Fast Five: Memorable Sports Farewells

I’ve attended academic classes for five days a week, nine months a year from the time I was three years old, through two years of preschool, 13 years of K-thru-12, and four years of college.

But last week, I walked out of a college classroom for the last time, ahead of my graduation from Anderson University this Saturday.

As the sports aficionado I am, I couldn’t help but compare myself leaving school–retiring from school, in a sense, after what amounts to a 19 year academic “career”–to many of my athletic heroes in recent years walking away from the game.

Sure, the conclusion of my school years has come with much less fanfare than many of the highly-publicized retirements, such as Chipper Jones, David Ortiz, Tony Stewart, Alex Rodriguez, Paul Pierce, Landon Donavan, and even broadcaster Vin Scully, over the last several years in the sports world (in addition to some of the athletes listed below).  But, like many of these stars, I am also unsure of what is next.

But while the finish of my last final exam was as mundane as me handing it to the professor and quietly walking out the door, these athletes had more memorable farewells:

Honorable Mention:  Jeff Gordon

The four-time NASCAR champion’s final season came alive when he won at Martinsville in The Chase for his 93rd career win, clinching a spot in the Championship Round.  Gordon was one of four drivers to compete for the title at Homestead in the season finale, when he finished 6th behind champion Kyle Busch after leading nine laps.  The roar of the fans when Gordon took the lead could be heard over the roar of the engines in the race’s broadcast.  While Gordon has returned as an injury replacement for Dale Earnhardt Jr., his final full season was a memorable and successful farewell in a sport where many stars’ careers have ended either in mediocrity or by injury/death.


Honorable Mention:  David Ross

Ross, a “role player,” was never a household name, playing mostly as a backup or platoon catcher during stints with the Dodgers, Pirates, Padres, Reds, Red Sox, Braves and Cubs.  In his final season with the Cubs, “Grandpa Ross” hit 10 home runs in 67 games in the regular season, most often getting playing time as Jon Lester’s personal catcher, and was a leader of the 103-win Cubs team.  But his farewell will be remembered for his playoff performance.  Ross hit .250 in the postseason with two home runs, with a .400 batting average in the World Series.  In his final at-bat, Ross became the oldest player (39) to homer in a World Series Game 7, helping the Cubs to their first championship since 1908.


5.  Kobe Bryant

The Black Mamba played his entire 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, and by the final season was playing reduced minutes in most games as his body was less durable than in his prime.  But on his final night in the NBA, Bryant played 42 minutes and exploded for 60 points, the most by any player in a game in the 2015-16 NBA season.  Bryant made 22 of his 50 shots, including six threes, and was 10-for-12 on free throws.  Bryant outscored the opposing Utah Jazz 23-21 in the fourth quarter, helping the Lakers to a 101-96 win to eliminate the Jazz from playoff contention.

The only thing that could have made this farewell better was if it were in a game that counted for the Lakers.  But as Bryant ended a career that included five NBA championships, his Lakers struggled to a 17-65 record.


4.  Ted Williams

Teddy Ballgame was one of the greatest hitters in MLB history.  His .482 career on-base percentage is the best of all-time, and he is the last player to hit .400 or better in a season (.406) in 1941.  Williams hit .316 with 29 home runs and 72 RBI in his final season in 1960 with the Boston Red Sox, where he played his entire 19-year career.

The final home run, the 521st of his career, came dramatically, in his final at-bat at Fenway Park on September 28, 1960.  Williams never acknowledged the crowd during his career, but later said he almost tipped his cap while running around the bases after the home run as the fans roared.  The Red Sox’ final three games of the season were in New York, but Williams played in none of them, making the Fenway home run the final at-bat of his illustrious career.


3.  Peyton Manning, John Elway and Jerome Bettis

This group of two Hall of Famers and Manning, who will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer when eligible, each culminated their careers with a Super Bowl title, with each overcoming the criticism of not being able to win “the big one” over the course of their careers.

Manning won Super Bowl XLI with the Colts, but also lost Super Bowls XLIV with the Colts and XLVIII with the Broncos.  He was able to finish with a second championship by winning Super Bowl 50 with a 24-10 win over the Panthers (although it should be noted the defense had more to do with the championship than Manning’s tired arm).  Manning didn’t announce his retirement until weeks later, although fans and the media alike could sense that Super Bowl 50 was very likely his final game.

Elway lost three Super Bowls early in his career (XXI, XXII, XXIV), but reached two more Super Bowls (XXXII, XXXIII) in his final two seasons and finished with back-to-back titles.  After beating the Packers in Super Bowl XXXII for his first championship, Elway led the Broncos to a convincing 34-19 win over the Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII, his final game, and finished his stellar career by winning Super Bowl MVP.  Like Manning, Elway didn’t officially announce his retirement until after the season.

Bettis, the lone player in this group who played running back instead of quarterback, played his final 10 seasons with the Steelers after playing for the Rams his first three years.  Super Bowl XL was the first Super Bowl appearance of his career, which included six Pro Bowl appearances and the 2001 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award.  After Bettis’s Steelers won the Super Bowl with a 21-10 defeat of the Seahawks, Bettis announced during the post-game trophy presentation that “the last stop for ‘The Bus'” would be with the NFL title won in his hometown of Detroit.

2.  Derek Jeter

The Captain, whose jersey will be retired this Sunday night by the New York Yankees, was one of the most beloved players throughout his career as the Yankee shortstop.  The .310 career hitter, who hit .308 in the playoffs in his career while leading the Yankees to five World Series titles, announced before his 20th season in 2014 that he would retire at season’s end.

Through eight innings of Jeter’s final home game at Yankee Stadium on September 25, 2014, Jeter had a double, two RBI, and a run scored.  But after the Yankees blew a 5-2 lead in the top of the ninth, Jeter got an additional at-bat in the bottom half, with the game tied and pinch-runner Antoan Richardson at second.  Jeter delivered one of the great moments in recent MLB memory, collecting a walk-off single to right field in his final home at-bat for his third RBI of the game, giving the Yankees a 6-5 win.

But the season still had three games remaining, which were played in Boston.  Jeter played DH–he wanted his final game at Yankee Stadium to be his final game at shortstop–and on September 28 earned an RBI infield single in his final at-bat, before being pinch-run for by Brian McCann.  As dramatic as his final home at-bat had been, his final overall at-bat in Boston showed how respected Jeter is, as he left the field to a standing ovation from the fans of the Yankees’ archrivals.


1.  Lou Gehrig

Gehrig was the “Iron Horse,” a durable player who was twice American League MVP as the Yankees first baseman, was a part of six World Series titles, and is one of 12 modern-era players to win a Triple Crown.  But Gehrig’s performance began to diminish in late 1938, and by the beginning of the 1939 season, it was clear something was physically wrong.  On May 2nd, Gehrig took himself out of the lineup, ending a streak of 2,130 consecutive games over the previous 14 seasons, a record that would stand until 1995.

Gehrig was diagnosed with ALS (nicknamed Lou Gehrig’s Disease), on June 19, and officially retired on June 21.  On July 4, the Yankees held Lou Gehrig Day.  Between games of a doubleheader, after Gehrig’s #4 became the first number retired by a team in MLB history,  stirring tributes were given by Babe Ruth, New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia, and Yankees manager Joe McCarthy, among others.

Once Gehrig stepped to the mic he was, at first, too emotional to speak.  But once he did, he delivered a speech that has long been remembered beyond the realm of baseball:

“Fans, for the past two weeks, you’ve been reading about a bad break. 

“Today… I consider myself… the luckiest man… on the face of the earth.  I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.

“When you look around, wouldn’t you consider it a privilege to associate yourself with such fine-looking men as are standing in uniform in this ballpark today?  Sure, I’m lucky.  Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert?  Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow?  To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins?  Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy?  Sure, I’m lucky.

“When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift – that’s something.  When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies – that’s something.  When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter – that’s something.  When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body – it’s a blessing.  When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed – that’s the finest I know.

“So I close in saying that… I might have… been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.  Thank you.”

Gehrig’s remarks were followed by a two-minute standing ovation from the sellout Yankee Stadium crowd.

Gehrig was immediately elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, as the writers who vote waived the typical five-year waiting period for eligibility due to Gehrig’s illness.  Gehrig died of ALS on June 2, 1941.

Column: The NFL Overtime Rule Needs Changing

For years, fans, players, and the media have all wondered when we could see a Super Bowl end in overtime.

Finally, in the game’s 51st edition, it happened.  Then, after just 3:58 elapsed on the game clock, it was over, without the Atlanta Falcons even possessing the football.

The New England Patriots overcame a 28-3 third-quarter deficit to score a game-tying touchdown and conversion with :57 left in regulation, leading to the historic extra period, played under the NFL’s overtime rules.

Those rules gave the Patriots an unfair advantage simply because they won the coin toss.  Unlike college and high school football, in the NFL the team that gets the ball first in overtime can win the game with a touchdown.

The league justifies this by saying both teams are guaranteed to possess the ball unless the first team scores a touchdown by driving all the way down the field after the extra session’s opening kickoff.

And yet, that’s exactly what the Patriots did, going 75 yards in eight plays to score just 3:58 into the overtime period, without the Falcons ever having a possession.

As a result of these rules, the team that wins the coin toss almost always takes the ball, with a few rare exceptions (including, once, the Patriots), because they know their chances to win are enhanced by possessing the ball first.

This doesn’t make sense.  While the rule is better than it used to be–until 2010 the first team to score in any way won, meaning the first team with possession could win with a field goal–it is still preposterous that one team or the other got an advantage in the Super Bowl based on whether a coin landed on heads or tails.

What I would like to see would not be a major overhaul:  the NFL could simply require the team that loses the coin toss to also get a possession.  To use last night’s game as an example, after the Patriots took a lead that would have likely been 35-28 after an extra point, the Falcons would have had a chance to match.  Had they not scored, the game would be over, or if they scored to tie, then the next team to score would win.

While tweeting my discontent with the overtime rule after the game’s conclusion, multiple users replied to me that the Falcons deserved to lose because they led by 25 late in the third quarter and didn’t score over the last quarter and a half.

But that doesn’t change the flaw in the overtime rule.  If the Falcons had won the coin toss and marched down the field and scored, wouldn’t it be right for the Patriots to get a possession after fighting so hard to tie the game and reach overtime?  (That scenario happened to the Packers, last season, as I mentioned here.)

Furthermore, in a hypothetical back-and-forth game that both teams play all 60 minutes at a high level, isn’t it only right that both teams get a possession, instead of one having the ability to win on the first possession because they won a coin toss?

This rule has been a problem for a long time, and I’ve been a critic of it for as long as I’ve been watching pro football.

Now, as football enters its offseason, if the occurrence of one team being robbed of a chance to possess the ball in a historic Super Bowl overtime doesn’t get the league to change the rule, nothing will.

The overtime problem in the NFL has gone on far too long, and now the rule gave one franchise a disadvantage as it tried to win its first Super Bowl title.

It’s long past time for a change.

Column: The Patriots Run is the Best Ever

After an unprecedented comeback resulted in the first overtime in Super Bowl history, the New England Patriots stunned the Atlanta Falcons to win Super Bowl LI, 34-28.

The Patriots won the fifth championship in their history after trailing 28-3 late in the third quarter, setting a Super Bowl record for the largest comeback, obliterating the previous largest of 10 points.

Like it or not (and honestly, I don’t), the Bill Belichick-coached, Tom Brady-led New England Patriots are in the midst of the best extended stretch in NFL history, stretching back to their first title together during the 2001 season, 15 years ago in Super Bowl XXXVI.

With Sunday’s victory, Belichick won his fifth championship as a head coach, tying George Halas and Vince Lombardi for the most titles in NFL history.  His fifth Super Bowl victory is the most ever, breaking a tie with Chuck Noll, while his seven Super Bowl appearances is also a record.

Brady, who set Super Bowl records for completions (43), attempts (62) and yards (466), was named Super Bowl MVP for a record fourth time, breaking a tied with Joe Montana.  The former sixth-round draft pick is now the winningest quarterback in Super Bowl history after his fifth title, joining only Hall of Fame DE Charles Haley in the five-time champion club (Haley won two with the 49ers and three with the Cowboys).

The Belichick-Brady era Patriots have had a sustained period of excellence over the last decade and a half, and this run may not be over yet.  Although Brady is 39, he is not slowing down–this season his 28-2 touchdown-interception ratio was the best in NFL history.

The Patriots are 196-60 since 2001 in the regular season and 25-9 in the playoffs, which they have qualified for every season in the span except 2002 and 2008, the latter coming after Brady tore his ACL and missed the entire season.  This remarkable stretch is with a franchise that had never won the Super Bowl when Belichick and Brady came to Foxborough.

A clutch late-game performance by the Patriots is not unique to Super Bowl LI, as the team has had to come through in the fourth quarter in all five of their Super Bowl wins, with Brady engineering a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime in each win.  Their ability to come through late is incomprable (even considering two late losses to the Giants in Super Bowls), although they’ve gotten some phenomenal breaks in many of these situations as well (as amazing as Julian Edelman’s catch last night was, you can’t tell me it didn’t have at least a little bit of luck involved).

Yes, there have been missteps.  The Patriots guilt is clear in “Spygate” and “Deflategate”, and there have been other micro-scandals reported over the years.  And yet, even after receiving stiff penalties from the NFL for Spygate and Deflategate, the Patriots are still just as good as they have always been in the Belichick-Brady era.

This is not pleasant for me to write.  I have not liked the Patriots since they made me cry at 8 years old when they beat the Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII, and have continued to dislike their empire-like reign on the NFL through their scandals and Super Bowl titles alike.

But at this point, all I can do is tip my cap, because this franchise, however they have done it, has put together the best sustained run of excellence in NFL history.

Column: The Greatest 64 Days in Sports

It’s Super Bowl Sunday.  You’re reading a sports blog, so I don’t have to tell you how big a deal the Super Bowl is American sports, and American culture at-large.

But Super Bowl Sunday, to me, is more than just one big game on one Sunday in February, but is instead the start of the best nine-week period on the sports calendar.

Over the next 64 days, from today until April 9, all five of the sports I closely follow have a major event that fans anticipate for months, in a stretch of the sports calendar that puts the other 301 days of the year to shame.

Football, of course, crowns its professional champion tonight in Super Bowl LI.  Pro football isn’t necessarily my very favorite sport to watch (in fact, I prefer college football over the NFL), but I do still enjoy it, especially during the playoffs and “The Big Game.”

While I do find the Super Bowl to be somewhat overrated, I appreciate the cultural event it has become beyond just a football game.  Everyone is watching, whether for the commercials, the halftime show, or (like me) to see if the Patriots or Falcons hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy at the game’s conclusion.  The sheer magnitude of the Super Bowl is unlike anything else in sports; on a cultural level in America, no other sporting event even comes close.

Three weeks from today, NASCAR celebrates its own “Super Bowl Sunday” of sorts with the 59th Daytona 500.  Unlike football (and many other “stick and ball sports”), NASCAR’s biggest event doesn’t end its season, but kicks it off, as the Daytona 500 begins the 36-race marathon that is the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule.

An event that rose to prominence in 1979 with Richard Petty’s dramatic win continues to produce thrilling racing, including last year’s photo finish won by Denny Hamlin.  Some (myself included) are more than skeptical about NASCAR’s new race format, but there is still excitement building for the 500, and it will only continue to build during Daytona Speedweeks, the 10 days of events at the World Center of Racing leading up to the race on February 26.

After Daytona, the calendar will turn to March, a word that is synonymous among sports fans with college basketball.  After the 32 conference tournaments over the first two weekends of March, the field of 68 will be set for the NCAA Tournament on March 12, Selection Sunday, and the tournament begins on March 14.

The next three weeks are a flood of the buzzer-beaters, the upsets, and simply the insane basketball that makes us all adore the NCAA Tournament.  Instead of a one-day event, the tournament spans over three weekends, with the teams that play for the championship playing six games by the time the tournament is over.

The championship game is on April 3, the same day as MLB’s Opening Day.  Fans in every sport have season openers, during which they always possess hope for the upcoming season, but this is especially pronounced at the beginning of baseball season.

Teams and fans alike will be set to go after six weeks of Spring Training, as each team begins the demanding schedule of 162 games in six months.

This season, Opening Day will be prefaced by the World Baseball Classic, the quadrennial World Cup-style competition held during Spring Training, established in 2006 and most recently won by the Dominican Republic in 2013.  The United States has, surprisingly, never medaled in the event, but has quite possibly their best roster ever entering this year’s edition.

April 3, the Monday that marks the end of the NCAA Tournament and the beginning of baseball season, is also the beginning of Masters week, with the tournament rounds at The Masters beginning on Thursday, April 6.  The creation of Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts is the biggest and most dramatic golf tournament of the year, set in the beautiful backdrop of Augusta National Golf Club, full of Georgia pines and perfectly-groomed azaleas, blossoming as spring sets in.

Golf, the ultimate individual’s game, is the only sport I played in high school, and therefore the one which I most identify with the players.  I’ve dreamed of playing in the Masters–and did so in the backyard many times–and now that I realize that’s probably unrealistic, I dream of driving down Magnolia Lane to cover the “tradition unlike any other” (then again, I’d like to cover all of these events some day).  Golf has four major championships, but among them The Masters stands tall.

The Super Bowl may be tonight, but even once the game is over, the fun will just be getting started.  It kicks off this great 64-day period, the most wonderful time of the sports year.

Super Bowl 50 Preview: Carolina Panthers vs Denver Broncos

Super Bowl 50
Carolina Panthers (NFC Champions, 17-1) vs. Denver Broncos (AFC Champions, 14-4)
Sunday, 6:30 pm ET, CBS
Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, CA
Favorite: Panthers by 5

The biggest sporting event in the American culture (and arguably the third biggest in the world behind the World Cup and the Olympics) is tonight, and while Super Bowl storylines generally are not hard to find, this year’s golden anniversary edition seems to have even more of an abundance than normal.

Perhaps the biggest is Peyton Manning.  The surefire first-ballot hall of famer-to-be has led his Denver Broncos team back to the Super Bowl, just two years after being humiliated by the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII, 43-8.  Many around the game believe Manning could be retiring after the Super Bowl, so the story of whether or not the 39-year old will or will not retire, and whether or not he can finish his illustrious career with a storybook ending of a second Super Bowl title, has been a major talking point for the last two weeks leading up to the big game.  Manning will be the oldest quarterback to start a Super Bowl, and is the first starting quarterback to ever lead two teams to multiple Super Bowl appearances.  Manning is in his fourth season with Denver after a remarkable 14-year stretch with the Indianapolis Colts.

Manning was not even starting for Denver just a few weeks ago, sitting on the bench behind up-and-comer Brock Osweiler after a foot injury, before coming into Denver’s game in Week 17 against the Chargers and leading the Broncos to victory to secure home-field advantage in the AFC Playoffs.  After defeating the Steelers, 23-16, and the Patriots, 20-18, Manning and the Broncos are back in the Super Bowl for the eighth time in their rich history (tied for the most appearances ever), as they look for their third title.

The Broncos opponent, the Carolina Panthers, do not quite have the history of their opponents, as they have only appeared in the Super Bowl once, a loss to the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII, after coming into the league as an expansion team in 1995.  The Panthers have amassed a strong recent history, as this season marked their third straight NFC South Division title (prior to this streak the division had never been won by any team in consecutive years since its inception in 2002).

A big part of the reason for that is quarterback Cam Newton, the NFL’s Most Valuable Player for the 2015 season.  Newton, who won a Heisman Trophy and a BCS National Championship at Auburn, is trying to become just the second player ever to win a Heisman, a collegiate national title, an NFL MVP, and a Super Bowl in a career (Marcus Allen, running back for USC/Los Angeles Raiders).  Newton is the first Heisman winner to start a Super Bowl since Jim Plunkett in Super Bowl XVIII, and just the third ever.  Newton was the first overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, and this Super Bowl is the first in which both quarterbacks are former #1 picks (Manning was picked first by Indianapolis in 1998), as well as the first matching up the top two picks from the same draft, as Broncos linebacker Von Miller was picked second behind Newton in 2011.

Newton has improved each season, and has now led this Panthers team to the brink of the franchise’s first championship in his fifth season.  This season, Newton threw for 35 touchdowns, and rushed for 10, becoming the first player in NFL history to throw for 30 or more and run for 10 or more.  His 45 total touchdowns were the most by any player in a single season since, ironically enough, Peyton Manning in 2013 (56 total; 55 passing, 1 rushing).

Opposite the quarterbacks in this game will be a pair of very stellar defenses.  In fact, Super Bowl 50 features the top two teams in the league in defensive efficiency, with Denver 1st and Carolina 2nd.  Each unit leads the league in multiple statistical categories.

The Broncos made franchise history this year by leading the NFL in total defense (yards allowed) for the first time.  The league leader in total defense is 9-2 in the Super Bowl, although one of the losses was just last year by the Seahawks.  Denver allowed the fewest rushing yards per attempt (3.28) and the third least rushing yards per game (83.6).  The defensive front led the league in sacks (52), while generating pressure on 35 percent of dropbacks, which also leads the NFL.

The Panthers lead the NFL in takeaways (39), turnover differential (+20), and points off turnovers (148), as well as interceptions (24).  These stats do not include the postseason, in which the Panthers have forced nine turnovers, including six interceptions.  Carolina is one of two teams (Bengals) to have more interceptions than allowed touchdown passes this season.  Carolina has also allowed the sixth least yards, and the sixth least points, although Denver leads and is second in the two categories, respectively.

It’s safe to say it isn’t likely either defense will be what keeps their team from winning the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

The Denver defense is, however, facing, the best offense they have seen all year, as the Panthers are the highest-scoring offense in the NFL (31.3 points per game), which would tie them for the fourth highest-scoring offense to win a Super Bowl.  Teams to lead the NFL in scoring are 10-9 in Super Bowls, although such teams have lost four of their last five appearances (the 2009 Saints, who beat Peyton Manning and the Colts, are the exception).  The Panthers offense, with Newton and his supporting cast of characters including running back Jonathan Stewart, tight end Greg Olsen, and left guard Michael Oher (of The Blind Side fame), is a very efficient well-oiled machine, leading the league in scoring despite ranking only 11th in yards gained, although they were second in rushing yards despite the lack of a 1,000-yard rusher.

The Broncos offense has been less efficient, averaging just 22.2 points per game.  However, four of the last six teams to reach the Super Bowl with that low of a scoring average have won.  The Broncos are 14th in passing yards and 17th in rushing yards (out of 32 teams), and only 19th in points per game.  However, Brock Osweiler started seven of the Broncos’ 16 regular season games, and Manning has been very efficient since his return.  Manning has not thrown an interception in the playoffs, making this his first postseason of two games or more without an interception.  Denver has not had to score a lot of points to be successful this season due to their stingy defense, a point evidenced by their two playoff wins with 22.5 points per game, almost exactly equaling their regular season average, with both of those games coming against top five offenses in the Steelers and Patriots.

One storyline in this Super Bowl that is not getting as much attention as it probably should is the coaching matchup.  While we have been spoiled with the coaching matchups in recent Super Bowls, including Bill Belichick vs. Pete Carroll last year and John Harbaugh vs. Jim Harbaugh just three years ago, and while the resumes of these two coaches don’t quite match those of other recent Super Bowl coaches, both are still among the best in the league.

While Broncos coach Gary Kubiak and Panthers coach Ron Rivera are both in their first Super Bowl as a coach, neither is a stranger to the big stage of the Super Bowl, as both appeared in Super Bowls as a player, making them the sixth and seventh men to play and coach in a Super Bowl.  Kubiak is the first to do so with the same team, however, as he was on the Denver Broncos roster when they lost Super Bowls XXI, XXII, and XXIV, as the backup quarterback to John Elway.  Rivera played on the winning side of Super Bowl XX as a member of the legendary 1985 Chicago Bears, and was the Bears defensive coordinator in 2006 when they lost to Peyton Manning and the Colts in Super Bowl XLI.  Rivera is the 2015 NFL Coach of the Year.

Ironically enough, the last coach of both teams before Kubiak and Rivera is the same man, John Fox.  Fox led both franchises to a Super Bowl, losing Super Bowl XXXVIII with Carolina and XLVIII with Denver.  Fox parted ways with the Broncos after last season, before Denver hired Kubiak, who has reached the Super Bowl in his first season with the team (but not his first as an NFL head coach after his stint in Houston).  Rivera, like Newton, is in his fifth year with Carolina, who fired Fox after a 2-14 season in 2010 that resulted in Newton being picked first by the Panthers in the 2011 Draft.

The milestone Super Bowl marks the return of the NFL’s championship match to the San Francisco Bay Area for the first time in 31 years, since Stanford Stadium hosted Super Bowl XIX in 1985.  Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, the home of the San Francisco 49ers since 2014, hosts its first Super Bowl.  Since the first outdoor Super Bowl on the West Coast in 13 years will begin at 3:30 local time, the first half of the Super Bowl will be played in daylight for the first time since Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego, which was also the last Super Bowl played in California.  Coldplay will perform the halftime show, while Lady Gaga will sing the national anthem.

As I mentioned, there are no shortage of storylines in this Super Bowl, but the story of the MVP and fresh new face of the league reaching the Super Bowl and going against the legendary veteran in what could be his final game is the biggest, and could also come into play in determining who wins.  While the Broncos defense is statistically the best in the league, they can and will be matched by the Panthers defense, with neither team’s defense giving them an advantage in the game.  That being said, while the Broncos offense is statistically average, the Panthers offense has been tremendous all year.  While, because of the strength of both defenses, I don’t expect a lot of points from either side in this game, I do expect the Panthers offense to reach the end zone enough to outscore the Broncos, who will struggle offensively against the Panthers defense.

Panthers 24, Broncos 13.

 

 

Twitter Picks for NFL Championship Sunday

AFC Championship Game
New England Patriots (13-4) at Denver Broncos (13-4)
Sunday, 3:05 pm ET, CBS
Favorite:  Patriots by 3

 

NFC Championship Game
Arizona Cardinals (14-3) at Carolina Panthers (16-1)
Sunday, 6:40 pm ET, FOX
Favorite:  Panthers by 3

 

Season to Date
Overall Record: 70-51
College Overall Record: 55-41
Game of the Week: 11-5
Big Game Guarantee: 31-17
Upset of the Week: 6-14
Closer Than the Experts Think: 7-6
NFL Game of the Week: 14-10
Last Week: 3-1