The Carolina Panthers weren’t supposed to be here. Nor were the Denver Broncos.
The Panthers lost their best receiver in the summer to a season-ending knee injury.
The Broncos lost their Hall of Fame-bound quarterback at midseason, and didn’t get him back until the end of the year.
But here they stand, one step away from the NFL mountaintop, pitted against each other in Super Bowl 50, the golden anniversary of the game’s biggest stage.
This matchup features two outstanding defenses — Denver is No. 1, Carolina is No. 6 — against quarterbacks who reside at opposite ends of the style spectrum, the Broncos’ Peyton Manning and Panthers’ Cam Newton. For the first time, it’s a showdown between two quarterbacks drafted No. 1 overall.
Manning, 39, and Newton, 26, are separated by 13 years and 48 days. According to Elias Sports Bureau, that’s the largest age gap between starting quarterbacks in the Super Bowl, surpassing the 12 years, 250 days between Manning and Seattle’s Russell Wilson in 2012.
Likewise, Manning and Newton had vastly different types of seasons, even though they both wound up in the Super Bowl.
Newton had the best year of his career, throwing for 35 touchdowns and running for 10.
The question that has percolated in the build-up to this game concerns whether Manning, who is 1-2 in Super Bowl appearances, will walk away from his playing career when the clock hits 0:00. Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway, the Broncos’ top football executive, finished his storied career with a flourish, winning back-to-back Super Bowls.
“It doesn’t happen for just anybody,” said Denver Coach Gary Kubiak, Elway’s longtime backup. “It’s hard enough to get to this game, and when guys have an opportunity to go out that way… that’s very special.”
The Broncos and Panthers have played each other four times in their history, and only once with their current quarterbacks at the helm. In that 2012 game, Denver posted a 36-14 victory and sacked Newton seven times.
This is the eighth Super Bowl appearance for the Broncos, tying them for the most with Pittsburgh, New England and Dallas. Their two wins were with Elway at quarterback, and they were blown out by the Seahawks two years ago, 43-8.
The Panthers, who played their first game in 1995, have been to one Super Bowl, narrowly losing to the Patriots, 32-29, with Jake Delhomme at quarterback.
Carolina is one of 13 active franchises that has never won a Super Bowl. The team nearly went undefeated this season, winning its first 14 games before stumbling at Atlanta, 20-13. The Panthers won their finale against Tampa Bay to finish a league-best 15-1, then beat Seattle and Arizona in the playoffs.
Whether it’s real or simply conjured for effect, the narrative that Carolina isn’t as good as its record has been like rocket fuel for the Panthers, who constantly say they feel disrespected.
“The more we won, the more people wanted to tell us why we couldn’t continue to win,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “I think a lot of it is, we’re maybe not conventional with what everyone sees now in the NFL these days. The top teams are throwing for a million yards, throwing the ball 40 times a game. That’s not going to be us.
“We’ve got a quarterback who’s going to run it as good as anybody in the league. We’re going to hand the ball off 20-plus times a game…. We’ve got guys coming in motion. We’ve got guys going all over the place in our run game. I just don’t know if people have wrapped their head around it yet.”
The Broncos have spent the past two weeks preparing, trying to wrap their heads around it. Now, they’ll try to see if they can do the same with their arms.
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer