DENVER — It will be a memorable Super Bowl no matter what happens. It will be Cam Newton’s first. It could be Peyton Manning’s last. The superb defenses of the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos will square off in 13 days in Santa Clara, Calif.

The Broncos and Panthers took far different paths on conference-championship Sunday to reach the sport’s biggest stage. The Broncos held on via a failed two-point conversion try by the New England Patriots with 12 seconds remaining to prevail, 20-18, in a tense AFC title game and the 17th career meeting between legendary quarterbacks Manning and Tom Brady. The Panthers followed with a dominant performance to overwhelm the Arizona Cardinals, 49-15, in the NFC championship game.

Manning goes to his fourth career Super Bowl, seeking his second title. It will be his second Super Bowl as a member of the Broncos. The previous appearance resulted in a 43-8 defeat to the Seattle Seahawks on Feb. 2, 2014 in the first New York-area Super Bowl.

Then, Manning just had won his fifth league MVP award, coming off a regular season in which he threw for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns. Now he returns on the heels of a regular season in which he threw nine touchdown passes and 17 interceptions and watched Brock Osweiler start at quarterback while he worked his way back from a foot injury. The list of quarterbacks to have had a worse season and still reached the Super Bowl isn’t very long, to put it kindly.

“You try to do your part and contribute,” Manning said Sunday. “When you’re not able to contribute because you can’t participate, you try to be patient and work yourself back into position to be available to participate and to try to make a contribution. So there’s different ways to do that. And there’s no question it’s been a different season and my role has been different, and my contributions are different. But I’m fortunate and grateful to have the opportunity to contribute still in some way. It’s a great honor to be going back to the Super Bowl. Playing Super Bowl 50, I’m really looking forward to it. It’s going to be a fun two weeks.”

Manning was Osweiler’s backup on the final day of the regular season before Coach Gary Kubiak turned to him that day for a lift and then went back to him as the starter for the postseason.

“I really tried to take it one week at a time all season long through my injuries and some of the other things that have gone on,” Manning said. “Just kind of staying in the moment, taking it one week at a time, not assuming that, ‘Hey, this is how it’s gonna be. This is the final decision here one way or the other.’ So I tried to take it one week at a time, stayed patient, and I think that’s served me well.”

Even before Manning knew which team the Broncos would face, he knew preparations would be challenging and time-consuming.

“It’s not really time to reflect,” Manning said. “We have two weeks to play. We’re gonna play a team that we are completely unfamiliar with. It’s gonna be a lot of film study…. We’ll enjoy this victory tonight. It was a special victory. It was a heck of a game.”

Indeed it was, and Manning could thank a Denver defense that was credited with 20 hits on Brady and sacked him four times. Newton, the likely league MVP this season, will present a different challenge to Broncos pass rushers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, as a far less stationary target.

“I don’t want the credit,” Newton said in an on-field interview with Fox immediately following the lopsided win over the Cardinals. “This team, we won as a team. We came out here and fought our tails off. We did what a lot of people said we couldn’t do. It’s not over yet…. I don’t know who we’re playing yet. But we’ll be ready to go in two weeks.”

Informed that he would be facing Manning and the Broncos, Newton said: “Oh, wow, playing the sheriff. But anyway, we’re gonna live in the moment right now. We’re gonna be excited. I’m very excited about this organization, happy for Mr. [owner Jerry] Richardson, Coach [Ron] Rivera and the staff, and especially these teammates of mine, man. It’s great that we all battled and worked so hard. And for it to come to fruition and pay off is great.”

The Super Bowl potentially could be Manning’s final NFL game and, if so, he will attempt to make a glorious exit in the way that his boss, Broncos executive John Elway, once did. It is easy to make a case that Manning is the greatest regular season quarterback in NFL history. The knock on him has been his lack of postseason success, especially when compared to four-time Super Bowl winner Brady. But winning multiple Super Bowls would cast Manning’s postseason efforts in a different light.

He secured his sixth career win over Brady, and kept the Patriots from reaching a seventh Super Bowl under Brady and Coach Bill Belichick. Manning declined to address the topic Sunday of whether Brady-Manning XVII was the final chapter in the rivalry that defined their NFL generation.

“I’m not gonna get into what-if scenarios,” Manning said. “I’ve stated it all week. I’ve stated it my entire career: I have great respect for Tom as a player, as a friend and for the job he’s done as a quarterback for that franchise. And for Coach Belichick… I can’t get away from either of those guys. Just like today, it’s always been a tremendous challenge when we play against both of them together especially. My hat’s off to their entire team.”


1. Denver’s defense

The Broncos led the league in total defense during the regular season. The Panthers ranked sixth in that category.

Several members of the Denver defense said Sunday they felt they hadn’t been afforded the proper respect by outside observers during the buildup to the meeting with the Patriots.

“Everybody said we couldn’t cover,” cornerback Chris Harris said. “They said I couldn’t cover [wide receiver Julian] Edelman. They said we couldn’t cover all week. They said they were gonna shred us all week. So that made us angry. We had it written up every day. That gave us motivation…. I wanted to come out here and prove a point.”

Harris said the members of the Broncos’ secondary knew they could give the team’s pass rushers time to get to Brady if they could take away Brady’s trademark quick throws to receivers.

“We knew if we could take away their first throw, make him pat the ball a little bit longer, that we could get back there,” Harris said. “And that’s what we did. The d-line said they needed three seconds, three to four seconds. And that’s what we gave them.”

The Broncos did have to do some lineup-juggling in the secondary when starting safeties T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart left the game with injuries. Harris moved from cornerback to help fill in.

“I had to learn another position on the run because we had no more safeties…. It was hard, definitely, because you have to think a lot more when you’re not playing your position,” Harris said. “But we found a way to get through the game.”

Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib, who played for the Patriots in 2012 and 2013, said it was particularly gratifying to beat his former team in such a setting.

“Being able to beat them twice in one year—all those guys, I’m still in a group chat with those guys,” Talib said. “So I’m gonna be on them.”

2. Ware’s speech

Tight end Owen Daniels said he and other Broncos players were inspired by a speech delivered Saturday night by Ware.

“It didn’t really sink in that I was playing in this game today until last night,” Daniels said. “It really hit me. D-Ware got me choked up with his speech to our team last night. It was really emotional leading up to the game. At times during the game I had to kind of calm myself down—good emotions and all very positive things…. You kind of had to be there…. DeMarcus doesn’t say a lot. But when he says things, when he gets an opportunity to speak, we listen.

“He had a hell of a speech for us. I was welled up. I know a lot of other guys were, too. It was a special night.”

The Broncos signed Daniels, a 10th-year pro who’d spent eight seasons with the Houston Texans and one with the Baltimore Ravens, as a free agent last offseason. He had a pair of first-half touchdown catches Sunday.

“It’s why I came here is the opportunity to play in this game and to play in the one we’re about to play in a couple weeks,” he said. “Just to be a part of the team is awesome. But to have an impact with the couple plays I had today means the world to me…. It was pretty cool to get in the end zone a couple times in the championship game…. I’m kind of at a loss for words. It’s exactly what I wanted. And that doesn’t always happen. It’s been 10 years. It’s a long time waiting for an opportunity to play in this game. To win this game was well worth the wait.”

3. Postseason officiating

It was a regular season filled with officiating controversies, from ongoing confusion over the NFL’s catch rule to outcome-changing missed calls that led to the league acknowledging some significant mistakes.

That prompted the league to make a change to its officiating procedures for this postseason, giving members of the NFL’s officiating department more leeway to communicate with the on-field officials over administrative issues.

Whether that has had an effect or not, the postseason has been relatively quiet in terms of tempestuousness over the officiating.

There was a botched coin flip in overtime of the NFC semifinal in Arizona. But that had no effect on the outcome of the game, given that the Cardinals won both coin flips and then won the game with an opening-drive touchdown in overtime. Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald was awarded a questionable catch along the sideline in the same game.

There was Manning sliding down in the pocket, then being allowed to get up and throw a completion during the Broncos’ victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. There was Pittsburgh assistant coach Joey Porter being permitted to go on the field during an injury timeout late in the Steelers’ opening-round triumph at Cincinnati, contributing to the second of two 15-yard penalties against the Bengals that set up a decisive field goal. There was Steelers wide receiver Martarvis Bryant being awarded a legal touchdown catch on an acrobatic grab on which Dean Blandino, the NFL’s vice president of officiating, said later he thought it probably wasn’t a catch but there was not enough video evidence to overturn the on-field ruling.

So it hasn’t been a perfect postseason for the officials. But compared to what happened during the regular season, it has been a bit less turbulent.

4. London franchise?

There has been speculation for a few years about the possibility of the NFL not only playing regular season games in London, but ultimately basing a franchise there.

For now, at least, there remains little reason to give credibility to such speculation.

The prospect of a London-based franchise was raised again last week by a report by the BBC that NFL executive Mark Weller pledged there will be a team there within six years. The NFL denied the report, saying that Waller has made no such commitment.

The reality is that the owners, not the league, are in control of whether a franchise is placed in London. The league clearly would have input into such a matter. But as the owners’ Los Angeles decision demonstrated, it is the will of the 32 owners that carries the day. The owners’ L.A. committee, which worked closely with the league on relocation issues, recommended approval of the Carson, Calif., stadium project proposed by the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders. The owners essentially ignored that recommendation and approved, by a vote of 30-2, the Inglewood, Calif., stadium project proposed by the St. Louis Rams, and gave the Chargers a one-year option to join the Rams there.

When it comes to London, there is strong skepticism among many owners about the merits of putting a franchise there. Logistics, competitive issues and scheduling are viewed as major problems. Those owners would have to be persuaded by the league that a London-based franchise makes sense and would provide a considerable financial boost to the sport.

For now, at least, there appears to be considerable sentiment among the owners against making such a move.

5. Rams-Chargers deliberations

The Chargers began deliberations with the Rams last week about the terms of a prospective agreement that would enable them to share the Inglewood stadium.

The teams said they would not comment publicly on the negotiations and the timetable for the Chargers making a decision is not clear. It does appear that both teams potentially could use the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum next season, if needed, with the Inglewood stadium under construction. It is scheduled to open in 2019.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti told ESPN last week he hopes the Chargers remain in San Diego and the Raiders stay in Oakland. Dean Spanos, the chairman of the Chargers, must weigh the possibilities in Los Angeles against the prospects for getting a new stadium in San Diego.

But several people within the sport continue to say that if Spanos and the Chargers feel they are treated fairly on terms negotiated with Rams owner Stan Kroenke, they believe it remains likely that the Chargers will opt for L.A. The opportunity in Los Angeles simply is too good to pass up, those people say. Some add that even if the Chargers could get a new stadium in San Diego, they suddenly would be faced with the prospect of having one or two NFL competitors in Southern California, given that their option to join the Rams would transfer to the Raiders.

6. Bills’ female coach

Buffalo Bills Coach Rex Ryan is to be applauded for his decision to make Kathryn Smith the NFL’s first female full-time assistant coach. Last week, Ryan named Smith the Bills’ quality control coach for special teams.

The Cardinals broke the sport’s gender barrier for coaches last summer when they had Jen Welter working with the team’s inside linebackers during training camp and the preseason. But Ryan’s hiring of Smith is another significant step in the right direction toward equality and fairness in hiring.

“I recognize the significance of the hiring and things like that,” Ryan said at a news conference late last week. “But for me, I was just concerned getting somebody that can be successful in that role. And having the experience that I have had with Kathryn, I really think she is going to do a great job in this role. So that was really all my concern was…. I have left out of here [the Bills’ offices] and she has been the last one here. So every day since she got the promotion, I see her in there already working on her drawings and things like that, working on next season’s opponents already. So I think you know the work ethic, dedication, and all that, I know is going to be there. I think she is really excited about this opportunity.”

Smith’s appointment was the most noteworthy coaching move made by Ryan this offseason, but it wasn’t the only interesting thing that he did. He also added his brother Rob and former Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed to his defensive staff.

The addition of Rob Ryan gives the Bills a former defensive coordinator as a head coach and a former defensive coordinator as an assistant head coach to go with defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman. Rex Ryan was asked last week, and legitimately so, if that will make for too many cooks in the kitchen. He said the collaboration will be constructive.

“The great thing is that there is discussion… but when the plan comes in and the call comes in, it is a Buffalo Bill thing and we are all in it together,” Ryan said. “But I love having opinions, having voices…. My brother and Dennis Thurman are really smart. I know it is debatable and well written that I am not that sharp. Okay, I get it. But I think that is great. That is encouraged…. When you get a lot of guys that have been around it, [they] can throw an idea here or there. That is to be encouraged, more so than looked down [upon]. I love that thing.”

7. Play-calling head coaches

The proliferation of offensive coordinators hired as head coaches league-wide this offseason creates a dilemma for them: Will they appoint themselves their teams’ offensive play-callers?

Five of the seven NFL head coaching vacancies were filled with offensive coordinators: Hue Jackson in Cleveland, Adam Gase in Miami, Dirk Koetter in Tampa, Doug Pederson in Philadelphia and Ben McAdoo with the New York Giants. The Tennessee Titans retained their offensive coordinator turned interim head coach, Mike Mularkey, and the San Francisco 49ers hired the offensive-minded head coach who’d been ousted by the Eagles, Chip Kelly.

Mularkey will not be the offensive play-caller in Tennessee but it appears that in all or practically all of the other cases, the new head coach plans to be the offensive play-caller.

Those coaches should be careful with that. Of those coaches who might serve as their own play-callers, only Kelly and Jackson have previous NFL head coaching experience. Jackson’s experience was for only one season in Oakland.

It is a new and far bigger job for most of the group, and first-time NFL head coaches often underestimate all the demands and time constraints that come with sitting in that chair. They must learn to coach their entire team and to be, in effect, the CEO of their coaching staff. They cannot spend as much time with the tiny details of coaching an offense that they’re accustomed to spending, and in some of these cases it might serve the coaches well to rethink their current play-calling plans.

8. Kelly and Kaepernick

Kelly has not committed to keeping Colin Kaepernick as his quarterback in San Francisco.

The 49ers would owe Kaepernick $14.3 million for next season if he’s on the team’s roster after April 1. His deal would count $15.9 million against next season’s salary cap. He lost the starting job this season to Blaine Gabbert, then was placed on the injured reserve list and underwent shoulder surgery.

But his talents perhaps are well suited to Kelly’s offensive system, and several officials with other NFL teams say they expect Kaepernick to remain with the 49ers.

“I don’t see how he’s going to be able to do any better in the short term,” a front office executive with another NFL team said of the prospect of Kelly retaining Kaepernick. “To me, he doesn’t have much of a choice but to try to make it work.”

9. Vrabel’s rise in coaching

Mike Vrabel, the former Patriots linebacker who now is the linebackers coach of the Texans, rejected an offer by Kelly to be the 49ers’ defensive coordinator.

But the fact that the opportunity to become a coordinator existed for Vrabel speaks to the growing reputation he is earning as a coach.

Vrabel has been on the Texans’ coaching staff for two seasons after three years coaching in the college ranks at Ohio State, his alma mater. He was recommended to Kelly highly by Belichick.

Vrabel certainly appears to be on course to become a defensive coordinator in the NFL within the next few years, perhaps as the eventual successor to Romeo Crennel in Houston, and his rapid rise in coaching makes his name one to keep in mind for future head coaching hiring cycles.

10. Lynch retiring?

The pronouncement by Seahawks General Manager John Schneider during a radio interview last week that running back Marshawn Lynch is leaning toward retiring shouldn’t surprise anyone.

Lynch turns 30 in April. He has been a punishing runner throughout his career and that has taken its toll on his body. He could not stay healthy and on the field this season, playing in only seven games and rushing for only 417 yards. He averaged a modest 3.8 yards per carry.

The Seahawks seemingly have a replacement for Lynch already in place in Thomas Rawls, who was productive this season as an undrafted rookie filling in. The team probably would not have much interest in keeping Lynch under the terms of his current contract, under which he would count $11.5 million against the Seahawks’ salary cap next season. So even if Lynch does want to continue playing, he likely will have to rework his deal to remain in Seattle or move on to another team.