We should all be savvy enough by now to know what’s coming, to know the drill: The football media will spend a fortnight not only propping up the two Super Bowl quarterbacks as the co-stars of a great spectacle, while also flailing to paint them as polar opposites.
One is long past his prime and defying his expiration date; the other is entering the sweet spot of his career and getting more unstoppable by the game. One has an ass bound for a rocking chair, the other a face seemingly chiseled for Hollywood. One is a bookish X’s-and-O’s nerd, the other a free-flowing physical marvel. One is a statesman, the other a peacock. One can dance; the other is Cam Newton.
OK, forget that last part. As for the rest of it, we should at least try to receive those messages with grains of salt. The Denver Broncos’ Peyton Manning is still Peyton Manning, one of the finest to play the game and a leader at the very highest level. And the Carolina Panthers’ Newton is rapidly proving himself to be quite the same.
Their Super Bowl duel at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, will be fascinating in large part because of how alike these quarterbacks are. We’re all well-versed in the brilliance of Manning, a first-ballot Hall of Famer if ever there were one. And what is Newton if not brilliant? His decision-making in the Panthers’ read-option running game smacks of never-before-seen understanding and expertise. This is a player – an MVP-in-waiting – who threw for 24 touchdowns and just two interception over Carolina’s final nine regular-season games, which screamed football intelligence par excellence.
They are alike, as well, in the rarely seen breadth and effectiveness of their leadership. Manning has exemplified this forever with his playcalling and the unshakable trust teammates have in his ability to see things no offensive coordinator could. Newton does it with heaping confidence and panache, but also with his words. At halftime of Carolina’s 49-15 destruction of the Arizona Cardinals in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game, Newton spoke to his teammates and inspired them to collaborate in one of the greatest second halves of postseason football ever played.
“I didn’t give the message,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “The players gave themselves the message. Cam stepped up; the guys got behind him and went out and did their job.”
And they did — all of them — and we’re trafficking in too much quarterback hype here if we fail to acknowledge the complete and ruthless team Arizona met in Charlotte, and that the Broncos will in Santa Clara.
Carolina’s NFC title-game record for points was right on course for the team that led the league in scoring during the regular season. The ridiculous rout of the Cardinals was right in line for the team that was No. 1 in scoring margin. The four interceptions and seven total takeaways made nothing but sense in light of the Panthers’ top-cat standing in pickoffs and turnovers forced.
Hello – Luke Kuechly? Thomas Davis? Josh Norman? Greg Olsen? They’re all megawatt stars. They’re among a league-high 10 Panthers who were selected for the Pro Bowl, none of whom will play in that game because, you know, bigger fish to fry.
It’s not at all unreasonable to ask: Are these Panthers one of the best teams in NFL history? The question might seem jarring, but think about it. If Manning’s Broncos were 17-1, or if Tom Brady’s New England Patriots were 17-1, would we hesitate to ask it? If Aaron Rodgers had the Green Bay Packers at 17-1 and heading into the mother of all football games, would we slow our roll lest we sound too frothy at the mouth?
Carolina has spent four-plus months beating the shit out of nearly everybody in its path, and its quarterback is playing as well as anyone at his position ever has. Newton passed for 335 yards and two touchdowns and ran for two more scores on Sunday – again, brilliance.
“I don’t want the credit,” he said. “It’s the team. We won as a team.”
They did. As did the Broncos, who edged New England 20-18 with solid play from Manning and unrelenting quality from a defense that stands nose-to-nose with Carolina’s. It’s a team game. The better team will win the Super Bowl. It’s Panthers vs. Broncos, not Newton vs. Manning.
“I don’t want to make it personal,” Newton told FOX’s Terry Bradshaw on the victor’s podium at Bank of America Stadium, “because everybody worked their tails off to get to this point.”
As Newton spoke those words, chants of “MVP!” rained down from the stands. Manning – the only five-time MVP in NFL history – knows well what that sounds like. These quarterbacks will duel in a fortnight, and it will be fascinating and then some. What it won’t be is apples and oranges. Manning and Newton are of the same breed, regardless of what TV’s talking heads tell you in the days to come.