SAN JOSE — Super Bowl 50 should be an enticing matchup of strengths: the Panthers’ No. 1-ranked offense against the Broncos’ No. 1-ranked defense.
Just don’t say that around Panthers cornerback Josh Norman.
“That’s cool, man, if you guys want to take it in and look at it that way. But at the same time, we’re the No. 1 defense in the entire league, in takeaways,” Norman said Wednesday morning. “I’m like, [confused] how this stuff is even wired, you know what I mean? So at the same token, it is what it is, we really don’t care. We’re going to show you on Sunday, that’s all I can say. I’m getting chill bumps talking about it because it’s a thing that just excites me, to be able to go out there and show it instead of continue to talk about it.”
Peyton Manning, Cam Newton, and the Broncos’ pass rush certainly have drawn the most spotlight during Super Bowl week. And Newton is clearly the face of the Panthers, with his gigantic smile, flashy dance moves, and incredible stats that have made him the odds-on favorite to be named league MVP.
But the Panthers’ defense has been dominant this season and a major reason for the team’s 17-1 record, even if it doesn’t have too many recognizable faces.
“We’ve kind of crashed the party. We’re kind of new to the scene,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Wednesday.
The Panthers finished sixth in the NFL in total defense, sixth in points allowed (19.2 per game) and first in turnover differential — an eye-popping plus-20 in the regular season, six better than any other team. And in their NFC Championship game win over the Cardinals, the Panthers forced a whopping seven turnovers en route to a 49-15 blowout.
“They’ve been playing lights-out defense for a long time around here, and they’re as big a reason, if not the biggest reason, why we’re here,” Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said.
America knows linebacker Luke Kuechly, the former first-round pick out of Boston College and now a first team All-Pro. Attentive football fans know his running mate, 11-year linebacker Thomas Davis, who was also named first team All-Pro. Norman has started to make a national name for himself due to his excellent play this season and high-profile trash-talking battles with Odell Beckham Jr. and Julio Jones.
But did you know that second-year defensive tackle Kawann Short had 11 sacks during the regular season and became the first defensive tackle in league history to twice be named NFC Defensive Player of the Month in the same season (October and December)? Did you know that safety Kurt Coleman had seven interceptions? Or that Kony Ealy forced three fumbles, and Star Lotulelei is a human wrecking ball in the middle of the Panthers’ defense?
“KK Short is one of the biggest key weapons we have in this game,” Norman said. “Those two big tackles, they take double teams and just, like, destroy them. Those [linebackers], I know they have the easiest job on the team because they can just go around and have fun, because they know Star and KK are going to handle those guys in the middle for them.”
Short was a Pro Bowl selection and second team All-Pro this season but was mostly ignored during the Panthers’ Wednesday morning media availability. The cameras and reporters all found Kuechly and Norman, but Short mostly twiddled his thumbs as he sat unbothered at his podium.
“I don’t need it,” he said of the media attention. “I really didn’t even want to come up here to be honest, but they made me. I just want to play.”
The Panthers’ defense certainly has the attention of Manning and the Broncos’ offensive personnel.
“It’s a very active secondary,” Manning said. “They do a lot of different things, play a lot of different coverages. All of them are part of the blitz packages as well. Play man-to-man well, play zone well. You can tell they’re well coached. You can tell they communicate real well, see them talking out there, and all those things are very evident on the game film.”
Manning also raved about Norman, who has morphed into the new Richard Sherman — a former fifth-round pick whose outstanding play on the field is only matched by the trash talk he gives to opponents.
“When somebody says he’s a great cover corner, it’s like labeling a guy one way,” Manning said. “This guy is an outstanding football player and fits in great with this defense. They’re stout up front, fast linebackers, tactful secondary, well coached. That’s why they’ve won 17 games this year.”
The Panthers’ defenders don’t seem to mind being out of the limelight — those not named Norman, anyway.
“I don’t think we get caught up in that. We haven’t gotten a lot of attention all year long,” veteran safety Roman Harper said. “You can’t get caught up in who’s looking at me or how many likes I’m getting on Twitter, it’s all about focusing and playing football. We’re here to win a ballgame, and if you do that then everybody’s going to be on you anyway.”
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin