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Denver defense, Newton will be keys in Super Bowl 50

Peyton Manning understands the days of winning games by himself are done. The 39-year-old Denver Broncos quarterback can pack for Super Bowl 50 fully aware that, thanks to the NFL's No. 1 defense, he is not going it alone. Manning is headed back ...

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Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller, left, will face Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton in Super Bowl 50 in a battle of the NFL's best defense and its newest star.

Peyton Manning understands the days of winning games by himself are done.

The 39-year-old Denver Broncos quarterback can pack for Super Bowl 50 fully aware that, thanks to the NFL's No. 1 defense, he is not going it alone.

Manning is headed back to the Super Bowl, where he and the Broncos will face off with the Carolina Panthers in a matchup of the top seeds from each conference.

"It's a special feeling, there's no question about it," Manning said after Denver's 20-18 win over the New England Patriots on Sunday in the AFC Championship Game. "We knew it was going to come down to the wire. Everybody has stepped up in critical times. That was definitely the case today."

The Panthers cruised into the Super Bowl with a 49-15 rout of the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday.

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"They owned it," coach Ron Rivera said of the Panthers finishing the game after nearly blowing a 24-0 lead last week. "I didn't have to say anything."

The Broncos overwhelmed New England quarterback Tom Brady with relentless pressure, hitting him a season-high 20 times and recording four sacks, and they had several critical stops to keep the Patriots from defending their Super Bowl title.

"We definitely was angry," Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. "Everybody said we couldn't cover, so we wanted to prove we could."

The Broncos were first in the NFL in total defense, pass defense and sacks in the regular season.

Denver dominated the Patriots up front, but a much different offensive machine is up next. The Panthers led the league in total offense. They are one dynamic bunch with a zone-read running game piloted by 6-foot-5, 250-pound quarterback Cam Newton and 220-pound running back Jonathan Stewart.

The Patriots' leading rusher Sunday? That would be Brady, who had 13 yards on three carries.

The Panthers will have two weeks to study what defensive coordinator Wade Phillips did to discombobulate Brady. A big part of the equation was Von Miller. The outside linebacker led the Broncos in the regular season with 11.5 sacks and had 2.5 sacks Sunday, plus an interception while dropping into coverage against tight end Rob Gronkowski.

"Von played phenomenal today. I have never seen a performance like that from one player," Broncos safety T.J. Ward said. "A pick, what did he have, three sacks? Probably a few hurries. He played great. (Outside linebacker DeMarcus) Ware played great. (Outside linebacker DeMarcus) Ware couldn't be stopped all day, so it was just a complete team effort."

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Carolina lost weak-side linebacker Thomas Davis, an 11-year veteran named to the 2015 Pro Bowl, with a right arm injury in the first half of the NFC Championship Game. His availability and that of strong safety Roman Harper -- also injured Sunday -- is unknown.

No doubt the Panthers' defense will be ready for Manning.

Like Harris and Aqib Talib in the Denver secondary, the Panthers have a shutdown cornerback of their own in Josh Norman, and Carolina led the league in interceptions.

If sacks are the specialty of the Broncos, takeaways are Carolina's thing. The Panthers led the NFL with 39 in the regular season, including a pair of pick-sixes by Norman and nine interceptions by safety Kurt Coleman, who had two of those in the conference championship win over the Cardinals.

Norman, who had a breakout season in 2015, likely will see a lot of Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas in the Super Bowl. Thomas was mostly silent against the Patriots. At one point Manning could be seen screaming "make a play" after Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan batted the ball from Thomas. The size-speed threat is a tough matchup, even for Norman, but Thomas is averaging only 8.3 yards per reception in the playoffs.

In a word, the Panthers can be described as unique. They were second to the Broncos in pass defense and sixth overall.

The Panthers are more physical than New England, especially on defense, and they rely more on power than speed on offense. Carolina is also explosive, scoring Sunday on a 22-yard reverse by wide receiver Ted Ginn and a Newton bomb to wide receiver Corey Brown that covered 86 yards.

Newton has 50 total touchdowns and only one loss in 18 games this season, including a pair of playoff wins. By comparison, Manning has just 11 touchdowns, all passing scores, with 17 interceptions.

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The two quarterbacks started the season much the same way -- Manning was 7-0 before the narrative shifted sharply to questions about his age and arm strength. The Panthers won their first 14 before a 20-13 upset loss at Atlanta.

The quarterbacks could not be more different. Their lone remaining goal this season is precisely the same.

"It's been a unique season," said Manning, who started just nine regular-season games due to injuries before playing both contests the AFC playoffs. "This game (vs. New England) was a unique football game."

In two weeks, only one of these unique stories can have a happy final chapter.

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