As the Panthers peeked ahead to their Super Bowl opponent right after trouncing the Cardinals, though, the pattern changed. They viewed Peyton Manning not with scorn, but with reverence. At 39 years old, in his 18th NFL season, Manning has achieved unique status. He’s old enough for his admirers to have become his rivals. Kids who looked up to him as Pop Warner players have become his NFL opponents.
“One of the greats, if not the greatest,” Panthers defensive lineman Kawann Short said. “It’s going to be a fight.”
Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, 24, remembers rooting for Manning as a middle schooler in Cincinnati. Cornerback Josh Norman, 27, used to mimic Manning, Marvin Harrison and Edgerrin James in his youth league, where he played on a team called the Colts. In their minds, the Panthers aren’t playing a diminished quarterback leaning on a monstrous defense. They’re playing a guy who walked out of their bedroom posters.
“Greatness,” Norman said. “Greatness, man. That guy can down as one of the best that’s ever done it in the history of football. My chance to face a guy like, his cerebral approach, it’s the best feeling for me. We get to play The Sheriff. Guns hot, coming out of blazing. I get to play The Sheriff, man.”
Carolina safety Kurt Coleman, who twice intercepted Carson Palmer in the NFC title game, immediately cautioned against judging Manning on his weakened physical state. He faced Manning twice last year while with the Kansas City Chiefs and views Manning as able as ever.
“He’s a mastermind,” Coleman said. “He really is. He understands everything that’s going on. It’s got to be a game plan where, you got to stop the run. You got to get people in his face, similar to this week.”