Five storylines to watch for Sunday’s Super Bowl between the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers:
1. Manning’s last ride?
Future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning has given no public indication that Super Bowl 50 will be the final game of his NFL career, but it makes sense to think it probably will, especially if his Broncos win.
Manning, who turns 40 in March, is one of the best signal callers in NFL history by most statistical measures and is the league’s only five-time Most Valuable Player.
Already a Super Bowl champion, perhaps the only criticism of Manning is his postseason record since he owns the record for most playoff losses with 13, including two in the title game.
But a victory in his fourth Super Bowl appearance would come at the end of what was the worst statistical regular season of his career during which he temporarily lost his starting job due to injuries that limited his throwing ability.
2. Top offense versus top defense
The top-seeded Carolina Panthers are the NFL’s top-scoring team, averaging 31.2 points per game, due to a diverse and punishing run game combined with the unique qualities of Cam Newton, the league’s likely MVP.
The mix of Newton, who is peerless when it comes to his passing and running ability, and a running game powered by Pro Bowl running back Jonathan Stewart makes the Panthers’ nearly-unstoppable offense extremely difficult to defend.
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But they will face their toughest test yet when they come up against a Denver Broncos defense that is coming off a dominant performance against the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.
Denver led the NFL in fewest yards allowed, had more sacks than any other team, boast the best defensive line in football and their best chance of winning Super Bowl 50 will likely come down to whether their defense can slow down the high-octane Carolina offense.
3. Cam Newton’s coronation
Nearly five years after being chosen as the first overall draft pick by the Carolina Panthers, Cam Newton stands on the verge of greatness.
Newton, the likely recipient of the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award after leading all quarterbacks with 45 touchdowns, enters the Super Bowl with a chance to be the recipient of the proverbial passing of the torch from Denver’ Peyton Manning.
One of the greatest dual-threat quarterbacks in NFL history, Newton has the running ability to hurt any defense and a pocket passer’s arm and size that can beat a team downfield.
Newton relishes the spotlight, which will not shine any brighter than on Sunday when he gets a shot to become only the third starting quarterback to win both a Super Bowl and NCAA Championship, the latter which he won with Auburn in 2011.
A number of high-profile gaffes by game officials during the NFL’s 2015 campaign led to policy changes for the playoffs and the league will surely be hoping the men in stripes can steer clear of any controversy in the biggest game of the season.
When the Super Bowl referees were announced it raised some eyebrows as the leader of the seven-man officiating crew, Clete Blakeman, is no stranger to some bizarre episodes in his career.
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Blakeman was the official who botched the overtime coin flip in last month’s NFC Divisional Playoff game between the Arizona Cardinals and Green Bay Packers when the coin landed on heads without ever flipping over.
The sixth-year referee, however, is best remembered for a game in 2013 when he wiped out a penalty call in the end zone on the final play that would have given New England another shot at victory over the Carolina Panthers without an explanation.
5. Elway realizes vision
John Elway has rebuilt the Denver Broncos since being named vice president of football operations in 2011 and is credited with making all the right moves as the team stand one win away from their first Super Bowl title in 17 years.
After watching Denver fall 43-8 to the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl two years ago, the Hall of Fame quarterback vowed to assemble a team that resembled the Denver squad he won two consecutive Super Bowl titles with in the late 1990s.
He made an unpopular choice to fire the head coach after last season and has also assembled a powerhouse defensive corps through free agency that has reshaped the team and taken some of the burden off aging quarterback Peyton Manning.
Elway went 2-3 in Super Bowl games as a player and is 0-1 in his tenure as an executive.
(Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina; Editing by Frank Pingue)