Carolina Panthers Earn Berth in Super Bowl 50

The deed, as they say, is done.

FINALLY. After twelve long years, the Carolina Panthers have earned their way back to the Super Bowl, and a milestone one at that - the fiftieth Super Bowl ever played. 

Not only did all three of Inside the NFL's highly-compensated "experts" pick Arizona to win the game, which put me greatly at ease because I know how stupid they are, but the Panthers completely annihilated the "better" Arizona Cardinals. Hard to win when your QB forks the ball over six times (4 INTS, 2 FUM) and a teammate adds another turnover for a lucky seven, isn't it?

Meanwhile, the Panthers had a lone turnover on an errant throw by Newton - only his second pick over the past ten games. Otherwise, it's safe to say the Carolina Panthers simply dominated that ball game. I was thinking Josh Norman would be the key here and that we might see him shadowing Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona's best receiver, all over the field....even into the slot, where he never covers.

Ron Rivera had even more outrageous of an idea. Put rookie LINEBACKER Shaq Thompson on him when in man coverage instead of their usual zone. The result? Fitz had 30 yards receiving. 

Folks, I think we got us another special player in Shaq Thompson, but he'll show that more next season. For now, we'll need him more than ever with Thomas Davis, who broke his arm in last night's victory, already having had surgery on it. He vows to play, and I certainly won't count him out.

Newton had 355 passing yards, 86 of which came on a long TD pass to Philly Brown. Cam had what's become a typical "Cam day" with 2 TD passes and 2 rushing TDs to add to it. It seems like every game, he has some catapulting, whirling, acrobatic scoring run and his last night were no exceptions.

Cam Newton is Changing how the Game is Played

I really got to thinking on his first rushing TD - the one where he jumped, held the ball out to "break the goal line plane," and fell back to the one yard line, where he went down. The officials correctly called the play a TD as replay showed it clearly was valid.

What got me thinking, however, is Cam's "new" approach to ancient rules. The rule for what constitutes a TD hasn't changed: simply have the ball under your possession and control while any part of the football breaks the infinite vertical plane rising up from the front part of the goal line paint.

It's a very forgiving definition, and instead of plowing through piles of sweaty, smelly guys, Cam puts his cape on and soars high above them, reaching out with the ball in both his huge, strong hands, and "dunking on" the defense as we fans have come to call it. Cam certainly is the best power-running QB in NFL history so far as I see, but his freakish athleticism allows him to flip that brute force around to the exact opposite: a graceful and delicate maneuver that has its own beauty about it in both its effectiveness and its simplicity.

Cam and the scheme which underrated OC Mike Shula has put together is nothing short of brilliantly devious and for several reasons.

Why the Denver Broncos Don't Have a Prayer

Denver has never faced an offensive scheme that remotely resembles that of Carolina's and the Panther offense presents a specific problem that gives said cats the distinct advantage. 

First, the scheme I mentioned above: Cam has 6-10 designed running plays that are called in the huddle where he's the ball carrier. There are at least three true running threats on the field on any given play...Cam, Mike "The Hulk" Tolbert, and Jonathan "The Thing" Stewart...nicknames added since we're having fun right about now.

Secondly, the team pulls a lot of misdirection plays that are uniquely effective because of all the running threats on the field. On that reverse where Ted Ginn, Jr. scored a TD, the play ultimately was designed to go around the left side. Center Ryan Kalil pulled left while the LG pulled right. The play started out to the right when Ginn got the ball flipped in the air for him to nab (wasn't a pass, just a vertical lob in place of a handoff so Teddy can catch THOSE), and he went around left, but wound up scoring by running fifty yards BACK across the field, outrunning the Arizona defense who was unable to pursue the blazer in space.

Thirdly, the Broncos haven't seen a scheme like this and will see it plenty on film the next two weeks, but so have all the other teams that have fallen victim to Carolina's offensive chicanery. It's one thing to have an idea what's going on but with as physical an offense as exists in the NFL these days, it's quite another thing to stop it.

With Cam's rushing ability, the dynamics of playing defense change entirely. Instead of having a built-in 11-on-10 advantage for the defense like traditional offenses run, Cam ups the ante to an 11-on-11 straight-up ball play. Since Cam is larger AND faster than most defensive players, including linebackers, it makes stopping the offense on a regular basis a very difficult thing, and something nobody has truly been able to do. Even in their lone loss vs. Atlanta, it was against a team that had more intimate knowledge of Cam and the Panthers' scheme than any of the other 30 NFL teams. That does a number of things, all of them positive for the offense. For instance, you have to assign someone to Newton, take that defender out of coverage, and this in turn simplifies reads for Cam in the play-action passing game.

It also means some poor bastard has to actually go TACKLE CAMVP. Since I'm just a poor blogger, you COULD pay me enough to TRY to tackle him, but I can't promise results much beyond laughter...and probably some pain on my part for weeks. Perhaps even a trip to the dentist as well.

It was their second meeting in three weeks, so things were fresh in Atlanta's mind. They wanted to be the ones to defeat an undefeated team, so there's extra motivation. Head Coach Dan Quinn was Seattle's DC for years in the past, so he had the valuable experience of having faced Cam and that incredibly unique offense a number of times in the past, and as a defensive-minded head coach, it took all that blended together to stymie the Panthers all day. But it also had a negative effect for the rest of the NFL.

It woke them up.

Losing One Game CAN be a Good Thing

I've never liked platitudes, especially testosterone-fueled self-delusional thinking that so many NFL tough guys and fans that wish to emulate that "tough attitude" but only come across as deficient in a certain important male bodily area in terms of lack of size often parrot for me to take seriously.

The mantra makes a nice bumper sticker: "Nothing good ever comes from losing." Well, it sounds nice but there's one minor problem.

It's complete bullshit.

Being the son of a PhD in Psychology doesn't make me an expert, but life unfortunately has in some ways, plus I have access to specific questions to ask of him about whatever the question may be. This one, I didn't have to ask. I've played sports before, so I know first-hand.

Constant winning can breed complacency and that feeling of invulnerability...SOMEONE will make a play and we'll keep winning...but after a while, everyone is looking for the other guy to be the one to make the play, or they subconsciously relax out of historical results and "routine." 

These fans who say "yeah, but losing proves to all the other teams that you can be beaten" are equally clueless. For one thing, if you go into a game thinking your opponent can't be beaten, you're NOT going to change that with your play because you are defeated before you set foot on the gridiron and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What IS important is that it shows the players on the losing team that, yes, THEY CAN lose, because they just DID.

That's a much, much more powerful lesson for the defeated team than it is for the winning one. I have always thought you learn more from your failures than you do from your successes because you learn the hard way what does NOT work, or how your approach was wrong, how your relaxing attitude was a contributing factor, etc. It serves to re-focus the entire team on the task at hand, and for that, we should be thankful for those Atlanta Slobbergoats. I mean Falcons.

How Denver Must Start the Game to Even Have A Shot

It's pretty simple - the Broncos will  have to be the team to jump out to an early lead in order to make the game close. If they don't, Super Bowl 50 could likely be another blowout going against the Broncos and Peyton Manning in the last few years. 

Carolina's unique offense often catches defenses by surprise because of the "novelty" of the thing and defenders have to settle into a new/different mindset of defense from what they're used to. Meanwhile, Carolina is scoring points....7, 14, 17 or 21, sometimes 28 or 30, 31...before the other team finally is able to get through a Carolina defense that's as stout as anybody's.

By then, it's too late. Yes, our defense has blown big leads but always not quite enough to lose the game, and I don't think anybody is going to be loafing during play in the Super Bowl. What happens is the offense has to play from behind, mainly ditching the running game, and forcing QBs to the air while Sean McDermott's ball-hawking, shady defense is waiting...pushing, jamming, choking every passing lane while pressure forces the QB to unleash an ill-advised pass attempt into the waiting trap set usually either by Luke Kuechly or Kurt Coleman. Josh Norman's reputation is so good that his guy is rarely even targeted.

If the Broncos' top-rated defense can slow down the Panthers especially in the first quarter, and Denver's offense can get a solid TD drive or to finished off through the teeth of a defense that's really as good as their own is in general, THEN the shoe will be on the other foot and the Panthers will have to make the comeback. Although Carolina's weapons aren't vast in number, TE Greg Olsen is an "elite" receiving threat and Cam is an "elite" dual-threat QB who, as I have pointed out before, is changing the way the game is played.

That'll force the Panthers to fight hard for the win, which both teams will be doing anyway, but I just don't see Peyton Manning's arm being the deciding factor in favor of the Broncos. In fact, it might just be what loses the game for them and shames him into finally retiring.

Manning is No Longer an "Elite QB"

This isn't to put-down or minimize Peyton's career in any way. He's done it all, including winning one previous Super Bowl, and has as much hardware awards as anyone ever has, pretty much. His knowledge of the game is vastly superior to Cam's and likely higher than Cam will ever even approach, but Manning is football-old at two months shy of 40.

His arm strength issues are no secret, and even in victory yesterday, he threw some quack-ugly passes. Others got caught, but the receiver got tackled immediately and still others were broken up by the defender. 

My feeling is that as opportunistic as Carolina's defense is, a few of those errant/late throws are going to be picked off. Kuechly has shown some very soft hands catching some interceptions and Kurt Coleman, a "Dollar-store" safety more or less, entered yesterday's game second in the NFL in interceptions with seven, so he's the proverbial "ball-hawking safety."

Denver's offensive line is going to have to have a near-flawless game in order for them to win, and the Panthers' defensive line has been re-invigorated by Charles Johnson's getting back to form after being injured for much of the year and massive thumper DE Kony Ealy's continued growth. Mario Addison adds a good rotational/situational pass-rusher threat as well.

Denver's offense likes to be balanced, but nobody has been able to run the ball very effectively against the Panthers defense all season. Part of that is playing from behind so often, but part of it is the fact the middle of Carolina's defense is as strong as anyone's in the NFL is. Add in the fastest group of linebackers in the league and Kuechly's elite instincts, and teams just don't get much done on the ground against Carolina.

It would have been nice to meet the Deflatriots in a rematch of the 2004 loss in that Super Bowl because their offensive line is terrible; yet, Brady nearly pulled off another miracle last night. Manning's magic has recently been drained (the last few years), and he has never been known for performing well in big games to begin with.  Heck, his brother Eli has double the number of Super Bowl rings Peyton does, and Peyton has had the far superior career statistically.

We've got two weeks to enjoy the hype. After that, I think we'll have the entire offseason to enjoy the misery of the fans of other teams that all hate us and get to laugh right in their smug faces...don't forget, Ron Rivera has been in this exact situation January 1986 in Chicago.

I think the Panthers will win if Greg Olsen can do one simple thing:

Greg, stay OUT of Cam's lucky tank!!

Carolina 31, Denver 16

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