During their most recent trip to the Super Bowl, two years ago, the Denver Broncos showed all that can go wrong by overthinking. Nothing short of a flawless performance was required to beat the Seahawks, and the Broncos didn’t give themselves a chance.
The day before the game, the team checked out of its hotel and relocated to an undisclosed location for the purpose of, well, only heaven knows. Accommodation adjustments are a minor hassle for players but a hassle just the same, and the Broncos, after a week of dealing with the distractions unique to the world’s gaudiest single-day sporting event, created an unnecessary distraction.
Nervous energy must be contained during a Super Bowl, where the pregame pageantry resembles an Orange Bowl halftime show on steroids. Between the military flyover, the fireworks and the confetti shower following the typically tear-inducing rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, even the most calloused pro athletes are prone to jitters.
Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, starting a Super Bowl for the third time, should have known this. But instead of keeping the first play simple, he called an audible that teammates were challenged to hear amid the fever-pitch din at MetLife Stadium. As the quarterback approached his line to reiterate instructions, center Manny Ramirez snapped the ball past Manning and into the end zone for a tone-setting safety.
So how does any of this apply to Denver vs. Carolina on Sunday? It fits into the category labeled “intangibles.” The Broncos, with an active roster that includes 18 Super Bowl veterans, are quite more familiar with the drill than the Panthers, who last appeared in this Show of Shows 13 years ago.
The this-ain’t-our-first-rodeo factor, I’ll grant you, can be overrated. Pete Carroll’s team went to New York City as Super Bowl novices and maintained its swagger under the brightest lights in America.
As cornerback Richard Sherman said that week: “I have never seen experience play in a game.”
Perhaps, but I suspect Manning’s experience in three other Super Bowls — efforts that varied from good to bad to ugly — will provide an edge for the Broncos should they keep the game close.
The Panthers have won 22 of their past 24 games, including the playoffs. Were the franchise based in a larger market, the debate on whether quarterback Cam Newton is an inspiration or an arrogance turns into a debate on where Cam Newton’s 2015 team ranks among the greatest in pro-football history.
Had the NFL been reduced to a two-team league this season, with one franchise in Carolina and the other in Denver, the Panthers finish 12-4 and the Broncos finish 4-12. In other words, I’m giving Denver a one-in-four chance of pulling off an upset.
Those are daunting odds, but not anything close to insurmountable if the Broncos protect the ball and eat up clock time on offense while their defense chases down Newton with the kind of bloodthirsty pursuit that converted Patriots quarterback Tom Brady into a human punching bag during the AFC Championship Game.
Newton is more mobile than Brady — heck, Newton might be more mobile than American Pharoah — but Wade Phillips, the Broncos’ savvy defensive coordinator, has been given two weeks to prepare a game plan. The plan figures to be steeped in containing Newton while simultaneously harassing him with nonpareil edge rushers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, who’ll consider their day complete when they chase down Derek Anderson, Carolina’s backup quarterback.
Speaking of backup quarterbacks: The Broncos will promote Brock Osweiler into a full-time starter next season, when the 39-year old Manning becomes a free agent unlikely to re-sign in Denver or, for that matter, anywhere else. That Super Bowl 50 looms as the last hurrah of Manning’s legendary career cannot be underestimated.
He’s no threat to throw deep, as Newton can and will, and when Manning’s receiving targets are smothered, he’s no threat to run, as Newton can and will.
But while Newton has every reason to believe he’ll return to the Super Bowl, this is it for Manning. Sunday provides him a forum for the kind of retirement address his boss, Hall-of-Fame quarterback John Elway, made as Super Bowl MVP of the 1998 Broncos.
No miracles are needed for Manning to enjoy a similarly scripted send-off. Protect the ball, control the clock, neutralize the Carolina defense with some play-action passes that move the chains and help produce enough points to win a game logic suggests the Broncos lose three times out of four.
A football is an oblong object prone to take uncertain bounces. The Panthers have participated in six fumble scrums during the playoffs, and they’ve recovered all six. What’s that about?
A crazy stat coming back to haunt them, is what that’s about.
Denver 24, Carolina 21.
If Peyton Manning shows up sleepless after a Saturday night spent tossing and turning on an unfamiliar hotel bed, and calls an audible his teammates can’t hear on the first play, all bets are off.
John McGrath: firstname.lastname@example.org