Unconventional Super Bowl Preview: Panthers will make sure Peyton’s ending doesn’t go according to his script

The entrance to Levi’s Stadium is decorated with images of Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, left, and Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. —AP

COMMENTARY

Welcome to Season 4, Episode 19 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, occasionally nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup that runs right here every weekend.

Aw, rats. If the saddest six words ever written are For sale: Baby shoes, never worn, then a nearby runner-up must be Unconventional Preview, but without the Patriots. Brings a tear to the eyes, doesn’t it? The quest for a second straight Lombardi Trophy ended after Episode 18 this year, with a hard-fought but aggravating 20-18 loss to the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game serving as the disappointing season finale.

The Patriots came up two wins shy of their goal, and so either their conquerors, the Denver Broncos, or the thus-far justifiably brash NFC representative Carolina Panthers, will succeed them as NFL champion. This isn’t how it was supposed to go, and it’s not how it looked like it would go when the Patriots were 10-0 and at peak health and performance.

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But it’s how it did go, and rather than rooting against the Panthers in what would have been a fascinating rematch of Super Bowl XXXVIII (aka the Patriots’ second Super Bowl victory), the majority of New England fans are presumably pulling for Cam Newton to prevent a potentially perfect ending for Peyton Manning.

Ugh. If only the Patriots’ line could have blocked a little.

If only, if only, if only …

Kick it off, McManus, and let’s get this thing started.

THREE PLAYERS I’LL BE WATCHING NOT NAMED PEYTON MANNING OR CAM NEWTON

Luke Kuechly: Historically, the quarterback — the marquee player at the marquee position in the marquee game — gets credit for the victory and the requisite hardware if he plays well in a Super Bowl, let alone exceptionally well.

Example: Tom Brady was named the MVP of Super Bowl XXXVI despite throwing for just 145 yards and a touchdown in the 20-17 win over the Rams. I have no problem with that, but I did think the honor should have gone to cornerback Ty Law, who helped set the defensive tone of roughing up the Rams’ receivers and scored the game’s first touchdown on a pick-six that made you think, “Hmmm, they’ve got a shot in this thing.’’

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But of the last 12 Super Bowl MVPs, eight have been quarterbacks, three have been receivers, and just one a defensive player, the Seahawks’ Malcolm Smith two years ago. Smith got it for picking off a Peyton Manning pass and returning it 69 yards for a score during the Seahawks’ 43-8 rout in Super Bowl XLVII.

Kuechly is an exceptional all-around linebacker, everything Brian Urlacher was before his reputation outpaced his production, and he has three pick-sixes this season, including one in each of the Panthers’ playoff games. I like his chances of adding to his collection against Manning Sunday … and perhaps adding a Super Bowl MVP trophy to his collection as well.

Emmanuel Sanders: The Broncos’ toughest and most dependable receiver — he has 177 catches for 2,539 yards and 15 touchdowns in two seasons in Denver — is something of a what-if in Patriots’ history.

In April 2013, the then-Steeler signed a one-year, $2.5-million offer sheet to join the Patriots. Pittsburgh matched, and he rewarded them by submitting his best season to that date, catching 67 passes for 740 yards and six touchdowns. When he hit unrestricted free agency following the ‘13 season, he had a number of suitors, including the Patriots once again.

According to his agent at the time, Sanders told the Patriots to give him Danny Amendola’s deal — five years and $28.5 million (with $10 million in guaranteed money) — and he would head for New England. The Patriots didn’t make such an offer, and Sanders ended up in Denver for three years and $18 million ($6 million guaranteed).

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It’s easy to assume he would have fared well in New England given how he’s thrived with the Broncos, but letting him get away is not entirely lamentable. After Sanders chose Denver, the Patriots then re-signed Julian Edelman, who has become everything Wes Welker was and then some. They also signed Brandon LaFell, who had more than 900 receiving yards for last year’s Super Bowl champs before battling through a foot injury and regressing this year.

It would have been nice to have Sanders, but if signing him meant they wouldn’t have brought back Edelman, then letting him get to Denver ended up working out well for both the Patriots and Broncos.

Greg Olsen: Well, if we can’t include Gronk in his usual third spot in the Players To Watch lineup, we might as well go with one of the tight ends vying to be the second-best player at the position in the NFL.

Olsen is in his ninth NFL season and his fifth with the Panthers, and the former first-round pick of the Bears just seems to keep improving annually. This season was the best of his career statistically: He had career highs in yards (1,104) and yards per catch (14.3) while catching 77 passes, seven for touchdowns. And he did it with a higher degree of difficulty given that the Panthers don’t have much at receiver and he was the clear focal point in the passing game.

If the Broncos are to have a chance on Sunday, it’s crucial that they limit the Newton-Olsen connection and make the Panthers’ quarterback throw to less trustworthy targets.

GRIEVANCE OF THE WEEK

You mean other than the investigators — or reasonable wanna-be-goon facsimiles, presumably – who showed up at the Sly residence in advance of the release of the Al Jazeera America documentary in which it was alleged that Peyton Manning used human growth hormone? I imagine they looked a lot like these two Color Me Badd guys:

The Manning-mandated investigation is the latest twist in a story full of them. I don’t care whether he used HGH or not — I wouldn’t be surprised if doing so put him among a vast majority of his NFL peers given what they put their bodies through and what’s necessary to recover. But the comparatively thin, no-rabbit-in-this-hole coverage of the story remains beyond aggravating considering that you know that if Tom Brady had John Jastremski and Jim McNally “investigated’’ in a similar manner during Deflategate, the narrative would be considerably more damning toward the quarterback. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell would have probably taken away the Patriots’ next five first-round picks while blathering something about integrity.

Runner-up leftover grievance: Why didn’t someone on the Patriots recognize or correct that Bryan Stork was tipping the snap count? What’s that? No, I will not get over it already.

PREDICTION, OR THIS OUTCOME IS GOING TO LOOK VERY FAMILIAR

All right, I suppose I’ve resisted the two most intriguing and important players in this game long enough: the quarterbacks, of course. What a contrast they are at this moment in time.

Cam Newton has had an all-timer of a season for Carolina with just a decent supporting cast of skill players. Peyton Manning has had a horrible season in Denver — I mean, 2000 Trent Dilfer was better than Manning this year — and yet against the Patriots he played within himself and didn’t obstruct a team that has a deep offense and the league’s best defense.

Newton’s sincerity gets questioned because he smiles a lot, lets his celebrations linger, and hands footballs to kids. Manning gets called “The Sheriff’’ admiringly and is treated like an aw-shucks everyman even though he’s the one with the history of scripting his celebrations.

If there’s any justice, this game is Newton’s coronation rather than Manning’s perfect final scene.

Of course, the men who run the NFL don’t seem interested in justice under most circumstances; what matters to them is perception. Good thing the Panthers defense is prepared to administer a particularly vicious brand of justice of their own, just as the Seahawks did two years ago in a season when Manning threw 46 more touchdown passes and seven fewer interceptions than he did this year.

Party on, Cam. Dab away. It’s your world now … and least until the showdown with Brady in Super Bowl 51 next year. Panthers 43, Broncos 8.

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