group that had multiple Super Bowls in its future. It never happened. Instead, they got drunk on success, a fact Ditka would reluctantly admit years later, soon to become known as one of the greatest underachievers in league history.
“You only get so many chances,” Rivera said. “When I played, [the Bears] were the youngest team to win a Super Bowl and a lot of people thought, ‘They’ll get a chance to come back.’ Well, we never made it back. I’m trying to make sure our guys understand that this could be a once-in-a-lifetime chance and we have to take advantage of that now.”
In a few hours, we’ll know whether the ’15 Panthers are among the all-time greats or merely another would-be champion.