Despite the divine season from Cam Newton — the presumed league MVP — there’s no assurance that the game’s best player wins its biggest game. Indeed, it’s been 16 years since the NFL MVP also won the Super Bowl the same year. While Newton beams from the marquee, his MVP bona fides all but official, it’s not a coincidence that the Super Bowl flaunts two high-end quarterbacks, but also the league’s best defenses.
Newton’s pyrotechnic season belies several Super Bowl realities…
First, that the Panthers are a pass-happy offense that sailed over the NFC, leaning on new rules bent toward the bomb. In a new-school league, the Panthers were decidedly old-school. Carolina threw the ball 49 percent of the time, well below the league average of 58 percent. Consequently, they were tops in rushing, averaging 148 yards per game in the regular season. And they’ve slowed the game to a crawl in the playoffs, rushing the ball 78 times versus 50 pass attempts (a 39 percent clip).
Second, that the Panthers simply outscored their opponents all season, in retro, AFL-style shootouts. In fact, the Panthers know how to stop the other team. If not for Denver’s mile-high defense, the Panthers would boast the NFL’s best D. In their two playoff games leading up to Super Bowl 50, the Panthers outscored the Seahawks and Cardinals by a combined 55-7 in the first half, games replete with turnovers and a notable pick-six against the (formerly) sizzling Russell Wilson.
Carolina had the most takeaways in the NFL (39), and led the league in interceptions (24), forced fumbles (22) and fumble recoveries (15). They scored a league-best 148 points off of turnovers, and sported the best turnover differential (+20). Still on a turnover roll, they squeezed seven more from the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC title game, most in the NFL playoffs since 2001.
During the regular season, Carolina allowed 19.3 points per game (just 16.3 over their last three) which ranks sixth in the NFL. They had 44 sacks, sixth in the NFL. And they surrendered 322.9 total yards per game, which was… sixth in the NFL.
Denver will try to take the pressure off of Manning’s diminished right arm by running the ball into the teeth of the Carolina defense, which allowed just 88.4 yards per game on the ground, fourth in the NFL. They allowed just 6.2 yards per pass attempt, tied for tops with Denver.
Much of that is because of Carolina’s much-improved pass-rush, led by Kawann Short, the best linebacker in the sport, Luke Kuechly, maybe the second-best LB, Thomas Davis, and perhaps the best cornerback in the game, Josh Norman (just ask him). Carolina had a franchise-record 10 players picked for the Pro Bowl, and (other than Newton) none more important than the aforementioned defenders.
A defense-dependent Super Bowl shouldn’t shock anyone. Each of four teams in the conference championship games showcased a top-10 defense; seven of the top-10 overall defenses reached the playoffs; and the last three teams with the top passing defense reached the Super Bowl.
Indeed, America’s biggest game seems to be allergic to volcanic offenses. Two years ago, Denver boasted the NFL’s most explosive offense in history, and lost the Super Bowl, scoring just eight points. The next-highest scoring offense, the 2007 Patriots, were four quarters from 19-0, then lost to the New York Giants, who wielded a rabid pass rush and benefitted from a surreal pass from Eli Manning to David Tyree.
Indeed, as The New York Times points out, the third-best offense,the 2011 Packers, also lost to the Giants in the playoffs. As did the fourth-best, the 2012 Patriots, and the fifth, the 1998 Vikings. (The last two also entered the playoffs at 15-1.) In case you’re not convinced, the sixth highest-scoring offense in NFL history, the 2011 Saints, also lost in January.
So this is more than Cam vs. Peyton, the Young Gun vs. the Sheriff. The narrative is great and gripping and gives the game an epic, cinematic feel, especially when you consider their opposing looks, games and places on the career arc.
But neither man would be here if not for their ornery defense. This is the largest age gap between two starting Super Bowl QBs in NFL history (13 years, 48 days). Newton is in his first finale, Manning his fourth. Newton has never won an NFL MVP award (at least not yet), Manning has won five times. Newton is starting to make his mark on the record books, while Manning owns many of the records.
But don’t tell Cam or Peyton, the Panthers or Broncos, that defense is incidental. There are many reasons the Panthers are 17-1, 60 minutes from immortality, and many people to thank — Short, Kuechly, Davis and Norman among them.
On Saturday we will find out if Newton is the NFL’s best player. On Sunday, his defense will decide if he’s on the best team.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.