(Reuters) - The Carolina Panthers defense may not allow the fewest points or lead the NFL in sacks, but their ability to force turnovers has been a key factor behind their remarkable run to the Super Bowl.
This strength was on full display when the Panthers punched their ticket to Sunday’s Super Bowl with a 49-15 rout of the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship Game.
All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly and Co. harassed Arizona for four interceptions and three fumble recoveries, a trend the Panthers defense started in the regular season when they led the NFL with 24 picks and 15 fumble recoveries.
But now the Panthers will be staring down a Denver Broncos offense led by future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning on the NFL’s biggest stage.
The 39-year-old quarterback may not be as capable as he was in his prime, but the Panthers and head coach Ron Rivera will not take Manning lightly.
“I know he is very special,” said Rivera, who was defensive coordinator of a Chicago Bears team that lost to Manning’s Indianapolis Colts in the Super Bowl nine years ago.
“He is one of those guys that is going to have a storied career. He’s going end up in the Hall of Fame. Everything he does is about winning.”
Carolina’s deft all-pro cornerback Josh Norman was still in high school when Manning beat Rivera’s Bears and admired the quarterback from afar and even pretended to be him in his video game prowess.
“I know he wants to go out with a big win,” said Norman. “This is my first time ever being in the Super Bowl, this is his (fourth). I‘m rooting for him, but shoot, I want that ring. I‘m going to do everything I can to try to minimize what he likes to do. But I respect the heck out of the guy.”
With lineman Kawann Short and Jared Allen up front, linebackers Kuechly and Thomas Davis in the middle and defensive backs like Norman, Roman Harper and Kurt Coleman, there are no weaknesses in the Panthers defense.
But there are injuries to key defenders Allen and Davis. Allen suffered a broken bone in his foot and was unable to play against the Cardinals. But he’s not about miss his first Super Bowl opportunity in his 12th season.
Ditto for Davis, in his 11th year. He broke his right arm in the NFC Championship game and had a plate and screws inserted into his arm last Monday. But Davis was back at practice a few days later.
“There are some limitations,” Davis admitted. “It’s been getting better and better everyday, and that’s the goal, continue to get better all the way up until next Sunday.”
Reporting by Tim Wharnsby in Toronto; Editing by Frank Pingue