The sound, fury and hyperbole will be turned off in two days, when they play the Golden Game of America’s Game. The Super Bowl is just about here.
If you’ve watched at least 40 of these, tried to assemble those bulky Roman numerals over decades, you appreciate how football has ascended up the rungs of relevance. Well over 100 million Americans will watch on Sunday. Indeed, up to half the television sets turned on will be tuned in. That includes the poseurs, who will attend football parties because that’s the thing to do, and the non-fans, who are in it for the commercials.
But it’s the game that matters. And what a game it is.
It’s fitting that Super Bowl 50 is both an intersection and ballot box on old and new-school sensibilities. You couldn’t find two more contrasting quarterbacks and cultural brands. And yet there’s reason to cherish both.
Peyton Manning, the Sheriff, the aging icon in repose, with a chance to swing those saloon doors a final time and limp off the field as a winner, is crossing paths with Cam Newton, the presumed face of the NFL’s future.
Manning will have to rely on guile, a robust running game and ornery defense to shovel a path to the world title for him. Whereas Newton can — and has — lifted an entire team to the Super Bowl with superhuman talent, and has even assumed the affectations of a comic book hero.
Manning is all throwback, playing dutiful football, trotting head-down to the sideline after most of his 500-plus TD passes. Newton, a behemoth of a man and absurdly gifted quarterback, shares none of the old-world maxims of muted conduct on the field, celebrating every touchdown as if it’s his first, or last.
No matter your take on Newton’s dance moves, there’s no disputing his dominance. His 45 total touchdowns during the regular season were the seventh-most in NFL history.
Even more revealing is how dependent Carolina’s offense is upon their quarterback. According to USA Today, Newton’s 4,473 yards accounted for 76.2 percent of the team’s total. Only Drew Brees in 2012 dominated his offense more (78.8 percent of the Saints’ total yards).
Denver yielded the fewest yards (283.3) during the regular season, and then shut down Big Ben and Tom Brady in the playoffs. The team entering the Super Bowl with the league’s top-ranked defense is 9-2.
Carolina led the league in scoring, and then darted out to a combined 55-7 halftime lead in their two playoff games. The team entering the Super Bowl with the NFL’s highest point total is 10-11.
But most contemporary, high-scoring teams are largely throwing teams, whereas Newton has scored 12 rushing touchdowns in the red zone, including the playoffs. His 10 rushing TDs during the regular season were more than Colin Kaepernick, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson and Tyrod Taylor combined. He’s in one of those nuclear, Steph Curry zones that can flatten an opponent.
The best chance the Broncos have is to confine Newton to the bubble of the pocket, giving him few chances to showcase his brilliant athletic improvisations. Even in this, his runaway MVP season, he still completed fewer than 60 percent of his passes, and even fewer from the pocket.
And to do that, Denver must first stop the run, which won’t be easy. Not only has Newton scored 12 rushing touchdowns in the red zone (including playoffs), he can hand the ball to the NFL’s leading rusher this postseason. Jonathan Stewart easily leads all playoff runners with 189 yards on 38 carries (5.0 yards per rush).
This is no fluke, as the Panthers were the NFL’s second-ranked rushing offense in 2015, at 142.6 yards per game. So while the impulse is to release the hounds of gridiron hell in Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, both must heed the ground game first.
Turning the ball over would help. But you may have to wait a while to wrench the ball from the Carolina QB. According to the same article in USA Today, Newton has fumbled or thrown an interception just 2.12 percent of the time he handled the ball (14 turnovers in 661 plays), which ranks fourth all-time.
Manning, no matter how diminished, needs to summon a few big throws from his formerly divine right arm. That and pull a few tendons while handing the ball to C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman, who have combined for 198 yards in two playoff games.
Carolina should be favored. They’re 17-1, and in five of their last six games, the Panthers have led at halftime by an average of 22 points. They vaporized the Seahawks and Cardinals, perhaps the two most complete teams west of Charlotte. Seattle had also been in the last two Super Bowls, so if Carolina wants to be The Man, they already beat The Man. But perhaps Seattle ran out of momentum or motivation. Denver has plenty of both.
One narrative that seems a bit much — and the mushrooming point spread backs it — is that the Broncos are little more than roadkill on the Panthers’ path to the championship. With about 80 percent of the public’s money on Carolina, it may be wise to be a contrarian.
Defense travels. Denver has the best defense in football. If only they had the offense to match it.
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.