Super team. Super night. Super Bowl.
In the biggest NFL game ever played in Charlotte, the Carolina Panthers easily advanced to the biggest game of all. The Panthers’ 49-15 home blowout win over Arizona on Sunday night in the NFC Championship Game means Carolina will play in the Super Bowl at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 7 in Santa Clara, Calif., against the Denver Broncos.
Quarterback Cam Newton accounted for four touchdowns, played one of his best games ever on the brightest stage of his pro career and proclaimed afterward: “We’re not done yet!”
Underrated all season, Carolina is now favored by Las Vegas oddsmakers to beat the Broncos. When Newton was asked after the game how he felt, he smiled and said: “Super.”
The only downside to an extraordinary night: The Panthers sustained two serious injuries that might impact their quest for their first Super Bowl victory. Two of their defensive starters – Pro Bowl linebacker Thomas Davis (broken right arm) and safety Roman Harper (eye) – went out in the first half and did not return. Davis had his arm in a sling in the second half but said in the trophy ceremony after the game: “I wouldn’t miss the Super Bowl for the world.”
The Panthers decimated Arizona with Newton throwing for 335 yards and two touchdowns and running for two more scores. The Panthers’ defense and special teams contributed with an astonishing seven turnovers, including linebacker Luke Kuechly’s second straight playoff game with an interception return for a touchdown.
Other than the injuries, everything else worked out perfectly for the Panthers. They led 24-7 at halftime at Bank of America Stadium and just kept pouring it on. After Kuechly’s interception return for a touchdown, the stands were rocking as the Panthers came knocking on the Super Bowl door for the second time in franchise history.
In the 2003 postseason, Carolina lost the Super Bowl by a field goal to New England. These Panthers (17-1) won’t get a chance to avenge that defeat. Denver won 20-18 over the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game earlier Sunday after New England couldn’t make a two-point conversion in the final minute. So Carolina will instead face 39-year-old Denver quarterback Peyton Manning and a Broncos defense that is far stouter than Arizona’s.
Under a full moon on a brisk and clear night, many Panthers fans stood for much of the game – due both to excitement and a need for warmth. The Panthers pulled out all the stops, including owner Jerry Richardson banging the “Keep Pounding” drum. It was quite a night for Richardson, who later got to accept the NFC trophy.
As the Cardinals imploded Sunday night, Carolina exploded early for an 86-yard touchdown pass from Newton to Philly Brown and two enormous plays from wide receiver Ted Ginn.
Ginn took a reverse 22 yards for the game’s first touchdown. Later, in the second quarter, Newton fired his only really bad pass of the night – an overthrow that Arizona’s speedy cornerback, Patrick Peterson, grabbed at his own 6 and started taking the other way.
Just when it seemed that Peterson would go 94 yards for a touchdown, Ginn came streaking out of nowhere and ran Peterson down at the Carolina 22. Head coach Ron Rivera would later call that the play of the game. Panthers safety Kurt Coleman would then intercept a horrendous Carson Palmer (who had six of Arizona’s seven turnovers) on the next play, preserving the Panthers’ 17-point lead at halftime.
“It was about as bad a feeling as there is,” Palmer said.
Carolina extended its lead to 34-7 to begin the fourth quarter as Newton – the presumptive NFL MVP and the charismatic player who will attract more attention at Super Bowl 50 than any other – led the Panthers to 10 more points.
Blown leads have been Carolina’s bugaboo this season, and Carolina fans cringed when Arizona scored quickly to begin the fourth. But Coleman came through with his second interception of the night just short of the end zone. Newton would soon fire another touchdown pass, and Carolina won so comfortably that backup Derek Anderson finished off the final four minutes for the Panthers.
The Cardinals had defensive players yelling at each other on the sideline, a wide receiving corps that dropped all sorts of passes and a quarterback who looked shell-shocked.
Carolina’s quarterback, in the meantime, was the best player on the field. Superman was bound for the Super Bowl.
“For everyone who bleeds black and blue,” Newton said, “it’s been a long time coming.”
And, the quarterback said once again, the Panthers aren’t finished writing their own story. Said Newton: “Our pen has a lot more ink left.”