Take it back a few years, anytime from about early December 2013 through late November the following year, and imagine how ludicrous it would have sounded if someone had said Gary Kubiak would be coaching against Ron Rivera in Super Bowl 50.
The Texans fired Kubiak on Dec. 6, 2013 after they lost to the Jaguars. A little less than a year later, Rivera’s Panthers fell to 3-8-1 after a 31-13 loss to the Vikings. At that point, it would’ve been tough to imagine either Kubiak or Rivera even being a head coach in 2015, let alone manning the opposing sidelines at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara for the golden anniversary installment of the NFL’s biggest game.
Yet that will be the case on Feb. 7, and for all of the terrific storylines heading into this game, the one involving the head coaches are right up there. Two highly respected and beloved men who were both part of Super Bowl teams as players and assistant coaches will now try to win it all as head coaches.
"I’ve been a part of this organization for a long time in a lot of different categories," said Kubiak, who was a backup quarterback for the Broncos from 1983-91 and served as quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator from 1995-2005, "but to stand up there today as the head coach and be part of (owner) Mr. (Pat) Bowlen’s family and this organization, this football team — very proud today."
Said Rivera, who went from hot head coaching candidate while with the Bears in 2006, to fired shortly thereafter, and eventually a head coach in Carolina, "It’s a huge opportunity for this team and organization. It’s what you work for. I look forward to it."
The resilience of these coaches — not to mention the path of Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who was somehow unemployed last season and has now put together one of the best defenses in the NFL — will be one of the big storylines and factors to watch over the next two weeks. So will Peyton Manning vs. Cam Newton.
Here are five others to keep an eye on as we work our way toward Santa Clara and the first Roman Numeral-less Super Bowl in a long time:
1. FAST STARTS
The Panthers’ 24-7 halftime lead over the Cardinals on Sunday was right in line with what they’d done to opponents this entire season. In their 18 games, they have a 14-2-2 record in the first half and they’ve outscored opponents 321-128 in the first two quarters. (The only teams to lead Carolina at the half this year were the Seahawks and Saints.)
That’s bad news for the Broncos, who won Sunday’s AFC Championship against the Patriots because they scored early and were able to play from ahead.
"We never could play with a lead, we never could play on our terms," Tom Brady said. "So it was an uphill battle all day."
Had Denver tried to play catch-up against New England, their season and quite possibly Manning’s career would already be over. They’re just not built to play from behind like that. They have to remain a dual-threat attack on offense while allowing their pass rushers to tee off on defense. That’s their blueprint for success.
Which means the Broncos will have to find a way to slow the Panthers’ fast starts because they do not want to try overcoming a halftime deficit the likes of which the Cardinals and Seahawks have faced the past two weeks. If those teams couldn’t battle back, don’t expect Denver to even have a chance.
Vegas has set the over-under for this game at 45 1/2 points. Six of the last seven Super Bowls have featured 48 total points or more. If this game somehow stays under Vegas’ projection, that should be advantage: Broncos.
2. WIN ONE FOR PEYTON … AND DEMARCUS
That will be the rallying cry for the Broncos, as many expect this will be Manning’s last game. Per reporters in Denver, he and his family took extra time on the field after Sunday’s game and even collected some confetti to take home. Manning also had his son, Marshall, with him behind the podium during his press conference.
No player needs any more motivation than playing in the Super Bowl itself, but it doesn’t hurt to have the emotions of the locker room stirred by Manning’s overcoming everything this season threw at him. Think how differently things would have been if Brock Osweiler has somehow played well enough to keep the job in Week 17 and force Kubiak to start him in the playoffs.
And don’t forget there’s one other player who will lift the emotions of the Broncos’ players because of how respected he is and how this might be his last shot at a ring. That’s DeMarcus Ware, who spoke to the team on Saturday night before the AFC Championship.
"I always talk to the guys but I’ll have one player address the football team before we call it a night. I let DeMarcus do that," Kubiak said. "I could sit here all day and talk about it, but he was tremendous for the team. He basically told them how much the opportunity to possibly play for a Super Bowl meant to him and how much it meant for him to be part of the team. It was very powerful."
This is why Ware came to Denver as a free agent in March 2014. It didn’t work out last year, but the opportunity he hoped to have is in front of him now. Expect him to serve as a motivational force for the defense and the entire team over the next two weeks. And don’t be surprised if he gives one more "powerful" speech.
Two years ago, the Broncos entered their matchup with the Seahawks with four guys on their roster who had played in a Super Bowl before, namely their quarterback. Seattle had none.
So be careful when sizing up the rosters for this Super Bowl and seeing 18 players on the Broncos to only seven on the Panthers who have been on Super Bowl rosters before (not including players who were on injured reserve, such as Von Miller in 2013).
That said, it will be interesting to see what changes Manning and some other key players suggest from their approach last time to this time. One thing is for sure: Kubiak realizes this week coming up is anything but the "bye" it’s usually labeled.
"The game is in two weeks," he told his team in the postgame locker room on Sunday, "but the game is won (this) week."
That means Kubiak expects to install most of the game plan this week and wants crisp practices in Dove Valley before the team heads to California. Expect a similar refrain from Ron Rivera and the Panthers, but it’s paramount for the Broncos to be feeling good about their game plan and preparation before they leave Colorado because the memories of that thrashing by Seattle are still fresh with many of the players on their roster.
Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis told reporters after Sunday’s game his forearm is broken but he guarantees he will play in Super Bowl 50.
While that might sound like a bit of a stretch, a few trainers and doctors polled by FOX Sports on Sunday night said it’s possible to put a plate in Davis’ arm and allow him to play as long as he can manage the pain.
Does anybody want to doubt a player who returned from three torn ACLs to play at a high level at age 32 (105 tackles, 5 1/2 sacks and four interceptions this regular season) when he says he’s going to play through a broken arm in the Super Bowl?
Didn’t think so.
Davis is so intelligent and prepared that it’s almost like he’s hearing the offense’s play calls at times. He showed that awareness when he made quick breaks to blow up a screen pass and a run early in Sunday’s game. His presence against a Broncos offense that likes to hit a lot of those quick screens and runs will be vital for Carolina. If he plays, that’s a major plus.
The Panthers might also get defensive end Jared Allen (broken foot) back. Rivera held Allen out of the NFC Championship despite Allen’s protesting. The team was hopeful Allen would play in the Super Bowl if they got there. They’re there, so expect him to at least suit up and add a push off the edge against a quarterback who isn’t the most mobile out there.
For the Broncos, cornerback Chris Harris played extremely well on Sunday despite a shoulder injury that had limited his range of motion all week. At one point, he wisely opted not to take on Rob Gronkowski near the sideline but wasn’t shy about throwing his shoulder into Julian Edelman to tackle him on a key fourth-down stop in the fourth quarter. Another week of rest for Harris will only make things better.
"Just not having to make contact will be good," he said, via the Denver Post’s Troy Renck.
Harris will play and should be effective, so the injury watch for the next two weeks seems to be much more vital for Carolina. If Davis and Allen play at a normal level, that’s a big lift for them.
They’re every coach’s nightmare. Just a year ago, the Patriots were in the middle of the Deflategate scandal, which eventually landed Tom Brady in federal court. So, all things considered, that was a heckuva job by Bill Belichick’s staff to navigate that one.
As of now, there seems to be only one story that might serve as a nuisance for either team, and that’s Al Jazeera’s report alleging Manning’s wife received HGH shipments, with the suggestion she did so on his behalf.
"Hasn’t this story already run its course?" you’ll ask. "Isn’t Al Jazeera America folding?" you’ll add. "Why would this even be brought up again?" you’ll inquire.
Because it’s Super Bowl week, where the players face the media for an hour at a time on Media Night (yes, it’s Monday night this year instead of the traditional Tuesday morning session) and then twice more later in the week. Every story that can possibly be rehashed will be run through the wringer once again. That includes the allegations against Manning, which are quite serious and which he’s emphatically denied.
The NFL is still investigating the matter and a source told FOX Sports recently the NFL has already requested an interview with Manning (as well as the other players named in the report, including the Packers’ Julius Peppers and Mike Neal) to ask their own questions about the allegations. But the source said that interview won’t occur until after this postseason is completed, if at all. So the actual situation won’t serve as a potential distraction for Manning as much as the questions about it will. Still, as far as Super Bowl week storylines come, it’s relatively tame and shouldn’t have much of a shelf life.
Nor will any of the general Newton bashing that will be spewed for the next two weeks. And trust us, there will be some.