SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Peyton Manning’s last game? Cam Newton’s finest moment?
For all the golden tinge the NFL is placing on Super Bowl 50, this one just might come down to how the two star quarterbacks deal with the dynamic defenses bent on humbling them.
There can’t be a better storyline than a five-time MVP likely to take his final snaps with a championship on the line. Except, perhaps, the league’s rising star carrying his franchise to its first NFL title in the face of detractors.
Throw in those defenses: Denver’s ranks first overall in many statistics and certainly in intimidation, with a pass rush capable of neutralizing any air game; Carolina’s makes game-changing plays to the tune of a league-high 39 takeaways and a plus-20 turnover margin.
Add in a pair of coaches at the peak of their NFL careers, a relatively new stadium with nearly all imaginable technology, and a half-century of America’s biggest game and the intrigue meter hits the stratosphere.
“If you have any appreciation for the game, and certainly you have watched Super Bowls, played in the Super Bowls, have a sibling that has played in the Super Bowls,” Manning says, ,”it does make it maybe even more special.”
Some attention-grabbers for Sunday’s game at Levi’s Stadium:
QUARTERBACKS: Manning has been mum on whether this will be the end of one of the most prolific and entertaining careers in sports history. He’s 39, has been plagued by injuries for much of the last five seasons, and, win or lose, has nothing left to prove.
It’s his fourth Super Bowl and, although he brings a 1-2 mark into this game, the losses don’t detract from his legacy.
“I think it is important to use all of your experience to your advantage,” Manning says. “I think you can always refer back to prior situations and two-minute drives, or a fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line. The more experience you have, you can use that to help you.”
Newton doesn’t have that background yet. But he was the NFL’s most dominant — and sometimes most polarizing — player this season. No one has more fun playing the game than the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner, 2011 top overall draft pick and 2015 All-Pro quarterback who threw for 35 touchdowns and ran for 10.
If Manning represents the old guard, Newton — with his celebrations, dabbing and just plain coolness — is the future.
Some media compared Newton to Usain Bolt.
“Really?” Newton says, entertained by the comparison. “I got the opportunity to meet Usain last year. He was a cool guy. He was like real cool, you know? Like internationally cool. I’m just locally cool, you know?”
Bolt owns a vault full of gold medals. Newton goes for the gold of Super Bowl 50.
DEFENSES: Don’t for a minute think the defenses can’t decide this matchup.
Carolina feasts on mistakes, and Denver was a minus-4 in turnover differential, including 31 giveaways. With two All-Pros at linebacker in Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, and another one with cornerback Josh Norman, the Panthers have playmakers all over. Safety Kurt Coleman tied for the NFC lead with seven interceptions and added two in the playoffs. DT Kawann Short is a disruptive force and had 11 sacks.
That unit struggled in the second half of the divisional-round win over Seattle, but it has a superior offense that scored 500 regular-season points to provide balance.
The most vivid memory of January football this year has to be Denver’s full-out assault on Tom Brady. While Newton is far more adept at avoiding the pressure than Brady is, he doesn’t have Brady’s surgical skills at dissecting a defense.
All-Pro linebacker Von Miller and studs such as LB DeMarcus Ware, CBs Chris Harris Jr., Aqib Talib and Bradley Roby — along with a deep line — will provide a formidable obstacle for Newton.
COACHES: Ron Rivera was tagged with the nickname “Riverboat Ron” years ago. He’s not truly a gambling coach, more someone who lets his players do what they do best. Sometimes that means taking chances, such as a reverse to Ted Ginn Jr. that resulted in a 22-yard TD in the NFC championship game.
Rivera has guided Carolina to three straight NFC South crowns, and couldn’t be more popular with his players because “he gives us the freedom to be us,” star tight end Greg Olsen says.
Gary Kubiak was an enlightened choice to take over the Broncos when team boss John Elway decided to release John Fox. He is Elway’s former backup and long-time buddy, and he has focused on building a balanced team that isn’t overly reliant on Manning.
Like Rivera, Kubiak’s players have his back.
SUPER BOWL L: All season, the NFL has celebrated 50 years of the Super Bowl, starting with changing its logo and thankfully dropping the Roman numeral. The 50-yard line on every field was painted gold. Past “Super Bowl Heroes” were celebrated along with the games they participated in.
The big game has come back to Northern California for the first time in 31 years. Will it live up to the Super billing?