Cam Newton is set to climb to the top of the NFL mountain
By Alex Marvez
It's old-school vs. new-wave NFL quarterbacking.
It's the most-celebrated winner of the league's MVP award against the player who is the lock to capture this season's honor.
It's the marquee Super Bowl 50 matchup.
And it's bad, bad, bad news for Peyton Manning and his Denver Broncos.
Cam Newton isn't just set to grab the torch from Manning in what will likely be the latter's final NFL game. Newton will rip it from Manning's hands, use it as a celebratory prop while dabbing and then hand it to a young Carolina Panthers fan in the front row of the end zone at Levi's Stadium like with all the footballs following his scores.
At age 39 and with his arm strength diminished by multiple neck surgeries, Manning has become a mere mortal under center.
Newton is Superman with his play backing up his superhero homage.
Newton's unearthly football powers were on full display again Sunday night as the Panthers easily dispatched of Arizona, 49-15, in the NFC Championship Game at chilly Bank of America Stadium.
Newton had a blast doing it, too. He helped whip the crowd of 74,294 fans into a frenzy during pregame introductions, taking his time to mimic ripping his jersey open a la the Man of Steel. He bounced around the field to keep fans energized. He ran into the end zone to help Panthers defensive players celebrate Luke Kuechly's late interception return of Carson Palmer for a touchdown. And he couldn't help but smile when fans chanted "MVP! MVP!" as Newton spoke from the makeshift stage where the Panthers were presented the George Halas Trophy for winning the conference.
Newton said afterward that he "didn't want to do too much" by pressing to try and help his team win, which is a mindset that often leads to mistakes. As it turned out, Newton delivered anything that can be asked from a quarterback while shredding what was the NFL's fifth-ranked defense during the regular season.
Passing? Newton threw for a franchise postseason-record 335 yards and two touchdowns. The longest completion was an 86-yard strike to Philly Brown late in the first quarter that put Carolina ahead, 17-0, and also proved how much Newton has matured at the position. Allotted time in the pocket by his offensive line even with Arizona rushing five defenders, Newton remained calm and patiently waited while Brown crossed from the right side of the field to the left. Cardinals safety Rashad Johnson got spun around and couldn't recover, clearing the way for Newton to find his target and let Brown run to the end zone.
"He's grown a lot in the two years I've been here," Panthers third-string quarterback Joe Webb told FOXSports.com. "He's progressed in a major way in all the ways of a quarterback."
The rushing ability that Newton possessed ever since entering the NFL in 2011 remains a headache for opposing defenses like Arizona's. Defensive lineman Calais Campbell said having to account for Newton as a runner "changes things" from a strategic standpoint.
Clearly, the Cardinals didn't adjust well. Newton scored twice and gained 47 yards on 10 carries. Back-to-back plays on a third-quarter drive helped bury the Cardinals for good. Facing third-and-10 from the Cardinals 23-yard line, Newton motored to his right and carried Cardinals safety Chris Clemons with him for an 11-yard gain. Newton again ran to his right on the next play and Arizona again couldn't stop him. Newton leapt forward at the Cardinals 3 and somersaulted into the end zone, opening Carolina's lead to 34-7.
The sequence drew praise from Kuechly.
"When you want it as much as him, it's hard (for defenses) to turn him away," Kuechly said.
That desire also plays into the other element that makes Newton a complete package: leadership.
Newton's standing in the Panthers organization was exemplified at halftime when Ron Rivera decided not to deliver his usual speech. Newton instead was the one delivering the message for the Panthers to not let up and get, as he previously put it, their "butts tight" like when almost relinquishing a 31-0 lead in last Sunday's divisional-round win over Seattle.
"He always leads by example," Panthers tight end Ed Dickson told FOXSports.com. "He's one of the hardest working people on the team. To hear him vocally is good for this team. It gives us that vibe. We knew there was no sense of let-up after that."
By show of hands, Newton asked how many players had and hadn't won championships. According to Panthers radio sideline reporter Jordan Gross, Newton then said, "Now is our opportunity. If we dominate in the second half, you'll get your chance."
If the Panthers play like they did Sunday, Denver has no chance of winning.
With a higher-grade better offensive line and mobile quarterback, Carolina is far better heeled to handle a Broncos pass rush that pummeled Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. The Panthers field a far more balanced offense than New England led by Newton and running back Jonathan Stewart, who gained 83 of Carolina's 152 rushing yards against Arizona. Manning, too, will be facing his toughest defensive challenge of the postseason even if the Panthers are forced to play without outside linebacker Thomas Davis, who broke his forearm against Arizona.
When his postgame news conference began, Newton was asked how he was feeling. Newton smiled and said, "Super."
He'll be feeling even better when the confetti falls from the sky at the end of Super Bowl 50.