The face of the Carolina Panthers wore a scowl under a dark hoodie after Super Bowl 50 – a far cry from the smiles, the dances and the exuberance that marked the first five months of this magical season.
There was none of that Sunday in Levi’s Stadium after quarterback Cam Newton was buried under an avalanche of sacks that left the league MVP in a foul mood following the Denver Broncos’ 24-10 victory.
Newton put the Panthers (17-2) on his shoulders this season, dabbing throughout a 15-1 regular season and two playoff victories. But the music stopped Sunday in the face of a ferocious Denver pass rush.
Outside linebacker Von Miller had 2.5 of the Broncos’ seven sacks, including two that resulted in Newton fumbles. Defensive end Malik Jackson recovered the first one in the end zone to give the Broncos (15-4) a 10-0 lead in the first quarter.
But the second one might leave a mark on Newton, whose failure to dive for the loose ball was questioned during the CBS broadcast and made him a target on social media before the confetti had even begun to fall.
Trailing 16-10 with about four minutes left, the Panthers faced a third-and-9 at their 25.
Miller, who would be named the game’s MVP, again beat right tackle Mike Remmers, reached from behind Newton and swatted the ball loose. Newton made a move to go for the ball, but then backed off as a couple of Denver defenders dived toward it.
Broncos safety T.J. Ward wound up with the recovery and returned it 12 yards to the Carolina 4.
A few players later C.J. Anderson barreled in for a 2-yard touchdown run, and a 2-point conversion set the final score.
Afterward a sullen Newton offered little in the way of explanation, saying he didn’t know why he hadn’t gone after the ball with a little more gusto.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera thought Newton was positioning himself for the recovery.
“I think he was just waiting for it to pop out. Seriously,” Rivera said. “Unfortunately it popped out further away from him.”
Several of Newton’s teammates said they weren’t sure what happened on the play.
“I couldn’t really tell. Didn’t look at the replay,” wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said. “Just everything that was going on in the situation, we’re just trying to figure out what we had to do after that.”
This is not to lay all the blame at Newton’s feet.
The Panthers’ offense was overwhelmed by the Broncos’ pass rush, which sacked Newton six times and threw wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. for another sack on Mike Shula’s ill-fated trick play.
Remmers had a particularly tough time with Miller, and DeMarcus Ware had two sacks while lined up against left tackle Michael Oher.
Tight end Ed Dickson said the Panthers “left the tackles out to dry” by putting them in too many 1-on-1 matchups against the Broncos’ vaunted edge rushers.
And when Oher did get help, it wasn’t always effective. Running back Fozzy Whittaker knocked Oher off his block of Ware when he tried to chip-block, resulting in a Ware sack at the end of the first half.
Asked whether the Panthers had given Remmers enough help, Rivera said: “You can’t give it to him all the time. Sometimes you’ve got to make plays.”
Newton was attempting to join Joe Namath and Joe Montana as the only quarterbacks to win a Super Bowl and college national title.
Instead, Peyton Manning won his second ring while becoming the oldest quarterback (39) to start a Super Bowl.
“I’m going to drink a lot of Budweiser tonight,” Manning said afterward.
The defense tried to keep Carolina in the game, forcing the Broncos into eight 3-and-outs and only 194 total yards.
Defensive end Kony Ealy almost single-handedly kept the Panthers within striking distance. Ealy had three sacks, a forced fumble an interception – all of which he’d collected in his first 16 snaps.
But the Panthers just couldn’t get going offensively.
The 10 points were their fewest since a 28-10 loss to New Orleans on Oct. 20, 2014.
The Panthers trailed 13-7 at the half, despite a first half that included three fumbles (two lost), four sacks allowed and four drops by receivers.
The Panthers fell into a 10-0 hole after a horrible three-play sequence in the first quarter, that ended with Jackson’s recovery of Newton’s fumble in the end zone.
After Carolina took over at its 15, Jerricho Cotchery bobbled a perfectly thrown pass by Newton before trying to corral it as he went to the ground. It was the first of three drops for the normally sure-handed Cotchery.
The Panthers led the league in turnover margin during the regular season, but lost the turnover battle 4-2 Sunday.
“I give credit to them. They have a great defense. They most certainly do. But you’ve got to play clean football against a great defense,” Cotchery said. “Just got to make the plays when you have opportunities to make plays. I know I had a couple.”
“We played 17, 18, 19 games before (Sunday),” Panthers tight end Greg Olsen added. “We picked a really bad day to kind of have a meltdown.”
Newton didn’t melt down at his post-game press conference, but he returned to the sulking that marked his early years in the league.
He answered about a dozen questions – using mostly terse responses – before leaving after three minutes.
Newton has been characterized as the world’s best winner and its worst loser.
As Rivera walked through the bowels of Levi’s Stadium on Sunday night, he indicated he had heard about Newton’s news conference.
“He’ll learn and grow from it,” Rivera told an Observer reporter. “He came here to win. He didn’t come here to lose.”
Then someone approached Rivera, gave him a hug and told him the Panthers would “get ‘em next year.”
“I know that,” Rivera said.
And if they do, Newton will be the one to lead them there – smiling or otherwise.