The Carolina Panthers Supersized their mistakes. They Supersized their turnovers. And ultimately on Sunday night they took a Supersized fall, losing 24-10 to the Denver Broncos.
You’re probably feeling bad, and that’s understandable. After two weeks of buildup, what a letdown Super Bowl 50 was.
Although the Panthers had the best season in team history at 17-2, they didn’t play nearly well enough on the game’s biggest stage. When the Panthers kept pounding, the Broncos pounded back even harder.
Carolina, the highest-scoring team in the NFL this season, only managed one touchdown.
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Still, only down 16-10 because of a very good defensive effort, Carolina got the ball twice in the fourth quarter, with nine minutes left and then with 4:51 to go, in a one-score game. Cam Newton would get two chances to work the magic that he conjured all season.
But on the first possession, Carolina didn’t get a first down. And the second one was even worse. Newton had his third turnover of the game, when Von Miller stripped the ball from Newton for the second time.
Then the quarterback made another embarrassing mistake when he didn’t try to dive into the pile to get his own fumble, instead stepping slightly back and away from the ball. That play will stick in Newton’s craw the entire offseason, and it will haunt Panthers fans as well.
The result of that fourth and final Carolina turnover: a Denver recovery at the Carolina 4. A touchdown and two-point conversion for Denver put the game out of reach.
Favored by nearly a touchdown, the Panthers never led. Denver’s pass rush dominated the game – with Super Bowl MVP outside linebacker Miller repeatedly torching overmatched offensive tackle Mike Remmers. And 39-year-old quarterback Peyton Manning did just enough to win a Super Bowl in what may have been his final NFL contest.
Manning said after the game he was going to “drink a lot of beer tonight” and kiss his wife and kids before he decided whether he was going to retire.
Carolina’s litany of mistakes was long and painful. Four turnovers. A 61-yard punt return allowed to Denver – the longest in Super Bowl history. Twelve Panthers penalties – including six before the ball was ever snapped. A missed 44-yard field goal by Graham Gano. Three drops from the normally sure-handed Jerricho Cotchery.
Add it all up and the Panthers failed in their second Super Bowl try, just as they did 12 years ago in a last-second loss to New England.
In that Super Bowl at least the Panthers were able to move the ball in the fourth quarter. In this one, which did not include a passing touchdown from either team, they ineffectively played catch-up all the way.
Denver’s dazzling defense ended all the dabbing, dancing and “Superman” celebrations for the Panthers and for Newton, who had been revealed as the landslide winner of the NFL Most Valuable Player award the night before the game.
Said Denver tight end Owen Daniels of the Broncos defensive performance against Newton: “To do that to the guy that’s changing the game? Unbelievable.”
Playing against the No. 1 scoring team in the NFL, Denver’s defense scored the same number of touchdowns (one) as Carolina’s offense did. Carolina couldn’t run the ball, couldn’t pass protect and got too many high throws and hesitation from Newton, who regressed under the face of Denver’s incessant punishment. The Panthers offense only went 3-for-15 on third downs.
The first touchdown of the game came after Miller, the No. 2 pick in the 2011 draft, beat Remmers on the left side. Then Miller ripped the ball out from Newton (the No. 1 pick in the same draft). With the ball bouncing in the end zone, Denver’s Malik Jackson hopped on it and Carolina was quickly down, 10-0.
The rest of the game was a slog, a series of “almosts” for Carolina in a game played at the San Francisco 49ers home stadium before a crowd that leaned toward the Broncos. The Panthers made some big plays – they had two pass plays for 40-plus yards in the third quarter – but got no points out of either of those drives. On one, Newton threw a third-quarter interception that glanced directly off Ted Ginn’s hands.
Desperately needing to play mistake-free football as they entered the fourth quarter down 16-7, the Panthers instead continued their unfortunate theme. Only Panthers defensive end Kony Ealy – playing the game of his life with three sacks, a fumble forced and recovered and a one-handed interception – kept Carolina close.
“We just made too many mistakes,” Ealy said, “and it cost us.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera told his team this afterward: “We’re at the top of the mountain, but we’re not at the peak.... This is the same [Denver] team that a couple of years ago got beat in New York [in the Super Bowl].... So we need to learn from this experience and give ourselves an opportunity to get back here.”
The Panthers defense held Manning and company down for much of the game but missed out on several other potential turnovers and never made an enormous play like Miller’s sack that turned into an immediate touchdown.
Ultimately, Carolina’s offense couldn’t get Greg Olsen loose, couldn’t get running back Jonathan Stewart going and couldn’t get Newton to play like an MVP. After averaging 40 points in their first two playoff victories, this time the Panthers scored only a fourth of that.
The Broncos defense was simply overwhelming – playing better D than Carolina had seen at any time during the season.
And it was a rocky ending for the Panthers, who are already finding out that second place is one of the cruelest fates in sports.