It’s as if the game already has been played. As if the Carolina Panthers won the Super Bowl. When, in fact, the Denver Broncos will win it. Win it ugly, the way underdogs usually do. Win it by keeping the Panthers from winning it, with defense, with ball control, with the sort of breaks teams like Denver inevitably get in games like this, and thus are described as lucky rather than good.
But in football, luck is not so much bestowed as created.
The Panthers are a great team. To go 17-1, including two wins in the post-season, a team must be great. Yet the Panthers are not perfect. They were beaten by the semi-mediocre Atlanta Falcons. The explanations in the wake of the surprise were the normal ones, the cliché ones: Nobody wins them all, and the Panthers were overlooking the Falcons. OK. So?
You know the lines from old Jim Croce song, “You don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind …” That brings up the NFL’s newest Superman, the unbelievable, unprecedented, almost-unbeaten Cam Newton, the quarterback of the 21st century, if not all time. He’s going to be the NFL’s MVP. He — we’re told — is going to be the difference in Super Bowl 50.
“I’ve never seen anyone like him,” said Wade Phillips, Denver’s defensive coordinator, who’s played and coached football even longer than they’ve been holding Super Bowls. “He makes plays like nobody else. You give me nightmares talking about him.”
Nightmares are fantasy. The NFL is reality. You overcome Newton and the Panthers offense by controlling the ball, when you’re on offense — runs of six, seven eight yards by C.J. Anderson, passes of 10 or 12 yards from Peyton Manning to Demaryius Thomas. And by controlling the line of scrimmage, quite possibly with the league’s No. 1-ranked defense.
“We have a special coordinator,” said Aqib Talib, the Denver cornerback, “and we play at a special level.” Asked the key to beating Carolina, Talib, without hesitation, said, “Stopping the run.”
As it invariably is. If teams are able to run, they’re also able to run time off the clock. If teams are able to run, they’re frequently able to pass. Isn’t that what the Broncos did against New England in the AFC Championship? Manning, aching and aged, threw only now and then, but two completions went for touchdowns.
Maybe it’s only perception, but Newton didn’t seem to be enjoying the obligatory run-up to the Super Bowl, the media sessions. That’s why it’s the Super Bowl, because there are 2,000 reporters not the usual 20 or 30 the Panthers have in Charlotte, and seemingly two million questions, all the same. A pain, an irritation, but they come with the territory.
Sit back and suffer. Or enjoy. You’ve reached the goal you’ve chased, and understand that along with the glory comes the hassle. Newton came to California in tiger-striped pants. Then the tiger apparently turned into a grouch. Was he really unnerved? Or unhappy because he didn’t have Oikos yogurt?
The Broncos have to rush Newton in obvious passing situations, not let him get outside or dash up the middle and race for first downs or touchdowns. Phillips likes to blitz. Von Miller — nearly as dominant on defense as Newton is on offense; he was drafted No. 2 overall behind Newton in 2011 — and DeMarcus Ware will need fill the gaps. That’s what Atlanta did in the upset victory.
“We’ve got to rush Newton,” agreed Talib. “The coverage and rush have to work together so hopefully he doesn’t have that much time. Yeah, we’re going to bring pressure. Everybody in the league knows that.”
Especially Mike Shula, the Panthers’ offensive coordinator. While he has unique weapon in Newton, he also has a unique problem with the Broncos.
“They’re so fast, and I think the best way you can talk about how well they’re coached, and what a good job Wade does is when you see them diagnose so quickly,” Shula said. “They get to the ball so fast even on the missed direction stuff.”
Wade Phillips, Von Miller, Aqib Talib against Superman, Newton. Three to one is always a good way to go. Or to stop the other team.