SANTA CLARA, Calif. — As the silver and blue confetti fell to the grass at Levi’s Stadium, the best team in the NFL took its place among the best in league history. For the Panthers and league MVP Cam Newton—who threw for 246 yards and a touchdown and ran for another score—accepting the Lombardi Trophy was the final step in their season-long run of dominance.
With their 24-13 win over Peyton Manning’s Broncos, Carolina became just the third team ever—and first in 30 years—to finish 15-1 and win a Super Bowl, and the Panthers did it in the same fashion they have all season: relentless defense, a punishing run game and just enough magic from their quarterback. “To be honest with you, we’ve had our same approach for a long time, regardless of what people say,” tight end Greg Olsen said earlier this week. “We’re not going to approach it differently now because people want to pat us on the back. Those were the same people who were kind of knocking us when this whole thing started.”
Olsen’s touchdown grab from Newton with 11:28 left in the second quarter accounted for the first points of the game, coming after a nearly 20-minute, scoreless slog following the opening kickoff.
Carolina did its best to impose its will in the running game on its first two drives, but even the league’s most diverse and potent ground attack couldn’t cobble together much as it ran into the teeth of the Broncos’ defense. Over the Panthers’ first two drives, Jonathan Stewart managed just 11 yards on five carries as Derek Wolfe, Malik Jackson, and the rest of Denver’s interior defense gave the Carolina front the sort of challenge it hadn’t seen all season.
Yards weren’t coming any easier for the Broncos. After a quick three and out to open the game and another drive of just 18 yards, Denver took over at its own 32-yard line following Carolina’s second punt of the day. On first and 10, Manning lined up in the Pistol formation and faked a quick handoff to C.J. Anderson before turning his head back upfield.
He had just enough time to catch a glimpse of Pro Bowl tackle Kawann Short yanking on his shoulder pads as Manning floated a pass down the seam for Demaryius Thomas. The obstructed throw fell into the hands of Kurt Coleman —who finished the regular season with seven interceptions and added three more during the playoffs. For the first time in the game, field position swung as Carolina took over at Denver 24. It took Newton only two plays to find Olsen, who’d beaten T.J. Ward in man-to-man coverage down the middle of the field.
“It’s not just his ability to run the football,” offensive coordinator Mike Shula said of Newton this week. “He has a great feel for the game. He has a fast mind. He sees things extremely well on game day. He does a great job utilizing the personnel that we have around him.”
The touchdown came on a slow-developing play-action throw, but still, Newton was able to take his time in the pocket. Coming into the game, Denver’s hope rested largely on whether its pass rush could take over the same way it did during the AFC Championship Game win over the Patriots. But throughout the game, Carolina used many of the same tactics it deployed all season in pass protection.
Despite the Panthers’ finishing 26th in the league in pass attempts, no team used seven blockers on more throws this season than Carolina (86 of 501 total passes). All game long, Mike Shula’s offense tasked Jonathan Stewart, Mike Tolbert and Ed Dickson with double-teaming or chipping Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, and for most of the first half, pressure was hard to come by for the Broncos.
But the problem in slowing down Denver’s defense is that it can rush the passer from anywhere. On a third and 7 with 5:02 left in the second quarter and the score still 7-0, Wolfe got a jump on left guard Andrew Norwell and rushed Newton just enough that his throw to Corey Brown up the left sideline was off target. Chris Harris yanked it away for an interception.
When Manning and the Broncos took over at the Carolina 41-yard line, it was the deepest their offense had been into Panthers’ territory the entire first half. Brandon McManus’s 46-yard field goal made the score 7-3, but after two quarters, Manning had completed 8 of his 13 passes for only 57 yards, as Denver’s diet of short throws struggled with the speed lining the Panthers’ defense. “Like I said about their entire defense, it’s an impressive group,” Manning said this week. “The linebackers make a lot of plays, they have great speed, they’re physical tacklers, great coverage ability, a lot of compliments to throw out there.”
After a half-hour of celebrity cameos—Beyoncé, Bruno Mars and a surprise appearance by Kanye West—that was occasionally interrupted by Coldplay songs, Super Bowl 50 finally saw some offense. Carolina’s running game had a tough time in the first half, but even against a defense that led the league in yards per carry allowed during the regular season (3.28), the Panthers are always a threat to get rolling on the ground.
The opening drive of the second half was a perfect display of what makes Jonathan Stewart and his fellow ball-carriers so dangerous in Mike Shula’s offense. Misdirection—with either option fakes or motion—played a role in nearly every running play on the Panthers’ march to start the third quarter. On his four carries during the drive, Stewart gained more yards (31) than he had in the entire first half. “There’s not a lot of offenses like us, especially with our run game,” Olsen said this week. “With what we’re able to do, obviously with Cam being a huge element to that. We’ve got guys going in motion. We’ve got guys going in the backfield that are receivers and running options. That’s a complicated thing.”
Aided by a pass interference call on Aqib Talib as he tussled with Olsen—who finished with six catches for 108 yards—on a throw down the right sideline, the Panthers moved inside the 10, and from there it was all Newton. A lead draw of the shotgun was all the MVP needed, as he bowled over Darian Stewart to make the score 14-3 with 9:04 left in the third. It was just another example, on the biggest stage, of how unique a weapon Newton has become. “There’s not a whole lot of guys playing now, if any, that has ever played that position the way he can, with that dual dynamic aspect of not only what he’s able to do throwing the ball, but the designed runs,” Mike Shula said this week. “And what he’s able to do when the ball is snapped—it’s not improvised. He’s not just scrambling. He’s running by design like a running back.”
After a punt by each team, the Broncos took over at their own 35, trailing 14-3 with 2:48 remaining in the third. A pair of stuffed C.J. Anderson runs made it third-and-7, and even though there was still an entire quarter to go, what happened next all but sealed Denver’s fate. As Manning rifled a short throw to Emmanuel Sanders just beyond the first-down marker, Luke Kuechly undercut the route and took the interception 38 yards to pay dirt to put Carolina up 21-3.
A tradeoff of field goals to open the fourth quarter and a late, aesthetic touchdown by the Broncos accounted for the final scores, but Kuechly’s back-breaking pick signaled the end for Manning and the Broncos. In what may have been his final game, Manning finished 17-of-33 for 186 yards and an interception. But the story, as it’s been all season, was about Newton and the Panthers. As Manning leaves the sacred club of the NFL’s best quarterbacks, Newton has firmly secured his membership. His 2015 was one for the ages, and Newton standing on stage—Super Bowl champions hat on his head, Lombardi Trophy in his hands, smile on his face—was the only way it could end.