Welcome to the longest two weeks of the NFL season. There's only one game left and we have to sit through our first Sunday in 21 weeks without meaningful football to get there.
That's the annoying part. The good news is that all the buildup will lead to another delicious Super Bowl matchup. We have the MVP-to-be facing off against the five-time MVP. We have Peyton Manning, an all-time great, trying to go out a champion against a 17-1 squad looking to cement itself as an all-time great team.
There will be two weeks to dissect it all, so let's take a look at the seven big storylines and some of the unstoppable performers we'll be talking about until Super Bowl 50 kicks off in Santa Clara, California.
1. Best offense versus best defense
The Broncos are coming off one of the most dominant performances imaginable. Von Miller is building an all-time great career and is coming off an all-time great performance. Denver led the NFL in fewest yards allowed and pass the eye test. Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe make up the best defensive line in football. The linebacker group is underrated and versatile. Denver is deep at cornerback with Aqib Talib, Chris Harris and Bradley Roby. And they are led by Wade Phillips, one of the best defensive coordinators in NFL history.
The Panthers, meanwhile, were the league's top-scoring team. Led by Cam Newton's MVP-caliber season, they have successfully made the transition to an explosive offensive team. No running game has more "base" running plays that look similar but have nearly infinite variations. Corey Brown, Ted Ginn and Devin Funchess have proven you don't need a top-shelf receiver group to score mountains of points. The Broncos were the ones with the loaded offense last time they were in the Super Bowl, and they probably don't mind having the roles reversed this time.
2. John Elway's vision comes true
Broncos general manager John Elway looked at his team after they lost Super Bowl XLVIII to Seattle and vowed to become tougher. He wanted a team that looked more like the defense and running heavy squads he won the Super Bowl with in the late 1990s. Just two years later, his vision has been realized. The defense is loaded with Elway draft picks, not to mention free agent signings like DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Talib.
Elway made an unpopular choice by replacing coach John Fox after last season. Installing coach Gary Kubiak's running game, along with Phillips, has helped bring Elway to the championship doorstep again with a team he can believe in. As Dan Hanzus noted on our latest Around the NFL Podcast, perhaps Elway can engineer another magical podium moment again.
3. Peyton Manning's last ride
This will inevitably be the "Jerome Bettis is from Detroit!" storyline of the game. We are more convinced than ever that this will be Manning's last season. Common sense says no, but Manning has left plenty of signs. His decision to soak up the afterglow Sunday with his entire family on the field in Denver was telling. His son Marshall joined him at the podium after the win over the Patriots. Even Archie Manning believes this is it for Peyton, although he insists his son hasn't said a word.
This story will get an insane amount of attention. But the cheesiest script couldn't come up with this stuff. One of the game's all-time greats, broken down and benched at the end of his career, makes one final run as a supporting player on a loaded team. It's almost too incredible to believe.
4. New and old
The quarterback age gap in this game is greater than any matchup in Super Bowl history. We're not particularly looking forward to thinkpieces about Cam Newton representing the new generation of quarterbacks against the old guard, especially when it comes to comparing the two players' pitchman or celebration skills.
It's a more interesting angle when considering a very traditional offense led by Manning and Kubiak and comparing it to the hybrid Cam Newton/Mike Shula attack which is unlike anything we've seen in the NFL. The Panthershave basically built an offense entirely around Cam. As it should be!
5. Top picks
In case you missed it: It's the first matchup of No. 1 overall picks. The 2011 draft is also the first draft to have its No. 1 (Cam) and No. 2 picks (Von Miller) face off in the Super Bowl. It's also the third straight year that the NFL's top-seeded playoff teams have reached the Super Bowl. It's good to be chalk!
6. Von Miller and Josh Norman
There are a ton of great stories about each team's defense. This is Ware's first Super Bowl in a potential Hall of Fame career. Thomas Davis, coming off a broken arm, is one of the most inspirational figures from the last decade in the NFL. It's sweet to see him on the big stage. Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly is one of the very best defensive players in the league and is about to become a lot more famous.
But we know how Super Bowl week works. The best, loudest, strangest players get the most attention. And it doesn't get much louder, funnier, and better than Miller and Panthers cornerback Josh Norman. They will be everywhere.
7. Cam Newton's coronation
This has been Cam Newton's season. He's going to win the MVP and the Panthers are one tough loss to the Falcons away from being undefeated entering this game. No player loves or deserves the spotlight more. Newton is a leader that fascinates with his play and his words. Super Bowl week is not too big for Cam; it's just the right size.
This feels like Newton's championship season. But feelings before the Super Bowl are overrated. Just ask the 2001 Rams or the 2007 Patriots. It's up to Newton to earn his coronation.