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Snap Judgments: Super Bowl 50 will be fitting ending for NFL’s top seeds

Super Bowl 50 looms, and lo and behold the golden anniversary game has a matchup befitting a special edition.

CHARLOTTE — Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we begin to consider the top-shelf Super Bowl 50 pairing of Carolina versus Denver from a confetti-strewn Bank of America Stadium...

• First off, there are the No. 1s, and they’re wild in Super Bowl 50. Aces, I guess you could call them. Both the Panthers and the Broncos earned the top seed in their conferences and used it well, notching home field victories Sunday in the NFC and AFC Championship Games, respectively. That makes three consecutive Super Bowls where No. 1 will meet No. 1. The Panthers went 17–1 en route to the big game in Santa Clara, Calif., in two weeks, while the Broncos finished an AFC-best 14–4. In very different ways, both notched impressive title game victories that send them into February riding a wave of confidence.

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Then there are the quarterbacks, who will make Super Bowl 50 the first ever matchup of passers who went No. 1 in the NFL draft—albeit 13 years apart. Peyton Manning, class of 1998, and Cam Newton, class of 2011, offer an intriguing and exquisite contrast of old versus new, experience and savvy versus youth and potential. Manning has been the face of the NFL seemingly forever, but this year, it feels like that torch got passed to Newton, who is expected to claim his first MVP award—a piece of hardware Manning has received five times. Even Newton’s No. 1 jersey announces his place in the current NFL pecking order.

Newton owns a national championship ring from his 2010 Auburn team and is trying to bring Carolina its first Super Bowl crown. Manning owns one Super Bowl ring but has lost his past two trips to the title game and will be the sentimental favorite in a game few ever expected him to be in this season.

And there’s even more to like about this Super Bowl pairing, starting with the delicious matchup of the league’s highest-scoring offense in Carolina colliding head-to-head with the NFL’s top-rated defense in Denver. The Panthers can play some defense, too, and the Broncos score enough to win, but the strength-against-strength focus of this Super Bowl will be whether or not Von Miller & Co. can provide the kind of answer to Newton that Denver had for New England’s Tom Brady on Sunday.

The impetus of this latest Broncos win came two years ago after that disastrous Super Bowl blowout loss to Seattle, when Denver football czar John Elway realized that he had to build a tough-minded and tenacious defense capable of winning a championship, not just a prolific Manning-led passing game. Last year’s one-and-done playoff trip represented a step back, but the Broncos persevered this season and are back for a second time in three years, and an NFL-record-tying eighth Super Bowl trip for the franchise.

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As for the nearly-perfect Panthers, a 49–15 winner over outmatched Arizona, Carolina has become an NFC powerhouse as Newton comes of age and fully blossoms in his fifth NFL season. It marks the Panthers’ second Super Bowl berth and first in 12 years, but you can’t help but think this team might have multiple visits to the game on tap as Newton enters his prime and Carolina’s defense continues to emerge as one of the league’s best.

Super Bowl 50 looms, and lo and behold the golden anniversary game has a matchup befitting a special edition. The No. 1s are everywhere, and the battle for which team will ultimately own that designation has the potential to be memorable for so many reasons.


• The 2015 season has largely been a recurring nightmare for Peyton Manning, who at 39 has battled both a collection of injuries and a career-worst level of inefficiency. But somehow, thanks largely to Denver’s league-best defense, Manning’s troubled season is going to culminate in a rather improbable dream come true: a surprising and potentially career-capping trip to Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara.

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And that is what we’re building up to these next two weeks, right, Mr. Manning? A final salute to an epic career, with one last star turn on the game’s grandest stage. Because you couldn’t write a script any better, and win or lose, getting back to the Super Bowl is a remarkable turn of events when you consider where Manning has been this season.

Wasn’t it just a few short weeks ago, at the height of Brock Osweiler mania, that we thought it entirely possible we had seen the last of Manning? That his 18-year career might just end in the most ignoble fashion imaginable, on the bench and all but forgotten? But it turns out Manning had one last big comeback left in him, and here he is again, about to play in the biggest of football’s big games.

Here’s hoping that Manning knows this is the way things should end, taking another shot at winning his second Super Bowl, two years after that Denver embarrassment against Seattle in the Meadowlands. It’s a chance to write a storybook ending all his own, even up his Super Bowl record at 2–2 and steal a page out of John Elway’s book by accomplishing the rare feat of going out on top.

But even if the Broncos can’t beat Carolina, Manning has already won just by getting back to the Super Bowl. He’s the oldest quarterback to ever take his team to the game—besting the 38-year-old Elway in the 1998 season—and he has the opportunity to become the first QB to ever win the game with two different teams. And he’s done something quite amazing that will never be matched no matter the outcome on Feb. 7. This will be Manning’s fourth trip to the Super Bowl, with a fourth different head coach: Tony Dungy and Jim Caldwell in Indianapolis, John Fox and Gary Kubiak in Denver.

Nothing speaks better to his value over the course of his career than that mind-boggling statistic. In some ways, I find it even more amazing than Tom Brady and Bill Belichick getting to six different Super Bowls together. And by the way, did we mention that Manning on Sunday became the first quarterback to beat Belichick and Brady three times in the playoffs, winning three consecutive AFC title game showdowns against his rivals from New England (2006, 2013 and 2015)?

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Make no mistake, this isn’t Manning’s team the same way his three other Super Bowl clubs were. That’s obvious. This is a defense-led Broncos team, and Manning missed seven games due to his health and performance issues. He didn’t even resume being the guy in Denver until he relieved the struggling Osweiler in Week 17 at home against San Diego, steadying the Broncos’ ship in that win. It was a victory that wrapped up home field advantage in the playoffs for Denver, and on Sunday that edge paid off handsomely for Manning and the Broncos.

And now look at them. Back in the Super Bowl for the second time in three years. One last time, Manning will have the spotlight on him, and the chance to take control of the narrative as only he can.

• We love the rematch angle going into a Super Bowl, but you can shelve that in terms of meaningful analysis for this game. Carolina and Denver haven’t met since 2012, when the visiting Broncos routed the Panthers 36–14. The all-time series favors Denver, but just 3–1. These aren’t exactly traditional rivals. That 2012 meeting was Manning versus Newton, but it was a very different Manning and a very different Newton at that point.

Now next year? There will be a Super Bowl rematch, at least in the 2016 regular season, because Carolina is scheduled to visit Denver for the first time since 2008.

• Arizona got trounced by 34 points Sunday night, but the biggest loser wearing red was Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer, and you have to wonder if he’s done permanent damage to his status as the Arizona starter with that epic meltdown. To put it nicely, Palmer stunk up the joint, committing six turnovers (four interceptions, two fumbles). For the second week in a row, he looked like he couldn’t handle the pressure of a big-game setting and started spraying errant passes all over the field.

Watch all of Carson Palmer’s turnovers against the Panthers

“Carson didn’t lose the damn game,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians snapped afterwards. “Nothing wrong with his damn finger. You can keep all them questions. We just didn’t play well enough. Our best players especially didn’t play well enough.”

That’s an understatement. Palmer was dreadful. Larry Fitzgerald dropped a couple passes. Patrick Peterson was so-so in coverage and fumbled away a punt return. The Cardinals were not ready for their close-up. Not by a long shot. But the worst of it was Palmer coming apart at the seams, which deflated the whole team.

Palmer admitted he was pressing, just as he did last week. “I was definitely forcing it, and like I said, I put us in that hole,” he said.

Can a 36-year-old quarterback bounce back from a showing that bad and continue to be the Cardinals’ franchise passer? I’m not so sure about that. These past two weeks had to rock Arians’s faith in Palmer to some degree, perhaps greatly. It certainly wouldn’t be shocking to see Arizona find itself another starting quarterback option in 2016, at least in terms of competition for Palmer, after seeing how he responded to playoff pressure this year.

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• Even if you throw Von Miller into the discussion, no one in Denver turned in a better day at the office than veteran Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. What a tour de force performance by the wily old Son of Bum. Denver’s defense forced Tom Brady into the first game of his career—regular season or playoffs—in which he completed less than 50% of his passes (27 of 56) and threw two interceptions.

Let that one sink in awhile. Before Sunday, Brady had never completed less than half of his passes in a game in which he chucked two interceptions. And that stat, as remarkable as it is, doesn’t begin to tell the story of Denver’s defensive dominance. Brady was sacked four times, harried all game long and knocked down a stunning 14 times. Brady absorbed more hits (20) in the game than any quarterback had absorbed all season, regular or postseason.

The Broncos recorded more hits on Brady than the Patriots did points, 20–18. Which also happened to be the final score. The Patriots were a miserable 2 of 15 on third downs (13.3%), and they’ve never been worse in a playoff game in the entire Brady/Belichick era.

• Surprisingly to me, this will be only Phillips’s second trip to the Super Bowl in his long coaching career, having gone as the Broncos’ defensive coordinator after the 1989 season, in his earlier stint in the job he holds for a second time. That memory isn’t a good one, though, as San Francisco pummeled Denver 55–10 in the biggest blowout in Super Bowl history. That game, Super Bowl XXIV in New Orleans, was over almost before it began.

Phillips has to take some serious satisfaction in having won the battle of ex-Broncos head coaches on Sunday, with his guys beating up on the high-octane offense coordinated by Josh McDaniels. Phillips followed Dan Reeves in the top job and lasted only two years, 1993 and ’94. McDaniels followed Mike Shanahan in Denver, and lasted not even two full seasons (2010-11).

I’m going to enjoy the heck out of listening to the homespun Phillips hold court during Super Bowl week. And he’s an entertaining regular on Twitter, too, well-known for pointing his subtle sense of humor in the direction of the opposing team and its fan base. Give that man his own podium all week long.

Broncos LB Von Miller tormented Patriots during AFC Championship

• Denver outside linebacker Von Miller played like a man possessed against the Patriots, and it’s not surprising when you consider Miller missed the Broncos’ Super Bowl trip two years ago after injuring a knee that December. Miller has no doubt burned to make up for that disheartening development, and he almost singlehandedly wrecked the Patriots’ offense, abusing right tackle Marcus Cannon.

Miller seemed to be everywhere all day, haunting Brady at every turn. He racked up a single-game playoff record 2.5 sacks and also managed to set up Denver’s second touchdown with a nifty interception of Brady. The Patriots had no answer for his athleticism and energy, and Miller set the tone for the Broncos’ defensive masterpiece.

With him on the field, Denver simply was not going to be denied.

• Somewhere I suppose the members of the NFL’s competition committee might be drinking a little champagne toast to themselves this evening, saluting their foresight and wisdom. This must be the dream scenario that the committee wanted and possibly even envisioned when it instituted the league’s new longer point-after rule in 2015: a critical miss that could wind up costing one team its shot at the Super Bowl. Or perhaps more accurately, the corresponding two-point conversion that was necessitated in trying to make up for the missed PAT.

Even at the new longer 33-yard length, I still really can’t fathom that New England kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed in the first quarter on Sunday, after making a league-record 523 point-afters in a row, a streak that began in Week 17 of 2006, his rookie season. If you would have given me 523 guesses at how the Patriots on Sunday might lose in surprising fashion, I still wouldn’t have gone with a Gostkowski flub. His only other career PAT miss was due to a blocked kick, and he nailed all 60 of his previous postseason point-afters.

“It’s kind of a cruel reality that it came down to that,” Gostkowski said. “I just feel awful about it. It was my fault, 100%. I just didn’t hit a good kick. I feel terrible. It’s a nightmare scenario.”

Probably not for the folks who were trying to bring back a sense of drama to the extra point and make the two-pointer a more appealing and frequent option.

• But let’s be real, a world of football remained after Gostkowski’s miscue, and obviously you can’t pin the defeat on him alone, no matter how directly you can connect the dots. The Patriots’ offensive line was culprit No. 1, allowing Brady to be subject to non-stop pressure. It was like watching a repeat of New England’s twin Super Bowl losses to the Giants in early 2008 and 2012.

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And while I understand Bill Belichick’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-one from the 16, trailing by eight points with about six minutes left in the game, I don’t agree with it. I would have attempted the 31-yard field goal and tried to cut the lead to five points, thereby taking the tricky two-point conversion call out of the equation later on. The Patriots had a nice pass play called to Julian Edelman in the left flat, but Denver cornerback Chris Harris held his ground and made a tremendous play to deny Edelman the first down. Later in the quarter, on fourth-and-six from the Denver 14 with 2:25 remaining, it was obviously defensible to go for the first down and eschew the field goal. Both times, however, New England failed to convert.

Sometimes Belichick’s gambling nature or supreme confidence in his Tom Brady-led offense comes back to bite him. Credit Denver’s defense for making that play, but I would have taken the points and given Brady the shot to win it with a late touchdown, rather than just tie it with a TD and a two-point conversion.

• And while we’re at it, Belichick’s out-of-character decision to take the ball after the Patriots won the opening coin toss didn’t exactly work out too brilliantly either. New England went nowhere on its first drive, while the Broncos marched 83 yards to grab an early 7–0 lead on their first possession.

According to The MMQB, the Patriots had elected to receive just twice in the past eight seasons when winning the toss. New England usually loves to try and do the double-possession trick, having the ball both at the end of the first half and the beginning of the second half, but that didn’t work out. The Patriots kneeled down at the end of the half, and Denver had the ball to open the third quarter, punting after a three-and-out drive.

• The Patriots’ loss serves to obscure the monstrously clutch performance of New England tight end Rob Gronkowski, who not only pulled down that beautiful 40-yard bomb on fourth-and-10 from midfield that kept his team alive with 57 seconds remaining, he capped the desperation drive with an acrobatic four-yard touchdown catch that made it 20–18 with 12 seconds left.

Gronkowski was out of the game battling leg cramps for a while and also took a solid blow on his thigh after one second-half catch. But he battled through it all, showing guts and guile, and wound up with eight catches for a whopping 144 yards and that touchdown. No one wearing a Patriots uniform was remotely as efficient as Gronkowski on Sunday. And had New England converted the game-tying two-point conversion and gone on to win in overtime, Gronk’s game would have become a major slice of Patriots playoff lore.

• This much is certain: Super Bowl 50 will not be a pre-game quote contest between head coaches Ron Rivera of Carolina and Gary Kubiak of Denver. Both men are calm and understated by nature, but both have strong convictions and a belief in their way of doing things. And both of them were former NFL players, giving us our first such Super Bowl matchup since Mike Ditka’s Bears beat Raymond Berry’s Patriots in Super Bowl XX, 30 years ago.

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Rivera and Kubiak both have the great respect of their players, and both won Super Bowl rings earlier in their career. Rivera was a member of that 1985 Chicago team that went 18–1 and won it all while playing linebacker for the Bears. Kubiak went to three Super Bowls as a backup quarterback to Elway, losing all three. But he won a ring as the 49ers’ quarterbacks coach in 1994 and two more as the Broncos’ offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach in 1997 and 1998.

Ironically, Kubiak has an offensive background, but defense is the strength of his Broncos team. The reverse is true for Rivera, whose defensive pedigree belies the fact that Carolina’s offense has emerged this season as the NFL’s most explosive.

• Given the injuries to Denver safeties Darian Stewart and T.J. Ward on Sunday, you just hope we’re not headed for another Super Bowl rout like the 43–8 wipeout the Broncos absorbed at the hands of Seattle two years ago.

Stewart suffered a knee injury in the third quarter and exited, and soon thereafter Ward left after apparently re-injuring his ankle. Veteran David Bruton Jr. is already on injured reserve, so the Broncos’ secondary is getting very thin just before trying to match up with the strong passing arm of Cam Newton. That’s not the best timing.

By end of the game, Denver was trying to make due at safety with Shiloh Keo and Josh Bush, a pair of players who were signed late in the regular season. In order to hang with the Panthers, the Broncos’ defensive front seven might need to be even more dominant in the Super Bowl than it was in the AFC Championship Game. If that’s possible.

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• Carolina has its own major injury concerns to sweat out the next two weeks. What a heartbreaker it would be if All-Pro linebacker Thomas Davis can’t play in the Super Bowl, after spending the past 11 seasons in Carolina trying to get to that game, overcoming three separate ACL tears.

Davis left the big win over the Cardinals in the first half with a right arm injury, and he said after the game that he has a broken arm. But Davis refused to rule himself out of Carolina’s next game, saying “I’ll do everything in my power to be ready to go. I wouldn’t miss the Super Bowl for the world. We’ve worked too hard to get to this point.”

It would be a crushing blow to lose Davis and his leadership in the Super Bowl because of what he means to his team and the tone he helps set. Veteran Panthers safety Roman Harper is another question mark, having left the game with a first-half eye injury that bears monitoring.