SAN FRANCISCO -- When the NFL chose to play its landmark 50th Super Bowl in the Bay Area, it touted it as a recognition and embrace of the innovation and forward-thinking that springs from the area, important symbolism for a league now embarking on the next half-century of its biggest game.
It seems fitting, then, that the matchup we will get on Sunday presents such a stark delineation in the style of play, particularly at the game's most important position. Past Super Bowls have showcased quarterbacks as varied as Joe Namath, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana, Steve Young, John Elway and Russell Wilson. This one will make the choice clear: Do you like your quarterback of the more traditional variety, standing tall in the pocket, the better to slice up defenses with precise passes -- or do you prefer him to be a unique incarnation with the build of a small forward, complimenting an arm like Dan Marino's with legs like Jim Brown's?
Peyton Manning and Cam Newton could not be further apart on the style spectrum -- or in age, of course. There has never been a bigger age gap -- 13 years, 48 days -- between starting quarterbacks in the Super Bowl than there will be this Sunday, although it is worth noting that the three biggest age gaps have spawned from these last three seasons, with Manning and Tom Brady representing the AFC and Newton and Wilson representing the NFC. It is tempting to think of Newton, appearing in his first Super Bowl, as the future of quarterbacking, and Manning, appearing in his fourth with his fourth head coach, as the past. But don't expect the referendum to be decided that decisively. Brady, who plays like Manning, and Wilson, similar to Newton in style if not size, split the last two Super Bowls.
What Manning and Newton do share is something both would likely prefer to ignore: a swirl of controversy. The NFL has confirmed that it is conducting a review of an Al Jazeera America report that human growth hormone was delivered to Manning's home, implying that -- while it was shipped under his wife's name, according to the report -- Manning might have used banned performance-enhancing drugs after the neck injury that cost him the entire 2011 season.
Manning has vehemently denied the allegation. But, as with the league's investigation into underinflated footballs that consumed the run-up to the New England Patriots' appearance in the Super Bowl last year, the investigation will not be completed until long after the Super Bowl ends. That leaves Manning to face questions about the report and the NFL to contend with the awkward possibility that, as it did a year ago, it could celebrate a player one day and sanction him on another.
"I do welcome it," Manning said this week of the investigation. "It's garbage from the first day it came out. It's still garbage today."
The issues surrounding Newton are a lot more nuanced and at least as uncomfortable as those for Manning. Newton is nearly certain to be named the league's Most Valuable Player later this week -- being responsible for 50 touchdowns with his arm and legs so far this season (including the postseason) with a less-than-stellar cast of skill-position players earns that. But Newton also has been something of a lightning rod, too. Scott Fowler, the sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer, the paper that covers the Panthers most closely, called Newton the most polarizing player in the Super Bowl, and after a year of silly conversation centering on Newton's personality -- the dabbing, the selfies, the jogs around the stadium perimeter handing out footballs to children -- Newton last week stripped away all pretext about what he, and many others, see as the real issue his critics have with him.
"I'm an African-American quarterback that may scare a lot of people," Newton said, "because they haven't seen nothing that they can compare me to."
Such candor is catnip to those who will descend on San Francisco to cover the game.
Might Denver see a better result this time around than it did two years ago?
This is far from the same Broncos team. Just six of those who will start on Sunday for the Broncos had the same role in the Super Bowl against the Seahawks. In the wake of that devastating 43-8 loss two years ago, when Denver's top-scoring offense was overwhelmed by Seattle's smothering defense, the Broncos have very deliberately flipped the script on their style of play. That was by design -- the Broncos' John Elway insisted that the team get tougher, and in the aftermath of that Super Bowl, he acquired DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward in a 24-hour free agency frenzy to put some teeth into the defense. Last year, he fired John Fox and hired Gary Kubiak, importing Kubiak's balanced offensive attack with the idea of giving Manning plenty of support for a final run at the top.
The offensive fit has not always been seamless -- this is the second-lowest-ranked scoring offense (19th in the NFL at 22.2 point per game) to ever reach the Super Bowl -- but the results on defense have been remarkable. The Broncos led the NFL in total defense (283.1 yards per game), pass YPG (199.6), yards per play (4.4), sacks (52) and fewest plays allowed of at least 20 yards (46). Just one team, the Steelers, scored at least 30 points on the Broncos this year. Teams with the No. 1 overall defense are 9-2 in the Super Bowl since 1970.
Has the revolution arrived in the form of Cam Newton?
Unless you stand next to him, it is difficult to understand how big Newton is. Tall like prototypical quarterbacks (6-6) but built like a linebacker (245 pounds, maybe more), with 4.59-second 40-yard-dash speed and a rocket for an arm, Newton single-handedly elevated the Panthers' offense to the top scoring unit this year after receiver Kelvin Benjamin -- his most gifted weapon -- was lost to injury before the season even began.
Newton rushed for 636 yards and 10 touchdowns in the regular season, but he will be the league's MVP because he became a more complete quarterback this year, with 10 games (including playoffs) with a passer rating of at least 100, only one behind Carson Palmer. The Broncos' defense destroyed the more traditional model in Brady in the AFC Championship Game, hitting him 17 times. How they choose to defend Newton -- and the success or lack thereof they have with the plan -- might provide a blueprint or a warning for other defenses facing Newton going forward. Here is a key number to watch: The Broncos are 12-1 this season (including the playoffs) when they hit the opposing quarterback at least seven times. Newton hasn't been hit more than six times in any game this season.
There are those who will want to make the outcome of this game a referendum on quarterbacking styles. But while we consider where to find other physical specimens with Newton's combination of size and skill, it might be worth remembering that Newton had to become more like Manning to take the Panthers to the top tier of teams.
"Seems like every year they say the pocket passer is a dying breed," Manning said. "Well I hope that's not true. I will be out of a job and my brother will be pretty close behind me."
Are we watching the final plays of a transcendent player?
Expect the phrase "last rodeo" to get a workout this week. Ever since Manning was caught whispering it to Bill Belichick after the AFC Championship Game, the speculation has ramped up that we are about to watch Manning's last game. Manning danced around the subject last week, joking, "What happened to private conversations on the 50-yard line?"
There is little doubt that the Broncos, who forced Manning to take a pay cut last offseason, are preparing to move on without him, win or lose. Manning has deftly avoided discussing the topic during the season, but there has been a valedictory quality to the Broncos' most recent games since Manning was reinserted into the lineup in the regular-season finale. Manning says his role is different and that the defense has carried the Broncos to the Super Bowl. What the Broncos will want from him in this game is simple: Do not make turnovers -- he has not had one since he returned to the field during the regular-season finale -- make plays when needed (like the two perfectly placed touchdown passes against the Patriots), get the Broncos in good plays at the line of scrimmage (nobody is better at this, still) and let the running game and the defense do the rest. Although the Broncos would prefer that the offense not grind to a halt as it did when the Broncos managed just three second-half points against the Patriots.
"We want to do our part on offense to help our team win," Manning said. "Our defense has gotten us to this point, let's make that very clear. We certainly want to try to carry our weight and not take our defense for granted."
The Manning we'll watch Sunday is unlikely to put up the gaudy statistics that will be celebrated when he goes into the Hall of Fame. But Manning has looked noticeably fresher and more comfortable since the long injury layoff, and the bye week before the Super Bowl will certainly benefit him. Carolina cornerback Josh Norman said he's not buying talk that Manning's arm is diminished and is determined not to get beaten over the top.
Understandably, the Panthers are not as smitten with a storyline that centers on Manning riding victoriously off into the sunset as everyone else.
Still, Manning's appearance here, after changes to the offense when Kubiak arrived, the tumult of a midseason injury and benching, the legitimate possibility even late in the season that he would not regain his job, then the reinsertion into the lineup, is remarkable. And it offers the possibility that Manning will end his career the way his boss, John Elway, did and the way Elway constructed the Broncos to execute. With a stellar supporting cast shepherding Manning into retirement. With a Lombardi Trophy in his hands.