The second Super Bowl I ever attended was XXIX — remember that one? Sure you do. It was January XXIX, MCMXCV … what a year that was. I turned XXVIII. Greg Maddux had an I.LXIII ERA. Michael Jordan had taken a year off to play baseball, and he hit .CCII in Birmingham. Witchcraft VII: Judgement Hour came out. It was great.
OK, without the Roman numerals, that was the year San Francisco played San Diego in the Super Bowl, and I learned a pretty valuable lesson. When the week began, I — like just about everybody else on planet earth — felt strongly that the 49ers were going to obliterate the Chargers or eradicate the Chargers or annihilate the Chargers. It was going to be ugly, and it was going to have an “ate” suffix on it.
But, and you might have heard this before, there tends to be quite a bit of hype at the Super Bowl. All week, we listen to the players talk, the coaches talk, experts talk. There are a million stories told. There are a million theories created. And all of them point to the inevitability of AN AWESOME GAME. I mean, who would hype a blowout?
So yes, at first glance those 49ers seemed pretty good, you know, based on the fact that they averaged 32 points per game, and that they had perhaps the greatest quarterback-receiver combo in NFL history, and that they tied for the league lead in interceptions and were second in rush defense and mundane stuff like that.
Meanwhile, the Chargers had Stan Humphries at quarterback.
But first glances don’t last long at the Super Bowl. We were soon besieged by the idea that this game would be a lot closer than expected. Hey, the Chargers’ defense was good! It wouldn’t be so easy for Steve Young and Jerry Rice to connect! Plus, San Diego running back Natrone Means was a force to be reckoned with! And, Stan Humphries, um, sure, he was not bad at all. And so on.
After listening to a week of this stuff — and basically ALL the hype was tilted toward the Chargers because everybody wanted to believe this might be a decent game — I started to doubt myself. Hey, maybe the Chargers could hang with the Niners. Why not? Maybe they could even pull off the upset. Sure. By Sunday, I settled in for what I was sure would be a modern classic.
On the third play of the game, Steve Young dropped back and threw a perfect 44-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Jerry Rice. I mean WIDE OPEN. It was like the Chargers had spent countless hours coming up with a gameplan and, in doing so, forgot to cover Jerry Rice.
And I realized something: I had been duped.
Not this time. I’ve heard all the reasons why the Denver Broncos could make this a good Super Bowl, why they could even beat the favorited Carolina Panthers. The Broncos’ defense is stellar. Their defensive line puts absurd pressure on the quarterback — they turned Tom Brady into a crash-test dummy two weeks ago. They are the more experienced bunch. And Peyton Manning, well, he’s obviously a legend, and his coaches say he’s looking better than he has all year, he’s shed a decade, he’s throwing the ball with authority …
Not buying it.
Yes, of course, lots of strange things can happen. The Panthers might turn the ball over a bunch. The Broncos’ special teams might score a touchdown or two. The replay officials might overturn every Panthers catch. Also, it’s pro football, so at any point two-thirds of the Carolina players might have to enter the concussion protocol. But, barring something crazy, well, every way I look at this game I see the same thing: This is a TERRIBLE matchup for the Broncos. I don’t think they can stay within two touchdowns.
Yes, I do realize this opens me up to 10 bajillion angry “Told you sos” should the Broncos win the game or even keep it close. I accept that. My email box is open. I know people take picks personally. But this has nothing to do with disrespecting the Broncos. They’re a terrific team. And I don’t think I’m overrating the Panthers, either. I just think that when you cut through the Super Bowl hype, the Broncos’ weaknesses play right into the Panthers’ strengths. And that’s not a good thing for Denver.
Let’s look at what the Broncos will want to do. Offensively, they will want to run the ball and throw a lot of short passes. The Broncos are not a great running team, and Manning has shown no ability to throw the ball downfield. He has not completed a 40-yard pass in two months.
Well, no team in the NFL owns that zone 10 yards past the line of scrimmage more than the Panthers. Their linebacker duo of Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis are absurdly good at being everywhere. Defensive tackle Kawann Short pushes everything up the middle. Cornerback Josh Norman and safety Kurt Coleman LOVE jumping routes. The Panthers intercepted the most passes in the NFL and recovered the second-most fumbles. They feast on teams that cannot throw the ball downfield.
Now, maybe Manning — with two weeks rest and in warm weather — will regain some arm strength and confidence and regain his ability to throw the ball downfield one last time. Are you betting on that?
The Broncos’ defense is legitimately great, but, let’s be honest, is anyone stopping Cam Newton? This is a team that, save for the brain-dead game they had in Atlanta, is averaging 39 points per game since Thanksgiving. Newton offers a different sort of challenge from anything Denver has faced this year. Yes, the Broncos feast on immobile quarterbacks, but they haven’t defended against anyone like Newton, who can run or buy time or simply fight off defenders. The closest thing was probably Kansas City’s Alex Smith, and he led the Chiefs to one dominating victory and, though Smith struggled, the Chiefs probably should have won the other game they played against Denver.
Plus: Alex Smith ain’t Cam Newton.
The Panthers began this year believing they could be a pretty good team. They had a losing record last year but won their last four games to sneak in the playoffs. Then, they won a playoff game. Something was building. They started out the year with three professional but uninspiring victories. Then, they blew out a sub-par Tampa Bay team to go into their bye week at 4-0.
And I think it was right around then that the Panthers began to realize that they had a chance to be more than a pretty good team. They won at Seattle when no one expected that. They got to 8-0 by lighting up Green Bay for 37 points. They humiliated Dallas on Thanksgiving, outscored New Orleans in the Superdome and humiliated Atlanta to go 13-0.
In the playoffs, they took a 31-0 lead against the two-time NFC champion Seahawks and coasted. They won a name-the-score blowout against an Arizona team with the league’s second-best record. The Panthers come into the Super Bowl playing their best football and some of the best football we’ve seen in a while.
Newton has had a crazy, unprecedented season. He threw 38 touchdown passes, rushed for 12 more, and there’s really no defense that seems to slow him.
And it is hard to find words to describe just how good Kuechly is at linebacker. In the NFC title game, I spent an entire series focusing entirely on him. He never seems to take a wrong step. He’s always around the ball. He intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown for the second straight game. If you could get decent odds on him doing that in the Super Bowl, I’d say bet it.
The Panthers are marching toward one of the greatest seasons in NFL history. Sure, all week I’ve heard and read scenarios where the Broncos find a way to win the game. It’s possible, of course, but I’ve fallen for that one before. Not this time. It will be Carolina, and it will be big.