Every Super Bowl has its share of juicy storylines, but the one taking place this Sunday feels extra special—and not just because it holds the sexy numerical distinction of being #50. Between the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers, we have a range of captivating figures, Hall of Fame-caliber players, and elite units in all three phases of the game. While both teams were picking at the top of the draft order just five years ago, they’ve taken completely different paths in order to get here—and might be headed on even more divergent trajectories going forward. Much of what those roads look like could be decided by how the two squads perform on the field Sunday in Santa Clara.
That’s plenty of reason to be invested in this outrageous spectacle of a football game, but for millions of reluctant viewers, the only thing worth paying attention to will come at halftime when Coldplay takes the stage with Beyoncé and Bruno Mars. Coldplay’s sensitive, feelings-driven rock might not be the first thing that comes to mind when people think about football; however, if you take a closer look at some of the band’s lyrics, there’s a lot of material in there that helps to contextualize what’s going on in this much-anticipated matchup. From on-field battles to media storylines, it’s all there…
God gave you style and gave you grace
And put a smile upon your face, oh yeah
– “God Put A Smile Upon Your Face”
They got one eye watching you
One eye on what you do
– “Major Minus”
Some ‘traditional’ NFL observers have taken to criticizing the exuberant Cam Newton (and to a lesser extent, his Panthers) for how he chooses to showcase his personality. It’s a real shame because Newton is one hell of a quarterback and doesn’t deserve to be unfairly picked apart for things that are such an inconsequential part of what he brings to the game.
If he’s taking his dab dancing and underlying swagger too far on the field, then the referees will penalize him for it. But if the presumptive MVP wants to celebrate his on-field achievements and does so within the stipulations of the rulebook, why should anybody get in his way?
Newton isn’t a distraction. He’s just an elite quarterback who has put in the preparation necessary to excel as both a player and a leader. The Panthers feed off of his energy, as do most fans. Those who find it distasteful should get off their high horse.
Look at the stars
Look how they shine for you
And everything you do
That passage was obviously written by Coldplay but it just as easily could’ve been written by Jim Nantz and Phil Simms about their love for Peyton Manning. When he replaced Osweiler in the Broncos’ Week 17 win against the Chargers, the two of them were straight up giddy that “The Sheriff” had returned. They proceeded to shower him with copious amounts of praise despite the fact that Denver’s defense and running game were the ones carrying the team to victory. On top of that, neither of them chose to so much as mention the fact that just days earlier, an Al Jazeera news report was released that accused him of taking HGH while recovering from multiple operations that caused him to sit out the 2011 season.
Manning has staunchly denied those allegations and they certainly seem to be lacking in credibility. However, that doesn’t change the fact that Nantz/Simms—along with many media personalities around the NFL—have a tendency to start up Peyton Manning lovefests at every possible opportunity. Somewhere between winning four championships, playing for a team that was embroiled in two cheating scandals, and marrying a supermodel, Tom Brady turned into a villain (probably the GOAT as well). Manning, on the other hand, has become this sympathetic underdog figure who might not have a shot at being the best to ever play anymore, but commands total reverence nonetheless. It’s become quite the dichotomy.
The Panthers are an extremely likable squad, but Manning’s narrative will probably sway casual fans who don’t root for any particular team into cheering for Denver. Oh, and you may be wondering who’s doing the Super Bowl 50 broadcast. That’s right, none other than Jim Nantz and Phil Simms.
Written in graffiti on a bridge in the park
“Do you ever get the feeling that you’re missing the mark?”
– “Hurts Like Heaven”
I used to rule the world
Seas would rise when I gave the word
One minute I held the key
Next the walls were closed on me
– “Viva La Vida”
As recently as two years ago, Manning was the NFL’s Most Valuable Player (his fifth time winning the award). But his elite abilities have eroded quickly. This season, many seriously doubted that it was even in Denver’s best interests to play him over Osweiler in the postseason. Yet here we are anyways. Manning has two more playoff wins on his resume and the Broncos have the opportunity to capture their third Lombardi Trophy.
One of the biggest reasons the team has advanced this far is that—save for the backwards pass against the Patriots that resulted in a fumble recovery—Manning has played mistake-free playoff football. His TD:INT ratio in the nine regular season games he started was an abysmal 9:17, but he hasn’t thrown an INT at all since reclaiming his spot atop the depth chart. The reality is that the Sheriff can’t throw deep or hit receivers as quickly and accurately as he used to. He’s still one of the smartest players in football though, and his command of the game at the line of scrimmage is pretty unparalleled. If Manning can use those latter skills to his advantage and take care of the ball, then he’ll keep the Broncos in the game.
On a full day, and a full flight
Defeat darkness, breaking daylight
For them to win the game though, they’ll need their running backs to find some daylight. That’s easier said than done against a fierce Panthers rushing defense that finished fourth overall in the NFL this season. Denver’s backfield committee of C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman has mustered up around 100 yards combined in each of the past two contests. However, the Broncos might need more than that to keep pace with Carolina’s top-ranked offense. Neither of those backs play like Broncos legend Terrell Davis—hell, they’re not even Terrell Davis with migraines—but any production they can offer will be huge in keeping things balanced on offense and taking unnecessary pressure off of Manning.
They are turning my head out
To see what I’m all about
– “Lovers in Japan”
This is for Ted Ginn Jr. whose 10 TDs this season came along with a league-worst dropped pass rate of 10.4%. Against Denver’s scary defensive backfield, opportunities will be tougher than usual to come by for Ginn. When they do, will he be ready to make the most of them? In his only other Super Bowl appearance (with the 2012 San Francisco 49ers), he finished with zero catches on a single target (although he did have some impactful kick returns).
But a lot has changed since then and he has made huge strides in this Panthers offense. After the team’s number one wideout Kelvin Benjamin went down for the season in August, Ginn stepped in to fill that void and has become Newton’s go-to wide receiver. Ginn has quieted a lot of doubters already this season—a big game on Sunday would silence them all.
Honey you are a rock upon which I stand
– “Green Eyes”
Just a friendly reminder that defense wins championships.
The Broncos learned that the hard way a couple years ago after getting throttled by the Seahawks’ D in Super Bowl XLVIII—despite having a historically great offense. John Elway took note, breaking the bank so that Denver could replenish its defensive arsenal with proven guys like OLB DeMarcus Ware and CB Aqib Talib. This year Wade Phillips has done a phenomenal job coaching Denver on that side of the ball, transforming the defense into the league’s best unit. In the event of a Broncos win, it would be no surprise if a more unheralded guy like DE Derek Wolfe or CB Bradley Roby won Super Bowl MVP—like Malcolm Butler did for that Seattle team.
Carolina may have only finished sixth in total defense, but it has enough game changing players to shut down anyone. Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short provide a daunting presence in the trenches, Josh Norman shuts down an opponent’s top receiver, and Luke Kuechly makes jaw-dropping plays all over the field.
The NFL has changed in an insane amount of many ways since Super Bowl I, but as the big game prepares to celebrate its golden anniversary, defense still remains the rock on which championship teams stand.
The lights go out and I can’t be saved
Tides that I tried to swim against
Have brought me down upon my knees
Oh I beg, I beg and plead singing
Honey, all the movements you’ve started to make
See me crumble and fall on my face
– “A Rush of Blood to the Head”
These lyrics are a tribute to all the havoc Von Miller and the aforementioned Ware have wreaked upon opposing quarterbacks this season—especially the clinic they put on in the AFC Championship Game. The Broncos’ dynamic duo led the defense into pressuring Brady 20 times that day. It was a Herculean effort that slowed down New England just enough to escape with a win.
Asking for that kind of production two games in a row is a tall order, but if they can keep Newton in check by attacking and containing him inside the pocket, then the Denver DBs will do the rest and limit his options downfield. Newton was sacked the 12th-most times of any QB this season, so it’s not crazy to think that both rushers can get to him consistently.
If Miller has a chip on his shoulder from being picked one spot behind Newton in the 2011 Draft, Sunday would be the time to unleash that added motivation.
Turn your magic on, to me she’d say
Everything you want’s a dream away
Under this pressure, under this weight
We are diamonds
– “Adventure of a Lifetime”
On the flip side of that equation are the Panthers’ run and pass-blocking units, which are, unsurprisingly, two of the best in football.
As ESPN’s Bill Barnwell highlights in his excellent Super Bowl preview, Carolina’s been able to do extraordinary things when it operates out of the shotgun/pistol formations, racking up an average of 5.87 yards per carry. Having Newton at its disposal for zone-read plays forces defenses to prepare for a variety of scenarios on any given snap.
The Panthers boast two Pro Bowl offensive linemen in center Ryan Kalil and right guard Trai Turner. The guys at the tackle positions aren’t quite as strong, but you can bet that offensive coordinator Mike Shula will try and find ways to neutralize the pressure of the Miller/Ware duo without leaving those blockers in one on one situations.
You cut me down a tree
And brought it back to me
And that’s what made me see
Where I was going wrong
– “Swallowed in the Sea”
Speaking of coaching strategy, it’s time to give a shoutout to “Riverboat” Ron Rivera, Carolina’s leading man. Championship-caliber teams don’t spring up overnight in the NFL, and for the Panthers, their progression towards greatness really kicked into high gear when Rivera owned up to some of his in-game mistakes and tweaked his coaching style. The catalyst was a 2013 matchup against Buffalo in which his squad had a three-point fourth quarter lead and a chance to close out the game with a first down on a 4th and 1. Instead he kicked a field goal, allowing the Bills to get the ball back (down six points) where they proceeded to steal away the game in the final seconds. Realizing that a more aggressive approach in those types of situations would be beneficial to the team, Rivera changed his ways, and thus Ron the Riverboat Gambler was born.
Every now and then Super Bowls are swung by those types of gutsy calls. Who knows how Super Bowl XLIV would’ve shaken out if Sean Payton hadn’t called an onside kick to start the second half? Or what the Seahawks would’ve done in Super Bowl XL if the Steelers hadn’t felt comfortable with the Antwaan Randle El trick play pass that extended their lead to 11.
And the hardest part
Was letting go not taking part
– “The Hardest Part”
For Ryan Clady, the Broncos’ longest-tenured player, who won’t be taking the field on Sunday. Since being drafted by Denver in 2008, he’s consistently been one of the NFL’s top offensive tackles. However, an injury sustained during spring OTAs put Clady on Injured Reserve and prevented him from playing a single snap this year. You really feel for the guy. It’s just awful to see a guy who has meant so much to the Broncos organization not get a chance to help bring home a Super Bowl—not to mention that he’ll be sorely missed on the offensive line, which has been one of the team’s few weak links for much of the season.
How long before I get in?
Before it starts, before I begin?
How long before you decide?
Before I know what it feels like?
Where to, where do I go?
If you never try, then you’ll never know
How long do I have to climb
Up on the side of this mountain of mine?
– “Speed of Sound”
Were he to play Sunday, Clady would be just one of many well-respected veteran players who have a chance to finally snag their first Super Bowl ring.
Let’s start with the Panthers D, a unit that features a handful of them. Not only is Thomas Davis one of the most reliable and productive linebackers to play in the NFL over the last decade, he’s one of its best role models. The Panthers’ longest-tenured player (since 2005) was a finalist for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award in 2012 and 2013, finally taking home the hardware last season. Then there’s Jared Allen, a midseason pickup who arrived via trade with the Chicago Bears, eager to prove that he still has something left in the tank. He’s tied with Julius Peppers (who is coincidentally a legendary former Panther) for ninth place on the all-time sacks list. One-time All-Pro CB Cortland Finnegan had retired from football earlier this year, but decided to come back for another shot at the big one when Carolina came calling in November. Finally, Charles Johnson has manned the Panthers’ defensive line since 2007, finishing with nine or more sacks from 2010-2013.
On the other side of the ball you have Kalil, the aforementioned center who’s been an absolute stud for the Panthers since he joined the NFL in 2007; Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert, the RB and FB who are crucial to keeping the Panthers’ rushing machine humming; Jerricho Cotchery, a 12-year veteran receiver who starred on a number of strong Jets and Steelers teams; and beast of a TE Greg Olsen (who we’ll spend some more time discussing pretty soon).
For Denver, star CB Aqib Talib finally gets a chance to seal the deal after losing AFC Championship Games in the past three seasons. DeMarcus Ware can add to his resume as one of the best pass rushers in NFL history with a Super Bowl victory. Then there’s underrated DE Antonio Smith, AFC Championship Game star TE Owen Daniels, and a couple of former Pro Bowl guards in Evan Mathis and Louis Vazquez.
Oh brother I can’t, I can’t get through
I’ve been trying hard to reach you cause I don’t know what to do
And I will try to fix you
– “Fix You”
Imagine Manning singing these lyrics (no, not in the Nationwide tune) to Demaryius Thomas, his star wide receiver who just hasn’t been able to get it going in the postseason thus far. His total number of combined yards in the games against Pittsburgh and New England was a meager 52.
If you’re trying to break out of a slump, going up against 2015 Josh Norman is probably the worst possible way to do it, but that’s exactly the challenge that Thomas has in store for himself on Sunday. When an offensive coordinator wants to help a receiver shake off a shutdown corner, he’ll usually try and create a mismatch on a linebacker; however, Carolina’s Kuechly and Davis are so good in coverage that it’ll be even more difficult to get into a position where Thomas can exploit any weaknesses.
For the Broncos to “fix” Thomas, it might just come down to whether or not Manning can muster what’s left of his laser rocket arm and get his WR the ball in tight coverage.
Just because I’m losing
Doesn’t mean I’m lost!
Doesn’t mean I’ll stop
Even though the Panthers are coming off of a blowout win against the Cardinals in the NFC Championship Game—that may have proved how much we’ve been underrating them as a historical juggernaut all season long—they’ve still shown a tendency at times to get comfortable with a cushy lead and let teams back into games. They did it against Green Bay back in October, they did it against the Giants in the Norman/Odell Beckham Jr. scrap game, and they even did it against Seattle in their Divisional Playoff game.
Denver isn’t the most explosive team, but it’s certainly a relentless one. If things get ugly early on against the Panthers—as they tend to for even the league’s best teams—the Broncos should take solace in the fact that Carolina has been known to allow momentum to swing back in its opponent’s favour.
Just because I’m hurting
Doesn’t mean I’m hurt
Same song, different storyline. This time it goes out to the aforementioned Thomas Davis, who is set to play in Super Bowl 50 with a broken right forearm. He sustained the injury in the NFC Championship Game on Jan. 24.
As was discussed in the Ryan Clady section, the hurt of seeing your team make it to the Super Bowl but not being cleared to play alongside everyone is devastating. Davis knows that. Even immediately following the game, before he could have been totally sure about how his arm might heal, he told Robert Mays in an interview for the MMQB that he would absolutely be playing in the Super Bowl.
Shane Falco (Keeanu Reeves) summed it up best in the criminally underrated 2000 film The Replacements: “Pain heals, chicks dig scars, glory lasts forever.”
Cause in a sky
Cause in a sky full of stars
I think I saw you
– “A Sky Full of Stars”
Speaking of criminally underrated stuff, lets talk about Greg Olsen. Since 2008, Olsen has played in every single game, hauled in no less than 5 touchdowns every year, and averaged 738 yards per season. Tight ends like that don’t grow on trees (or even practice squads), but until he became the leading receiver for this potent Panthers team, nobody seemed all that inclined to give him his due—many still don’t.
Maybe it was because he didn’t break out early in his career like Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham. Or maybe it was because he hadn’t played as many high profile games as Heath Miller (who his stats are incredibly similar to). Whatever the reasons, Olsen has been a more-than-reliable pass catcher and blocker who seems to get better every season. The Panthers have stars all across the board, and he’s one of them.
Through chaos as it swirls
It’s us against the world
– “Us Against the World”
Nobody said it was easy
Nobody said it would be this hard
– “The Scientist”
Amazingly, when Denver got annihilated by Seattle in Super Bowl XLVIII, it was a two-and-a-half point favourite. That’s certainly not the case this time around, with Carolina currently sitting as a five-and-a-half point favourite.
Manning has never been the underdog entering a Super Bowl. Coming in as one for Super Bowl 50 might actually work to his advantage. While the Panthers are a formidable team that is every bit capable of tearing Denver to shreds, there’s something incredibly powerful about a ‘nobody believes in us’ mentality. Just ask Eli, Peyton’s less heralded little brother who took down Brady, Belichick, and the Patriots twice as an underdog. Prior to last year’s pick-em matchup, the past three Super Bowl underdogs not only covered the spread but won the game.
Plus, Peyton always seems to play better when the pressure is off of him. He’s underperformed in numerous close playoff games, but pulled off a comeback for the ages in the 2007 AFC Championship Game after going down by 15 and hitting the proverbial rock bottom, which allowed him to play from behind and get in a rhythm.
This Carolina squad should be a decidedly tougher foe than New England was two weeks ago, but Denver can come out on top by channeling its underdog mojo.
And the wheels just keep on turning
The drummer begins to drum
I don’t know which way I’m going
– “’Til Kingdom Come”
We’re now more than halfway through the 2010s and a definitive NFL ‘team of the decade’ has yet to emerge. So far, every decade in the Super Bowl era has had one: Vince Lombardi’s Packers of the ’60s, Chuck Noll’s “Steel Curtain” Pittsburgh teams of the ’70s, Joe Montana and the high-flying 49ers teams of the ’80s, Troy Aikman’s Dallas Cowboys in the ’90s, and the Belichick/Brady Patriots of the ’00s.
As it stands right now, the probable contenders for 2010s supremacy are as follows: Green Bay, Baltimore, Seattle, New England (continuing its reign), Denver, and Carolina. Each of these clubs has brought home a recent Super Bowl, and odds are at least one of them will snag another by the end of the 2019-20 season.
In that regard Carolina feels like the more likely bet since most of its core players are just entering the prime of their careers. But this is already Denver’s second Super Bowl appearance of the decade and it looks like the team might have a pretty good future with Osweiler under center.
So along with an individual Super Bowl title, that’s what a victory on Sunday could potentially represent.
When it started we had high hopes
Now my back’s on the line
My back’s on the ropes
Sat on a roof, named every star
Shed every bruise and showed every scar
Sat on a roof, your hand in mine, singing
“Life has a beautiful, crazy design”
– “Amazing Day”
Hey, have you heard that Peyton Manning might be retiring after this game?! As much as this storyline is being beaten to death/will be during the Super Bowl broadcast, just be thankful that it’s not quite as overblown as Ray Lewis’s final playoff run was (although announcing that may have been one of the greatest motivational tactics of all time on Lewis’s part—the Ravens seemed pretty damn set on winning one more for him—but I digress).
If this is indeed the final time Manning suits up for a game, football pundits and fans will finally possess the complete set of data that can be used to ‘definitively’ contextualize his legacy. And what a piece of data it is! The outcome of Sunday’s match will determine (and again, pending retirement) whether Manning finishes with two all-important Super Bowl wins or just his respectable—but unexceptional—total of one. A victory would put him in the elite multi-Lombardi Trophy QB Club, which already features distinguished members such as his organization’s top executive (John Elway), his greatest rival (Brady), and his brother (Eli).
No matter what ends up happening in Super Bowl 50 though, there’s a sense that Manning should’ve done more earlier on. Even though the Patriots inconveniently formed a dynasty in the middle of his prime, Manning had plenty of opportunities to add to his Lombardi count—and almost always fell short. Sure, that 2013 Seattle team might’ve been more dominant than anyone fully realized at the time, and the Ravens might’ve been playing with destiny on their side in 2012 and…You can spend all day making excuses for why Manning’s teams only got it done once. The fact remains that he is in no way the greatest QB of all time—which is a title that many experts predicted he would one day hold.
Okay, now that that’s out of the way, we can move on to the gushy stuff. Seriously, Peyton Manning is incredible. He played at such an extraordinarily high level for so long that we probably took it for granted. Nobody has more MVP awards, nobody’s thrown for more yards, and nobody’s completed more touchdown passes. He could’ve just been Archie Manning’s son who inherited the former Saints QB’s talent; instead, he didn’t just rely on his pedigree, he worked his way into all-time greatness. And then after the injuries that almost ended his career, he worked his way back into all-time great form.
It’s absolutely nuts that Peyton Manning is in a position to potentially ride off into the Colorado sunset and call it a career with two rings like Elway did. Life really does have a beautiful, crazy design.