1. Ignore the haters, Cam
One Super Bowl 50 story line that’s already off and running is some people’s distaste for Cam Newton’s personality. The Panthers quarterback already has said he thinks race and the position he plays are factors. That could be true for some. But let’s be careful to differentiate the hardships of anything Newton perceives from fans not liking his celebrations to what his NFL forefathers actually faced and defeated while paving the way for Newton to get where he is today. In 1946, Browns running back Marion Motley helped break professional football’s color barrier by running over defenders who had just stomped on his fingers and called him unspeakable names on his way back to the huddle. Warren Moon’s Hall of Fame career began in Canada because the NFL wouldn’t let him play quarterback. People should admire Newton for being confident, talented and playful. But Cam should try to understand that his frequent celebrations can seem overly rehearsed to maximize personal glory and also can appear particularly unsportsmanlike when they’re done over an opponent that’s already been pummeled.
2. Manning and his ‘last rodeo’
Peyton Manning (above) probably has the quickest mind of any player to ever read a defense. But he’s a little slow in recognizing that there are no more private conversations at midfield following games that feature a future Hall of Fame coach and a future Hall of Fame quarterback meeting for possibly the final time. He seemed put off that NFL Films captured him telling Patriots coach Bill Belichick, “Hey, listen, this might be my last rodeo. So, it sure has been a pleasure.” Relax, Peyton. You turn 40 on March 24. You missed seven starts this season because your body is shot. You’re masterfully milking every last throw out of your right arm. But we don’t need a 50-yard-line whisper to know there aren’t many on-point wobblers left in that limb. The media love setting the stage for potential last rodeos.
3. Denver defense vs. Carolina offense
The last time Denver was on this stage, its No. 1-ranked scoring offense was embarrassed by a top-five scoring defense in a 43-8 loss to Seattle just two years ago. This year, Carolina has the No. 1-ranked scoring offense while Denver has the top-five scoring defense. General Manager John Elway’s shrewd signings and the hiring of Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator have rocketed the Broncos from 22nd in scoring defense (24.9) two years ago to No. 4 (18.5) this year. Last week, Manning played very well, but it was Denver’s defense hitting Tom Brady a season-high 20 times that helped Manning raise his playoff record against Brady to 3-1. Carolina’s offensive line is considerably better, ranking No. 2 as opposed to New England’s 25th-place ranking, according to Pro Football Focus.
4. Will Rivera go to Jared?
It appears DE Jared Allen (above) will play after missing the NFC Championship Game because of a broken foot suffered in the divisional playoff win over Seattle. Allen said this week that he’s practicing with “no limitations.” Allen, who posted 85 ½ of his 136 career regular-season sacks in six seasons with the Vikings, would be making his Super Bowl debut at age 33. Allen isn’t close to the player he once was. He’s tied for ninth in career sacks but has had only two sacks since being traded from Chicago in Week 4. Including the playoff win over Seattle, Allen has gone a career-high 10 games without a sack. But even if Carolina wins, it’s difficult to picture Allen walking away from any opportunity to continue his career. He needs only six more sacks to move into the top five in NFL history.
5. The Panthers play defense, too
Thirty years ago, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera played linebacker for the Bears during a 15-1 season that ended with a blowout win in Super Bowl XX. No, Carolina’s defense is not as dominant at the ’85 Bears. But this is an elite group that does one very important thing better than anyone else: force takeaways. Carolina led the league in takeaways (39), turnover margin (plus-20) and net points off turnovers (116) during the regular season. In two postseason games, the Panthers have nine takeaways and a plus-8 turnover margin. They’ve also scored 31 points off turnovers and allowed zero. Luke Kuechly (above) has picked off two passes this postseason and returned both for scores.