In no particular order:
1)Since the NFL went to a 16-game regular season in 1978, seven teams have won 15 or more games. In 1984, the San Francisco 49ers went 15-1 on their way to a Super Bowl title (they beat the 14-2 Dolphins in the championship game that season). A year later, the Chicago Bears also went 15-1, behind a historically ferocious defense, and capped that season with a Super Bowl rout of the New England Patriots.
In the past thirty years, five additional teams have won 15 or 16 regular season games. Not one of them has won a Super Bowl. Only two of the five, the 16-o Patriots in 2007, and this year’s 15-1 Panthers, even made the big dance. This is not unique to football. Teams with superb regular season records have typically faltered in baseball (the 1998 Yankees being a notable exception) and often in hockey as well. The post-season performance of very high-win NBA teams is better, though not flawless. Is there some disadvantage to playing at such a high level all year? Is there not enough left in the collective tank come playoff time? Is this just a statistical fluke?
I have no good answers. But it’s interesting.
2)There was, let’s face it, something odd about Peyton having fewer Super Bowl rings than his younger brother. From that standpoint, there was some of kind of closing of a cosmic loop last night. For my friends who are going to yell at me, this is not a knock on Eli. Nor is it an endorsement of the cosmic significance of “rings.” Probably the most useful thing to say about it is that Peyton’s winning a second ring in what seems likely to have been his final game will, fairly or unfairly, change the retrospective conversation about him forever. For my money, it will bring into better alignment his actual greatness with how he’s remembered. This isn’t a character judgment, by the way. Just a comment on his career as a football player. And to be clear, he deserves essentially no credit for last night’s win. His team failed to amass even 200 yards of total offense, which must be a record for a winning team (just looked it up. Indeed, it is). The victory is entirely attributable to the awesome Broncos’ defense. And yet, Manning gets a win, which speaks to some of the silliness of the exercise of ascribing wins and losses to quarterbacks. Not that they never deserve credit for a win (of course they do). I could keep going back and forth like this. I’ll stop now.
3)I have never subscribed to the “defense wins championships” school in any sport. In part, that’s because the cliche smells like a proxy for insipid moralizing about ethics of the type that I don’t have much time for. But *something* is going on here. No. 1 defenses do extraordinarily well in the Super Bowl, much better than No. 1 offenses. Teams that finished first in the NFL in total defense are now 10-2 in Super Bowls. Top offenses have fared much less well. As best as I can tell, there have been five Super Bowls in which the number scoring offense in the league went head to head with the number scoring defense, including SB50. The top defense is now 5-0 in those matchups. Two of those games – Super Bowl XIII and Super Bowl XXV (!) were very close. Two others were blowouts – Super Bowl XIX and, two years ago, SBXLVIII, when Manning’s record setting offense was destroyed by Seattle’s defense. Last night’s game was somewhere in the middle. I don’t have a theory as to why this would be – and no, “because defenses win championships” isn’t a theory. But one must reckon with the reality of it.
4)The Jericho Cotchery non-catch in the first quarter was baffling. Unless the officials saw the tip of the ball touching the ground, how could it possibly said that Cotchery failed to possess it in the field of play? Had the officials made the correct call, the Panthers would have had a first down at their own 40. Instead, they were pinned back at their own 5, and the Broncos pulled off a strip sack touchdown on the next play. Does that mean the Panthers “deserved” to win the game? Certainly not. The Denver defense was fantastic, dominating all night. But it was a consequential call, another officiating failure in what has been, it seems, a bad season for the zebras.
5) The Panthers’ big weakness coming into the season was thought to be their receiving corps, especially after their top wideout from a year ago, Kelvin Benjamin, went down with a season-ending injury during training camp. Contrary to prevailing trends in pro football, the Panthers’ offense is not predicated on quick, short passes. Instead, they rely on their offensive line to give Newton enough time for his receivers to get open, and for him to find them downfield for big plays. The line, plus Newton’s ability to keep plays alive with his feet has made that a recipe for success all year. But because of Denver’s ferocious rush last night, Newton didn’t have the time he needed, and he got buried.
6)Do I wish Cam had stayed for the whole press conference last night? Yes. Do I think his failure to proves what his critics say about him? Um, no. Do they care? Double no.