All season, Cam Newton was magic. He bended throws around defenders, flipped for first downs and keyed a clutch drive whenever asked. With that arm and that smile, he made Panthers fans feel like their team could not lose as long as he had the ball.
So when Newton broke the huddle with four and a half minutes left and Carolina trailing by six points in Sunday’s Super Bowl, there was no need to fear. The deficit felt like a plotline in the incredible season of SuperCam.
Then Newton reacquainted with Von Miller, the ball reacquainted with the turf, and the Panthers’ season ended one game short of the ultimate goal.
Newton was no hero Sunday — he fumbled twice and threw a pick — but the loss was a total team effort. Mike Tolbert fumbled twice. Ted Ginn let a pass right at his hands deflect to a Broncos defender. The Panthers’ offensive line let Denver invade its backfield at will. Carolina missed a field goal, failed to tackle a cornered punt returner, dropped at least four passes, and committed penalties galore.
The Panthers picked the biggest possible stage to play their worst game of the season.
While the Panthers’ defense mostly held strong, the offense submitted its lowest-scoring performance since October 2014. The unit gained only 315 total yards, and it felt like half that many. In some ways the performance felt inevitable. In other ways it felt impossible.
Carolina entered 2015 with limited expectations, largely because of a shoddy offensive line and a patchwork receiving corps. After holding strong all season, those groups collapsed Sunday. Michael Oher and company had no answer for Miller and DeMarcus Ware, who allowed Newton no time to throw. The receivers, meanwhile, failed to get open quick enough and couldn’t hold onto the ball when they did. From Jerricho Cotchery’s three drops to Ginn’s fateful stone-hands relapse, Carolina’s ball-catchers were terrible on a day they needed to be exceptional.
While some of the mistakes were run-of-the-mill failures to execute against a brilliant defense, other mishaps hinted at a lack of focus.
The Panthers handed their opponent three points in the second quarter, when they let Broncos punt returner Jordan Norwood turn what should have been a negative return into a Super Bowl-record 61-yard runback. Carolina players surrounded Norwood as he awaited the kick, then slowed down like he had called for a fair catch while he jetted past them toward the opposite sideline. The return handed Denver a field goal and a 13-7 lead that turned out to be more than enough.
Then there were the penalties, 12 of them for 102 yards. With just over three minutes left in the game and the Broncos inside the five-yard line, the Panthers pressured Peyton Manning into a floating incomplete pass out the back of the end zone on third down. Sure, Denver was still in position to kick a field goal and go up nine, but with some luck, Carolina still had a chance. Instead, a defensive holding call gave the Broncos a first down and, on the next play, a game-sealing touchdown.
The Panthers’ loss was a colossal letdown following a charmed 2015. Carolina stormed through its regular-season schedule, prevailing in blowouts and close games, defensive struggles and shootouts, comebacks and wire-to-wire wins. Ron Rivera’s team won 17 games, as many or more than all but a handful of other teams in NFL history. Continually, fans and analysts questioned whether this team was as good as its record, but again and again they offered evidence it was legit. Whenever a game got close, Newton smiled, did what the team needed him to and danced his way off the field.
And then came Miller and the Broncos.
Toward the end of Sunday’s game, CBS commentator Phil Simms said the Panthers had never seen a defense like this one. The comment at first seemed a bit hyperbolic, but really it was probably fair. Denver’s defense allowed the fewest yards per game of any NFL team on by far the fewest yards per play. Moreover, the unit dragged the limp-armed Manning to the Super Bowl. It was undoubtedly a special defense, the type that doesn’t come along more than once every few years and certainly wasn’t elsewhere on Carolina’s schedule.
So a wildly talented and incredibly fun Panthers team wound up settling for second place. They were overwhelmed by a special Denver D and betrayed by the two position groups that everyone always assumed would bring their downfall, plus a crush of uncharacteristic mental miscues.
Sure, any Panthers fan would have been thrilled to hear in the preseason that their team would reach the Super Bowl, but that doesn’t mean the loss wasn’t a massive disappointment. Carolina entered Sunday favored by a touchdown, and the world seemed ready to hand Newton the Lombardi Trophy and watch him dab on the podium.
But instead it was Miller, live on The Late Show, showing off his dab, while Newton and the Panthers found themselves relegated to another beloved meme: the crying Jordan.