Against the number one ranked Denver defense, the Carolina offense was stymied and no one, not even the MVP, Cam Newton, could manage much. Newton had one of his worst games of the season in this Super Bowl showdown and looked entirely unrecognizable from the MVP performer the league has become accustomed to. He threw the ball 41 times but completed just 18 passes and had just 265 yards through the air. Newton’s frustration with himself and his offense was evident with receivers dropping balls, running backs fumbling and the offense line crumbling right in front of him. The Panthers quarterback has plenty of blame to shoulder as well though as he overthrew a number of receivers, one which resulted in a drive-crushing interception and fumbled twice, with one ending up as a defensive score for the Broncos early on. He gained good yardage on the ground (six carries, 45 yards) but with the constant pressure from all around, he was forced to throw and beat a Denver defense that has elite players at all levels. Newton can’t be blamed for the entire offensive implosion, but as the MVP, much more was expected of him.
The Panthers' running backs that had been so lethal all season long were essentially a non-factor from the get-go. Starter Jonathan Stewart gained just 29 yards on 12 carries and was in and out of the lineup due to a foot injury while the normally reliable Mike Tolbert gained just 18 yards and fumbled twice, coughing up one that killed yet another promising Panthers’ drive in opposing territory. Fozzy Whittaker saw more action than was expected with Stewart hurt and Tolbert’s fumble issues but got hurt himself and had just 26 yards on four carries and one solid reception. With the offensive line getting beat on pass and run plays, this group saw little work, and the snaps they did see were an overall disappointment.
Anything that could go wrong for the Panthers offense did and the receivers had plenty of mistakes. The receiving corps matchup against an elite secondary with Aqib Talib and Chris Harris struggled all night to get any separation and led to Newton getting sacked or having to throw it away. The biggest miscues came from the weapon that usually is the most reliable of all in Jerricho Cotchery. The veteran wideout dropped three passes that hit off his hands and could have set up the Panthers offense hugely each time including one that could have put the Panthers either into the end zone or inside the five yard-line. Ted Ginn Jr. made a few plays to try to get this offense in rhythm but wound up letting one very catchable pass, slip through his fingers and into the Broncos’ T.J. Ward's grasp. Philly Brown had a solid day catching four for 80 yards but left with a concussion after making one nice grab and rookie Devin Funchess made two solid catches for 40 yards. But clearly, nothing these receivers did could consistently help their quarterback or this offense.
In a game that many thought would feature Greg Olsen heavily, Newton and the Panthers struggled to get their star pass-catcher the ball. He caught four passes for 41 yards but like the receivers, was unable to gain separation much of the time and wasn’t much of a factor. Whether it was the tight ends fault or Mike Shula and the offensive play-calling, the Panthers blocking was atrocious and very few times did the tight ends help with blocking Denver’s elite pass rushers and when they did, they were ineffective. To put the cherry on top, Ed Dickson committed one of numerous penalties with a false start that only kept the Panthers offense in further frustration.
A unit that faced a number of top-tier pass rushers this season absolutely crumbled under the bright lights of the Super Bowl. This group was utterly dominated from the very first snap of the game and had no answer for the power and speed of the Broncos’ edge rushers as the group gave up seven sacks (one sack was attributed to Ted Ginn on a trick play) and 13 quarterback hits. Tackles Michael Oher and Mike Remmers stood no chance against Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware and were routinely beat around the edge leaving their quarterback out to dry, many times not even getting a hand on them. In the interior, Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson wreaked havoc against the Panthers run game which was stop within a yard or two more times than not. This matchup figured to be the deciding factor but very few probably would have predicted this level of ineffectiveness.
The Panthers MVP of the game came from this unit as Kony Ealy did all he could to try and help his team get a Super Bowl victory. Ealy was a monster all game long, lining up all over the field and tormenting Peyton Manning and the Broncos’ stable of backs. The defensive end had four tackles including three sacks, one pass deflection, one interception and a forced fumble which he then recovered. His performance set a Super Bowl record as the first player to record three sacks and an interception in the big game. The rest of this unit also played well as part of a defense that dominated the Broncos’ offense routinely. Charles Johnson recorded another sack and Jared Allen made a key third down stop to hold Denver to a field goal when the game was still in reach. Defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short also did their part as Lotulelei logged five tackles, two for a loss, and Short was a steady force against the Denver running game.
Like the rest of the defense, this unit starred and did all they could to set their offense up with success. Luke Kuechly led the team with 10 tackles including a first quarter sack and with a broken forearm, the veteran Thomas Davis was second on the team with seven. Shaq Thompson was also a force recording five total tackles to help the cause and hold the Broncos to 90 yards rushing and stifle an offense that only managed meaningful scores when their defense had already set them up in Panthers’ territory.
The Panthers’ secondary was no exception to the outstanding defensive play for the Panthers in this one. This group did their part to shut down the Denver passing game holding Manning to just 141 yards through the air. Josh Norman completely shut down Demaryius Thomas who caught just one pass for eight yards when he was lined up away from Norman and Robert McClain and Cortland Finnegan fared solidly for the most part against Emmanuel Sanders and the other Broncos receivers. Norman and McClain each had multiple pass deflections, some that should have been picks, and a few that could have been taken for six. This group did allow Sanders to get separation at times and gash them but they remained stout and didn’t give up a touchdown til late in the fourth quarter.
In a night where almost everything that could go wrong did, the special teams unit was no exception. Graham Gano missed a 44 yard field goal that hit off the upright and would have pulled Carolina within three to start the second half. In the second quarter the punt coverage team gave up a 61 yard return after they thought Broncos’ returner Jordan Norwood called for a fair catch.