Raise your hand if, on November 15, the day Peyton Manning set the record for most passing yards in NFL history but also threw four interceptions against Kansas City, you thought that he would be the starting quarterback for the AFC in the Super Bowl.
If your hand is still raised, you'll have to prove your predictions to me somehow!
I remember how back at the end of August, I was analyzing teams to determine which ones would represent each conference. The day before -- on August 19, to be exact -- I read a news story that said Kelvin Benjamin, Carolina's spectacular second-year receiver, had ruptured the ligaments in his left knee. He would be sidelined for the entire 2015 season. That was the straw that broke the camel's back. The loss of Benjamin wasn't merely bad enough to rule the Carolina Panthers out of the conference championship, it was bad enough to rule them out of the playoffs as a whole.
Last season, Carolina won a very mediocre NFC Southern Division with a 7-8-1 record. They had a four-game winning streak weighing in their favor, but it didn't count for as much as it could have, since their opponents in that time were New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Cleveland and Atlanta, whose combined record was 22-42. Cam Newton had finished the season with a a pass completion rate of less than 60 percent, along with 12 interceptions and only 18 touchdowns. He had been dangerous as a running quarterback in a game plan that sought to exploit his skills, but he had only five touchdowns on his runs. DeAngelo Williams, who had been a good player for the Panthers but had regressed in recent years, would leave the team in the offseason. For 2015, their main runner would be Jonathan Stewart, a veteran in his eighth year who had missed 20 games due to injury in the last three seasons.
And what about the offensive line? The two free agents, Andrew Norwell and Nate Chandler, would become starters. The improvements on the offensive line? Michael Oher for Byron Bell and Mike Remmers for Chandler. Oher was let go by Baltimore in 2014. He signed with Tennessee at right tackle and was a flop. Now he would be a left tackle for Carolina. We would also see the return of Ted Ginn Jr., who had 36 receptions and five TDs with the Panthers in 2013, but who also went unnoticed with Arizona the following year. The only respectable offensive player was Greg Olsen, but how effective would he be with an inconsistent quarterback who had a reputation for not adapting well to the offensive game plan?
On defense, the duo of Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis was a lock, even perhaps the best in the NFL at a nickel defense (five in the secondary). Aside from them, there didn't seem to be anyone spectacular in Carolina's defensive scheme. Star Lotulelei, the 2013 first-round draft pick who had terrorized opposing offenses in his first year, took a year off in his second season. Kawann Short, the other defensive tackle, was still in the development process. Greg Hardy, the team’s best pass rusher, had been fired for domestic violence. His replacement would be Jared Allen, whose glory days were already behind him. Josh Norman was a very talented player who had been benched for a lack of discipline and inconsistency.
I make decisions based on the information I have at the time, and in August, the information I had on the Panthers didn't look promising. Without closely following the team day to day, it was hard to guess that Newton would finally master Mike Shula’s game plan and end up taking an offense that had finished 19th in points in 2014 and turning it into this year’s league leader. Who could have imagined that the offensive line, one of the NFL’s worst, would become arguably its best? Who could have imagined that Kawann Short would be unblockable one-on-one and would notch 11 sacks, or that Josh Norman would be the best cornerback in the NFL? A lot of that success had to do with Carolina keeping the same head coach, Ron Rivera, and his two coordinators, Shula and Sean McDermott.
One of the criticisms against Carolina, even this year, is that they didn’t have a tough calendar. They were the worst second-half team in the NFL. They almost lost to Seattle in a game they led 31-0 at halftime. Then on Sunday, the Panthers crushed a good Arizona team and left no doubt that they’re the best team in the NFC. Carolina is a well-rounded team with key players in all three areas: offensive, defense and special teams. They’re already favored to win Super Bowl 50.
This Super Bowl will see a team steeped in the past -- as an NFL legend leads the Broncos, one of the NFL’s most gloried teams -- face off against a team that represents the future, with Newton and the developing Panthers showcasing the promise of a new era.