Now more than ever, the NFL is all about the quarterbacks. The buildup to Super Bowl 50 proved no exception: In the two weeks prior to Sunday night’s game in Santa Clara, the national conversation largely centered on the signal-callers, whose styles of play and off-field personas were pored over in every manner imaginable by an army of reporters and analysts. The game’s two possible outcomes were pre-cast as career-defining triumphs for the passers. If the Denver Broncos won, it would be a rousing sendoff for the potentially retiring all-time great Peyton Manning. If the Carolina Panthers won, it would be a coronation for Cam Newton, this season’s Most Valuable Player.
The Broncos beat the Panthers, 24-10, but the game featured none of the displays of virtuosity fans of Manning or Newton might have hoped for. It was a plodding, mistake-riddled affair, all stuffed runs and stalled drives. Maybe the most miraculous thing about the game was that it ended at all; it seemed for a time that it might simply give out somewhere along the way, leaving the Denver and Carolina players to wander around Levi’s Stadium until the resumption of football next fall.
Of course, in football, one group doing its work poorly means another did its work well, and if the defenses didn’t produce the most aesthetically pleasing evening of television, they generally impressed. The Carolina defense, founded on a smothering group of linemen and linebackers, forced two Manning turnovers—an interception and a fumble—and a whopping eight punts. By the game’s end, those punts seemed almost like triumphs. They meant that nothing worse had happened, that the Broncos had held on to the ball long enough to boot it on down to the other end of the field.