SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The superstar known as Superman had a choice to make, and on paper, it seemed like a super simple one: With the football on the ground and the Carolina Panthers‘ season hanging in the balance, Cam Newton — the NFL’s newly crowned MVP and most physically imposing quarterback — surely needed to dive headlong into the impending pile of bodies at his 18-yard-line to try to prevent the Denver Broncos from seizing control of Super Bowl 50.
Except Superman, after absorbing several hours’ worth of punitive pummeling from the league’s best defense, wasn’t feeling super into it: Newton hesitated, turned his body, and retreated from a potential collision as he awkwardly hit the ground. The ensuing convergence of other bodies sent the ball careening backward, where Broncos safety T.J. Ward scooped up the fumble and advanced it to within four yards of the end zone.
And as Newton sat there on his knees watching the Broncos celebrate their fourth and final takeaway — in this case, the dagger that would set up the final eight points of their 24-10 victory — it seemed very apparent to the defenders who had harassed him all day that he’d essentially made a less-than-valiant business decision.
“If he would have touched that ball, I was gonna hit him right in his face, and I wasn’t the only one,” Ward said about 90 minutes after the Broncos had completed their triumph in front of 71,088 fans at Levi’s Stadium and hundreds of millions of television viewers worldwide. “We were hungry for that one. We saw that ball and it was like hyenas on an antelope.
“And I don’t know — maybe he needed to stay healthy for next year.”
By the time the Panthers‘ next drive had ended, with the NFL’s newly crowned Coach of the Year Ron Rivera — aka Riverboat Ron — electing to punt on fourth-and-24 from his own 6, it was clear that this year belonged to the underdogs who proved to be top dogs.
Meanwhile, the NFC champion Panthers, with their 17-1 record coming in and an unabashed proclivity for conspicuous celebration, learned quite forcefully that the motto Keep Pounding can be cruelly flipped upon its head.
“They thought they were going to come in and run the football and throw it all over the place — what?” cornerback Chris Harris asked incredulously as he celebrated on the confetti-drenched field after the game. “They hadn’t watched us live. And it’s a shock to the system.
“Cam was scared to throw it. He looked blind. He couldn’t figure out where to throw. That’s what pressure does, man.”
Just as the Broncos had done in their 20-18 triumph over the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, when a defensive front led by bookend Pro Bowl pass rushers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware got in future Hall of Famer Tom Brady‘s grill over and over and over again, Newton and the league’s No. 1-ranked offense were completely neutralized.
The stifling of Superman began on the Panthers‘ seventh play from scrimmage when Newton, on third-and-10 from his own 15, took a shotgun snap and got absolutely engulfed by the Broncos‘ front. The first to reach the retreating quarterback was Miller, who abused right tackle Mike Remmers, delivered a high hit on Newton and ripped the ball from his throwing hand.
That sent Ware and defensive end Malik Jackson lunging into the end zone, with Jackson gathering it for the touchdown that gave Denver a 10-0 lead with 6:27 left in the first quarter.
“I was just being me,” Miller said. “Our defense is amazing, and I just love being part of it.”
It was the beginning of what would be a Super Bowl MVP performance for Miller (six tackles, 2.5 sacks, one pass defensed, two forced fumbles), who’ll surely add another ornament to his marvelous man cave, and for his teammates: Newton, who hadn’t suffered more than six hits in a game this season, got tagged 13 times by the Broncos; he completed just 18 of 41 passes for 265 yards, with no touchdowns and an interception, absorbing six sacks in the process.
During his stellar 2015 season, Newton chafed when criticized by opposing players or outsiders for his prolonged and gaudy displays of exuberance — including the now ubiquitous dabbing — essentially telling them, If you don’t like me dancing in the end zone, then don’t let me in.
“They really have a simple offense. They come out in a bunch of different formations that they shift around, and they run one or two plays out of them. If you can figure out the formations, what they do is really simple. We knew he wasn’t gonna come out and tear us up. We knew all their looks.”
And the Broncos needed to, because their own future Hall of Fame quarterback looked every bit of his 39 years against a powerful Panthers defense. In a statistically soft performance reminiscent of that of his boss, Denver general manager John Elway, in the Broncos‘ Super Bowl XXXII upset of the Green Bay Packers, Manning (13 for 23, 141 yards, no touchdowns, one interception) did just enough to burnish his already luminous legacy.
Never mind that the Broncos‘ 194 total yards were the fewest by a Super Bowl winner; if Manning decides to retire after a second championship, as Elway did following the Broncos‘ Super Bowl XXXIII thrashing of the Atlanta Falcons, he’ll do so with a slew of significant NFL records, including 200 career combined regular season and playoff victories as a starting quarterback, Sunday’s triumphant having broken a tie with newly elected Hall of Famer Brett Favre.
Two years earlier, Manning’s second career Super Bowl defeat had been set in motion by his first play from scrimmage: After lining up to take a shotgun snap, Manning was barking out signals when center Manny Ramirez, confused by the crowd noise, snapped the ball past the unsuspecting quarterback’s head and out of the end zone for a safety, propelling the Seattle Seahawks to a 43-8 victory.
About an hour before the game, as he stood on the Broncos‘ sideline, Elway — who has since reshaped the Broncos into a tougher, defense-dominated ensemble — referred to that Super Bowl XLVIII fiasco, joking, “If we can get to the second play, we’ve got a chance.”
This time, on first-and-10 from his own 20, Manning took a traditional snap from under center, dropped back and completed an 18-yard pass to Owen Daniels, launching a 10-play, 64-yard drive that ended with the first of Brandon McManus‘ three field goals.
The Broncos‘ defense, naturally, responded with a three-and-out, as Talib tackled tight end Greg Olsen a yard short of a first down. And when Miller’s strip and Jackson’s recovery produced points on Carolina’s next drive, a very clear tone had been set.
Still, after closing to within 16-10 on Graham Gano‘s 39-yard field goal with 10:24 left in the game, the Panthers had consecutive drives on which they could have gone ahead with a touchdown. The first ended with a punt; the second, with the business decision that may go down as Newton’s no mas moment.
On third-and-9 from his own 25, Newton took a shotgun snap, felt pressure and tried to hurry a throw downfield. He didn’t hurry enough: Miller, having beaten Remmers again, dislodged the ball as the quarterback was beginning his delivery. As Newton stopped and backed off, the diving Ware had the best chance of recovering the fumble, but instead it ricocheted backward and into the open, where Ward scrambled to make the lethal scoop.
“He tapped out,” Talib said of Newton. “Yeah, he didn’t want it.”
After C.J. Anderson (23 carries, 90 yards) bulled past the Panthers‘ star middle linebacker, Luke Kuechly, and into the end zone, Manning threw what may prove to be the final pass of his career, a two-point conversion to receiver Bennie Fowler to put the Broncos up by 14. The math did not work in Carolina’s favor, but after a pair of incompletions sandwiched around a 14-yard Ware sack but the Panthers in a fourth-and-24 hole, Rivera essentially surrendered all statistical probability of winning by sending out the punt team.
Even Talib was somewhat aghast. “I was telling them to go for it, but Coach Mike (Shula, the Panthers‘ offensive coordinator) wasn’t listening to me,” Talib recalled. “I said, ‘Y’all ain’t gonna go for it? Really?’ That was their last shot.”
While the Panthers left Northern California nursing their mental and emotional wounds, some of the Broncos‘ defenders took some parting verbal shots, while others attempted to give the unit its historical due.
Said receiver Demaryius Thomas: “Cam’s gotta be freaked out. He hadn’t seen anything like that all season.”
“We’re that good,” Harris said. “We’re that dominant. People were saying this team would roll over us. I don’t know what film they watched. We said we were one of the best teams in a long time, and we backed it up. Defense wins championships.”
Let the record show that on Super Sunday in Santa Clara, the Denver defense turned Superman into a dude whose prime motive was self-preservation. The Broncos didn’t let Newton dance, and they strutted off as champions, perhaps handing a better-than-a-gold-watch parting gift to an all-time great.
“We’ve got to tell everybody we’re the best,” Ward said as he soaked up the falling confetti shortly before taking the victory podium with his teammates. “They couldn’t do anything on the defense. They couldn’t touch us.”
Yet the Broncos kept pounding Newton, over and over and over again, until Superman submitted.
Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.