WITH A REVOLUTIONIZING QB TO INSPIRE THEM, EVEN A TEAM FULL OF OUTCASTS AND UNDERACHIEVERS CAN STRUT INTO SUPER BOWL WEEK AS THE ODDS-ON FAVORITE
THE VISITORS HAD BEEN exposed, the confetti belched, the George Halas Trophy passed around on the dais by the Panthers, most of whom treated it in the manner of an expectant mother at a baby shower, perhaps having just unwrapped a gravy boat from a well-meaning great aunt: They were pleased to have it but looking forward to something bigger and better—something more useful—in the near future.
What this NFC championship game lacked in suspense—Carolina led 24--7 at halftime and was never seriously challenged on its way to a 49--15 mauling of the Cardinals—it made up for in shock value. Arizona's receivers had been expected to repeatedly scorch a patchwork secondary; Carson Palmer's playoff butterflies were supposed to have fluttered away; these teams were thought to be evenly matched. Not so much. What we're learning about Cam Newton, an unprecedented talent who is redefining quarterback play before our eyes, is that he gets better, more dialed in, as the stakes increase. That clutchness stood in contrast Sunday to the play of the Incredible Shrinking Palmer. Stocked though it was with replacement parts, the Panthers' defense forced the Cardinals' quarterback into the worst game of his 13-year career.
After an interlude of milling and embracing and taking turns holding the gravy boat, most of Carolina's players filtered back into the locker room, where they were passed in the tunnel by a small group of teammates returning to the field for a "victory lap." The rowdiest member of this deputation: Cortland Finnegan, whose excitement was understandable. Until the Panthers signed the 31-year-old cornerback out of retirement on Nov. 30, he'd been overseeing a string of juice bars around Nashville. Finnegan stopped long enough to ask—actually, shout at—a reporter: "How'd Fitzgerald do today? I thought I was the weak link! How'd he do today?"
He wouldn't have been asking if the news was remotely good for Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona's 6'3", 218-pound slot receiver. The hero of the Cardinals' divisional-round win over the Packers was expected to rack up more fat stats working against the 5'10", 190-pound Finnegan. Instead, Fitz was a nonfactor: four catches for 30 yards, an incomplete pass on a misbegotten trick play and two costly drops (twice his total for the two previous regular seasons combined). Having made his point, Finnegan sprinted out of the tunnel to catch up with his mates, who were high-fiving fans leaning over the railing.
Finnegan's resentment was not misplaced. He and fellow corner Robert McClain, another free agent signed off the street after Thanksgiving, had spent the week fielding questions about the impending mismatch between Arizona's corps of stud receivers and a Carolina secondary held together with duct tape and baling wire. But the truth about the best team in the NFL is that it needs to believe that people don't believe. If these guys didn't have some slight to glom on to, to stoke resentment, to employ as fuel, they'd make one up.
NOT FAR FROM where Finnegan started his victory lap, Kurt Coleman stood in the end zone holding his three-year-old daughter, Kyla, while his wife, Laura, carried their one-year-old, Karrah. Covering the baby with her own down jacket, Laura stood in short sleeves, shivering and smiling at the same time. The Panthers are the Colemans' fourth team in three years, but it looks as if they've found a home in Charlotte.
After starting 27 games for the Eagles over the previous two seasons, Coleman was benched in 2013 by new coach Chip Kelly, who saw the 5'11", 200-pound safety as more of a special teams contributor. Working as a reserve for the Chiefs last season, Coleman showed a knack for big hits and big plays—his three picks were half of Kansas City's total of six. Yet the Chiefs let him go in free agency. "In the end, everything I went through, it forced me to perfect my craft, made me a better player," says Coleman. "And it brought me here."
Ten Panthers were selected for this year's Pro Bowl. It should've been 11. After signing with them last March, Coleman earned the starting free safety job in camp, then went on to lead the team with seven interceptions, not including the pair of Palmer passes he picked off Sunday night.
The first was the real dagger. Newton, who completed 19 of 28 passes for two TDs and a 117.4 rating, had just made what was, by all appearances, his only mistake of the evening, floating a pass over the head of Ed Dickson and into the hands of Cardinals corner Patrick Peterson, whose 72-yard return, to the Panthers' 22, appeared to dramatically reverse the momentum of the game. With just over a minute to play in the first half and Carolina leading 24--7, a TD could have put Arizona back within two scores. Ignoring Fitzgerald, wide-open on a shallow crosser, Palmer instead forced a throw into the end zone, in the direction of John Brown. "I felt the route coming, felt them trying to go over top of me," said Coleman, who climbed the ladder to snag the ball. "And when [Palmer] put it up there, I said, 'Thank you, Lord.'"
That gift was the third of Palmer's six turnovers: four INTs and two fumbles. "I just kept digging us a hole we couldn't get out of," he said afterward.
"Their offense works off timing," said Coleman. "The key was to disrupt the timing, make Carson hold the ball. And I think it worked."
Defensive tackle Kawann Short, who forced the first of Palmer's fumbles, was less diplomatic: "Once you get a couple hits, get in his face, and he misses a couple throws, it's just a matter of time until he folds."
While Palmer's offensive linemen didn't necessarily have his back—he was stripped twice in the pocket—Bruce Arians did. "Carson didn't lose the damn game," growled the Cardinals' coach. "We just didn't play well enough."
Or coach well enough.
BACK ON THE FIELD in the aftermath of the rout, outside the barricades surrounding the stage, a reserved man in a Panthers windbreaker shook some hands and shared some hugs. Something about him looked familiar. Mike Shula shares his father Don's features and temperament. While many around him celebrated boisterously, Carolina's offensive coordinator was taciturn, understated, already thinking, no doubt, about Denver's Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. Congratulated on the game he'd just called and the attack he has tailored to Newton's talents, Shula was quick to deflect: "It's all about No. 1 and all the stuff he brings to the table. We ask him to do a lot.... That, and we got smart guys with unbelievable character."
Indeed, the marquee matchup of Super Bowl 50 will be the Broncos' top-ranked defense vs. Newton and the Panthers' offense, whose 31.2 points per game led the league. That attack is based on the NFL's most complex and varied ground game (142.6 yards per outing, second in the league). "With Jonathan Stewart, we do a lot of traditional run-game stuff," says center Ryan Kalil. "We do a lot of gap scheme, a lot of zone stuff—and then we have the read-option stuff with Cam."
There was Newton on a zone-read play in the second quarter, freezing outside linebacker Markus Golden, then depositing the ball in the belly of Stewart, who gashed the defense for 17 yards. On the next snap Newton faked a handoff to wideout Corey (Philly) Brown, streaking past on a faux jet sweep, giving again to Stewart, who tore off another 23 yards, down to the one. Newton scored three plays later, dialing up his patented Inspector Gadget sneak, leaping and then extending—and extending, and extending—his arm until the ball broke the plane.
Two more: On a third-and-10 play in the third quarter, with corner Jerraud Powers on the QB's heels but unable to close the gap, Newton swept right for 11 yards. He then scored on a 12-yard quarterback keeper, garnishing the touchdown with an airborne somersault that may or may not have been necessary.
While Newton regained his equilibrium postflip, then pantomimed pulling his shirt open to expose an imaginary capital s, as seen on Superman's singlet, receiver Ted Ginn Jr. took it upon himself to perform the task usually (but not always) handled by his quarterback. Ginn trotted over to the railing and handed the football to a little girl.
SO SPECTACULAR AND versatile was Ginn as an Ohio State undergrad that the Columbus-based punk band the Dead Schembechlers wrote a song about him in 2006, "Ted Ginn Did Everythin'," which includes these half-screamed lyrics:
Who built the Sphinx and pyramids? Who built the Eiffel Tower?
Then tore down the Berlin Wall with Marvel superpower?
Who fought off giant asteroids to keep the earth from dyin'?
Who led the troops in World War II and then saved Private Ryan?
Ted Ginn! Ted Ginn! Ted Ginn did everythin'!
There was Ginn on Sunday, doing a little of everything to stick it to the team that cut him loose last February, one year into a three-year contract. He scored Carolina's first touchdown on a zigzagging reverse that would be recorded as 22 yards but that actually covered closer to 90. He caught two passes for 52 yards, added a sparkling 32-yard punt return and made the TD-saving tackle on Peterson's interception. For good measure he also drew a defensive holding penalty, perpetrated by Peterson, the three-time All-Pro.
Afterward, he admitted that it was, in fact, personal between him and Arizona: "I felt like they felt I couldn't do it. They sent me back out to the wolves."
Ginn had arrived in Arizona after spending the 2013 season in Carolina, and the Panthers were glad to have him back—particularly after a knee injury felled WR1 Kelvin Benjamin last August. Having finished last season with 14 catches for 190 yards and no TDs, Ginn racked up 44 receptions this year for 739 yards and a career-high 10 TDs. And while, yes, Ginn has been helped by Panthers receivers coach Ricky Proehl, mostly he's been helped by the confidence his QB has shown in him—even in the face of some ungodly drops. In addition to his talents as a runner, passer, leader and dancer, the man who most deserves to hoist the 2015 MVP trophy has shown an innate ability to raise the level of play of those around him.
And so Super Sunday will now feature a sublime contrast of 6'5" quarterbacks: one in the twilight of his career, limited by a creaking body that has long since begun to betray him; the other just now coming into a prime that is likely to include more flips, more awards. That wouldn't surprise Newton, who, before stepping to the podium late Sunday night, tucked his scarf neatly into his suit jacket. Now he was ready for his close-up. Asked how he felt, he replied with a smile, without hesitation: "Super."
Winslow Townson for Sports Illustrated
CHRIS KEANE FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
DAB THEE, COLEMAN Cast away in Philly and K.C., the corner is soaring in Carolina, where he led the Panthers (and the NFC title game) in INTs.
CHRIS KEANE FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
GINN AND JUICE The Panther-turned-Cardinal-turned-Panther gave Carolina a sweet boost with his winding TD.