It took 18 games, a Super Bowl appearance and a Cam Newton-led dabbin’ phenomenon, but the Carolina Panthers have shed their underdog label.
In reality the Panthers have been favored in every game since midseason, and Super Bowl 50 against Denver is no exception.
The Panthers (17-1) opened as a 3.5-point favorite against Denver (14-4), but the line has since climbed to 5.5 points.
For most of this magical season, the Panthers have found some slight from a broadcaster or opponent to seize upon and use it for their motivational mojo.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
Not this week.
“We don’t need a chip. This is the Super Bowl,” said linebacker Thomas Davis, the team’s longest-tenured player. “You don’t need any extra motivation. You’re trying to be the last team standing. That’s the chip. You can’t make up bulletin board material. You shouldn’t need that. This is the Super Bowl.”
The Panthers might be the betting favorites, but Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning gets the sentimental vote in what is expected to be the last act of an 18-year career.
That might have bothered Davis and some of his defensive teammates earlier in the season when they were shackled with the “worst undefeated team” label.
But Davis understands the affinity many fans – and plenty in the media – have for Manning, the five-time MVP winner who has somehow made insurance commercials cool.
And he’s fine with it.
“This is a storyline that’s created by the media, and we don’t really get caught up in that. Of course, everybody wants to see him go out and perform at a high level and kind of ride off into the sunset, but that’s not what we’re trying to do,” Davis said. “We’re going out, we’re competing (and) we’re trying to win this football game.”
Since coming back from a torn plantar fascia, the 39-year-old Manning has been holding himself together with duct tape and rubber bands. But smart game management and salty performances by the league’s top-ranked defense carried the Broncos past Pittsburgh and New England in low-scoring playoff games.
The general consensus in the Bay area this week has been this: The Panthers should win, but wouldn’t it be great if Peyton did?
“Anyone who thinks about this game says logically, statistically, then all of a sudden you go, oh, but it’s Peyton. And you’re not sure,” said former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young, an ESPN analyst. “And that’s the amazing part about who he is. I just tip my cap to him.”
Just a little shade
While Davis says the Panthers aren’t looking for any motivating tools, one of Manning’s receiving targets might have provided one – although it’s a narrow target audience.
Denver wideout Emmanuel Sanders tossed a little shade in the direction of Pro Bowl cornerback Josh Norman on Wednesday by suggesting Norman is something of a media creation.
“He’s talked himself into the media,” Sanders told reporters at the Broncos’ base in Santa Clara.
Norman, as is his wont, fired back Thursday, the last day the teams are required to meet with the media.
“I think you’d have to be pretty darn good at what you do to talk your way into the spotlight. I’m sure if you’re not good, you’re not recognized as one of the best,” Norman said. “I haven’t been hearing much about him. Obviously he may want to go back and go practice some more.”
The ‘dark place’
Norman has fed off this sort of thing this season, going to his “dark place” against Dallas’ Dez Bryant after the receiver was said to have talked trash about him to Norman’s teammates before the Thanksgiving Day game.
Norman’s emotions boiled over in a Dec. 20 game against the Giants when he and wideout Odell Beckham Jr. were involved in a series of in-game fights and after-the-whistle hits.
Beckham was suspended one game for launching himself at Norman’s head, and Norman was fined $26,000 for his actions.
But Norman seemed to be more amused than upset by Sanders’ comments, attributing them to the media “buildup” to Sunday’s game (which, of course, he was right about).
Norman indicated Sanders’ shade did not merit a Super Bowl week trip to his dark place.
“You have to really do a lot of things to take me (there). And they haven’t pressed the right buttons yet,” Norman said. “I think they’re cool. They’re getting (free) passes right now so they’re cool.”
Wait until game day
But he’s reserving judgment in the event Sanders or any other Broncos player engages him at Levi’s Stadium.
“We’ll see those guys on Sunday,” Norman said. “We’ll see if that’s the same talk come (6:30) when we play them guys.”
But Norman, Davis and the rest of these Panthers long ago crashed the party, to borrow a Ron Rivera phrase. And with a win Sunday, they’d be the unruly guests who barged into Manning’s going-away shindig, knocked over the punch bowl and left without saying good-bye.
Dancing all the way.