In the end, Super Bowl L was not about Cam Newton OR Peyton Manning, no matter how hard the outside world tried. Manning’s career may have demanded a coda, and Newton’s career may have demanded a place to plant its flag (and stalking off a podium never plays well at this level), but Super Bowl L was a triumph of defense and defenders, of meteorology rather than botany, of the most elemental forms of the sport rather than single figures or incandescent deeds.
And the quarterbacks everyone wanted so desperately to fixate upon were either just along for the ride or target-rich environments for punishment. Even those who chose to opt out of the postgame punishment.
Indeed, the Denver Broncos beat the Carolina Panthers 24-10 without any discernible contributions from Manning or his compatriots, the Panthers were never in the game despite having the game’s most dynamic playmaker, and the narratives that fueled a largely uninspiring week of debate and rehash ended in shards.
This game made Von Miller a national name, at least for one night. The narrative police will force the talk down the quarterback aisles, of course, because America has been Stockholm Syndromed into believing that nobody else but quarterbacks ever matter, so Miller’s window as the game’s most valuable player will shut quickly enough, even though the only other possible candidates would have been his linebacking compatriot DeMarcus Ware and placekicker Brandon McManus. That’s how not about the quarterbacks this was.
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Even Miller, who was clearly not in the mood to overemote afterward, understood there were lots of narrative masters to be served.
“It feels great (to help Manning and Ware win a Super Bowl). Peyton and DeMarcus and (defensive coordinator Wade) Phillips and all the guys who have been deserving their whole, whole career. I did it for them . . . for me, the highlight was when Mr. Elway held up the trophy and said ‘This is for Pat.’”
The last reference was to club president John Elway, who held the trophy aloft to salute owner Pat Bowlen, back in Denver and struggling with Alzheimer’s disease. Bowlen was the man who did the same to salute Elway when he won his first Super Bowl 18 years ago.
But even those encomiums don’t do the general tenor of the day true justice.
This was a cruel, harsh, unforgiving slog on a dodgy ground under a blanket of unseasonable heat, and it mostly dented offensive reputations. Miller gets a trophy, everyone gets a ring, but this story could best be told by you holding your arms out and allowing someone to run behind you and swinging downward with great force at the elbow.
Again, and again, and again.
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The Broncos sacked Newton seven times, held him to 45 rushing yards and more importantly only six carries. They forced four fumbles and recovered three, one for the game’s only meaningful touchdowns, intercepted one pass and held the Panthers to a mediocre 4.2 yards per play.
And they had to, because their own offensive numbers were so hideous. They managed only 191 total yards, converted only one of 14 third downs, and their longest drive was their first one – 64 yards that ended in McManus’ first field goal. Manning went out not so much on top but off to the side, and now people can argue to their hearts’ content whether winning this Super Bowl actually damaged his legacy.
Indeed, CBS seemed almost frantic in its repeated attempts to get him to confess that he would never play again, hoping for the elusive Bill Walsh breaking down in tears moment Brent Musburger captured in 1989. Manning sidestepped that one, as you knew he would, even announcing he intended “to drink a lot of beer” that Miller would pay for. For that alone, he should be forced to return.
As for Newton, his hell is just beginning. For all the people who needed him to be a polarizing figure this postseason, he ended as someone everyone could agree upon in this way – he was obliterated by the Denver defense. The swiftness with which the storylines gathering about him was standard/overwhelming – he didn’t win, or even come close to doing so, not because he couldn’t be Peyton Manning but because he couldn’t be himself.
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Not that such a nuanced answer will suffice, of course. He was tabbed to be the centerpiece in the new debate menu, and he got Miller’d, and Ware’d, and Danny Trevathan’d, and Wade Phillips’d instead. He got the same rude and crude treatment Tom Brady did, and Ben Roethlisberger did before him. The Broncos defense was better than all the quarterbacks, and Newton could not transcend that particular law of gravity.
No, in the end, this Super Bowl provided nothing that met the pregame needs of the nation – save of course Beyonce, who was revealed later in the evening to be the act the 49ers booked for Levi’s Stadium that pushed the Girl Scouts out of the building for a week. It was a game that defied the logic that offense is the thing that makes football in the 21st century, and that quarterbacks fly the jet fighters that make it all pretty and sparkly.
It was a game for three decades ago, devoid of iconic moments but thick with one lesson. Football may be all about quarterbacks, but it isn’t always all about quarterbacks.