SAN FRANCISCO — Super Bowl 50 between the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos has a Silicon Valley tinge. Football’s biggest game is taking over the breeding ground for tech innovation and outside-the-box ingenuity.
It’s an ideal setting for a Super Bowl that features New Age vs. the Old Standard.
The marquee matchup of the NFL’s golden game in the Golden State is Carolina quarterback Cam Newton vs. Denver’s Peyton Manning. It’s a match so perfect it must have come from the NFL story line version of eHarmony.
Newton is cutting edge, a freakishly athletic quarterback who inspires dance moves and varied opinions with his flamboyant, swashbuckling play. Cam can beat you with his legs, his arm, or his mind.
The 39-year-old Manning looks like an outdated model by comparison. He is the prototypical pocket passer, owner of the NFL records for career touchdown passes and passing yards. Manning remains hardwired to play quarterback at the highest level, but his aging body has reduced him to a game manager.
Plus, there is no way Manning could pull off the $900 gold-and-zebra-patterned Versace pants Newton wore when he arrived on Sunday.
It’s a juicy juxtaposition for the first Super Bowl that matches up quarterbacks who were both No. 1 overall picks.
On opposite sides of their career arcs, Newton is trying to win his first Super Bowl; Manning is trying to author a Super sendoff and a legacy rewrite with a second Lombardi Trophy.
The Panthers and Broncos have quarterbacks with different playing styles who took divergent paths to the Big Game, but they’re actually similar teams.
We’ve been too quick to hail the demise of winning with defense and the running game in the modern, fantasy-football-fueled, RedZone-channel-consumed NFL. Both Super Bowl participants have stellar defenses and a commitment to running the football as the backbones of their identity.
Carolina has new-wave Newton, the first quarterback in league history to pass for 30 or more touchdowns (35) and run for double-digit scores (10) in the same season. Newton can sign for the regular-season MVP trophy whenever he is ready.
But the Panthers went 15-1 during the regular season, led the league in points (500), and wiped out Seattle and Arizona with an old-school brand of football.
The Panthers were second in the league in rushing yards per game this season (142.6) and led the league in rushing attempts (526). The latter number was enhanced by Newton, who ran a career-high 132 times for 636 yards. Carolina has rushed for at least 100 yards in 31 straight games, including the playoffs.
Carolina’s defense, led by Boston College product Luke Kuechly and fellow linebacker Thomas Davis, topped the NFL in turnovers forced during the regular season (39). They’ve forced nine more during the postseason, and Kuechly has returned interceptions for touchdowns in both playoff games.
The Broncos have prioritized the run since Week 11, not coincidentally the week after Manning was mothballed with plantar fasciitis.
Denver averaged 135 yards rushing per game over the final seven weeks of the season. The Broncos have run the ball at least 30 times in each of their playoff games.
The Patriots and Tom Brady got a firsthand look at Denver’s top-ranked defense in the AFC Championship game Jan. 24. The Patriots got orange-crushed by Von Miller and Co.
The U2 anthem that fit the Patriots’ performance wasn’t “Beautiful Day” this time. It was “Sunday Bloody Sunday” as Brady was sacked four times and hit 20 more. TB12 recorded the lowest postseason completion percentage of his career (48.2).
Now, Brady’s Under Armour stablemate, Newton, will see if he can do any better against the Broncos.
The NFL stripped Super Bowl 50 of the Roman numerals. These two defenses could force it to shed the Newton-Manning Super Bowl subplot.
There is something about Manning facing the defense that led the NFL in interceptions that seems foreboding, though.
Manning has completed 68.2 percent of his passes in three previous Super Bowls, but has three touchdowns and four interceptions.
Manning could either match little brother Eli with two Super Bowl titles or become the fourth quarterback to lose at least three Super Bowls, joining Jim Kelly, Fran Tarkenton, and his boss, John Elway.
If that happens, Brady-Manning becomes a historical rout.
The Broncos are the underdogs, even though they were the Bill Belichick-assisted top seed in the AFC.
Two months ago, the Panthers were expected to be here. They were the best, most balanced team in the NFL from start to finish. They threatened to join the 2007 Patriots as the only team to produce a 16-0 regular season.
Cam’s Crew won their first 14 games, before falling to the Atlanta Falcons in the penultimate week of the season.
The 1984 San Francisco 49ers and the 1985 Chicago Bears are the only teams to win 15 regular-season games and win a Super Bowl.
It took the Broncos two quarterbacks to get here, three, really if you acknowledge that the game-managing version of Manning that has guided the Broncos to two playoff wins is Peyton 2.0, a different entity than the passing machine we’re accustomed to seeing.
No one expected Manning to be here, not after injuries and ineffective play got him benched Nov. 15, and Brock Osweiler went all Robert Pattinson replacing him.
But here No. 18 is, replacing Elway as the oldest quarterback to start a Super Bowl.
Manning has evolved. He has adapted to survive and thrive to reach his fourth Super Bowl.
That’s what the Silicon Valley is all about — evolution, and adapting to remain relevant.
That’s why this Super Bowl is going to reflect the values of its locale regardless of which team prevails.
Either it’s Newton breaking the mold to redefine the industry, or it’s Manning reinventing himself to once again stand atop his field.