The Broncos have a fading star quarterback, the Panthers an ascendant one.
Denver has been on this stage seven times before, most recently in 2014, and has won two titles. Carolina only began playing in 1995, has been to one previous Super Bowl and is one of 13 franchises without a Lombardi Trophy.
The Broncos will wear white, and because this may be Peyton Manning’s final game, they are the sentimental favorite. The Panthers come dressed in black. They’re brash, like to dance on the sidelines, represent youth and are considered the party crashers.
There are some notable contrasts for Super Bowl 50, and they and the teams’ disparate quarterbacks have been the dominating story lines in the run-up to Sunday’s game at Levi’s Stadium. But it’s the Broncos’ and Panthers’ shared strength – an excellent defense – that likely will determine the winner.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was asked during the week what it will be like to duel with a legend like Manning.
“Well, fortunately for me, I don’t have to face Peyton Manning,” Newton said. “I think my hands are pretty full trying to slide the protection the right way to (outside linebackers) DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller.”
Ware and Miller – who rush from either side of Denver’s defensive line – are the headliners of a defense that finished first in the NFL this season in fewest yards allowed, sacks and forced fumbles and tied for the league lead with four defensive touchdowns. Teams that have entered the Super Bowl with the No. 1-ranked defense are 9-2 in the game.
Denver’s defense carried the Broncos when Manning, 39 years old and four years removed from neck surgery, was wobbly to start the season and through the six games he missed with a foot injury.
Manning, tied with Drew Brees for the most 300-plus-yard passing games in a career with 102, had only two such games this season. He averaged 199 passing yards in Denver’s two playoff wins and has been a game manager for the most part.
“All the offensive guys, we certainly want to try to carry our weight and not take our defense for granted,” Manning said. “We’re working hard this week to have a good week of practice and try to prepare. But we have a tremendous challenge in front of us facing the Panthers’ defense.”
Carolina has at least one Pro Bowl player at every level of its defense.
That includes defensive lineman Kawann Short, who had 11 sacks and three forced fumbles (two recoveries) during the regular season; linebacker Luke Kuechly, who led the team in tackles and had four interceptions; and cornerback Josh Norman, who scored two touchdowns after interceptions.
The Panthers’ defense began calling itself “Thieves Avenue” in the offseason, had a street sign printed and hung it in the locker room. Then they backed up the moniker by leading the league with 39 takeaways in the regular season.
Norman said the defensive backs made sure to take the street sign with them to California.
“Darn right, we brought it,” he said. “It’s sitting right there up outside our lockers. We have a group on the side where it’s just our alley, our avenue. … We are thieves on Thieves Avenue. We have a whole street with nothing but DBs (defensive backs) on it.”
Manning was engulfed by Seattle’s swarming defense the last time he played in the Super Bowl, and the winning quarterback Sunday may be the one who simply avoids mistakes.
That’s something the Broncos’ and Panthers’ opponents failed to do in the conference championship games.
Denver sacked New England’s Tom Brady four times and hit him 20 times. Brady had a 56.4 passer rating, his lowest since Oct. 20, 2013. The Cardinals’ Carson Palmer was even worse against Carolina, throwing four interceptions, losing two fumbles and finishing with a 43.2 passer rating.
Miller, who had 2 1/2 sacks in the AFC championship game, said he hopes the prospect of Manning’s last game and Ware’s first Super Bowl will squeeze another big performance from him.
“I am hoping,” Miller said. “I’m coming with the same exact game plan that I had throughout the playoffs – trying to lay it out on the line for DeMarcus and Peyton. You always get a little bit extra energy and you are a little tougher when you are doing it for someone else. I am doing it for Peyton and doing it for DeMarcus.”