That there was no dominant – or even very good – team in the NFL this year was born out in spades in the lackluster performance of both teams in this year’s Super Bowl. At various stages of the season, the experts on ESPN hopefully anointed, respectively, the Packers, the Seahawks, the Steelers, the Patriots and the Cardinals as the potential team to beat – and of course none of them made it to the final Sunday. The fact that the Vikings – a seriously mediocre team – made the playoffs and almost beat the eventual champion Broncos confirms the underwhelming quality of play this year. And while Peyton Manning is being celebrated for winning his second Super Bowl at 39, let’s not forget that the story line for much of the year was, Should he still be playing, and it’s hard to find much to praise in his final performance. His two touchdown “drives” covered a total of 4 yards – half of which came from a debatable penalty – and his interception was a terrible throw.
Instead of being forgettable, the game was set up for a thrilling finish when Carolina got the ball with four minutes left, behind by 6 points. Surely, MVP Cam Newton would assert himself and, finally, lead his squad downfield for a last-minute touchdown. That he was sacked and fumbled made the Denver defense, rightfully, the story of the game. It’s just hard to get excited when the most important statistic is quarterback hurries.
I also haven’t seen enough discussion of the role of the officials, probably because the final score of 24-10 made any one play seem inconsequential. For myself, I would like to see a column after every game devoted to evaluating the performance of the referee and his team. I can think of three calls that might have made a difference, two of which were shown to be clearly wrong by instant replay. Aqib Talib was about three feet offside on Carolina’s field-goal try that hit the goalpost and bounced wide. Given a rekick from 5 yards closer would, the Panthers would not only have added 3 points at a pivotal moment, they would have added some momentum. As it was, you wonder if the inevitable deflation and slightly worse field position didn’t help the Broncos, who quickly moved into field goal range of their own. Second, interference was not called on the Denver defender (probably Talib again) who had wrapped up Ted Ginn Jr. well before Newton’s third-down pass reached him, thwarting a Carolina drive. The third obviously crucial call was the incomplete ruling on Jerome Crotchery’s bobbling reception that the broadcasters and their in-booth ex-referee expected to be overturned when challenged. Instead, the call was allowed to stand – not “confirmed” – meaning that if the officials had called it complete at the outset the Panthers would have moved out of their own backyard and the subsequent sack-fumble-TD recovery would not have happened.
The other obvious consequential blunder that affected the outcome, as opposed to a great play, came when two Carolina defenders thought the Bronco punt returner had called for a fair catch, which he clearly should have, and backed off from a crushing tackle, allowing him to run 61 yards to set up another of Denver’s 3 points. And before I sign off, let me note the numerous off-target passes by Newton. In other words, it was a game of blunders, by players and officials, hardly worthy of a championship contest between the two best the game has to offer.