Two story lines have dominated the buildup to Super Bowl 50: Peyton Manning‘s unforgiving oldness and Cam Newton‘s unforgivable Blackness.
It’s no surprise, since quarterbacks are almost always the stars of the pre-Super Bowl show. But in most years there are at least some other intriguing angles for the media and for the public to latch onto: a reclusive running back’s maddening silence, a legendary linebacker’s impending retirement, a curmudgeonly coach’s mysterious methods.
This year, however, it seems to be all about the QBs. Which of course means that the difference-maker who will decide the outcome of Sunday’s game will probably be a player who received little to no attention during these two hype-filled weeks. And that man will suddenly become the subject of a thousand “Who is this guy?” pieces about the “unknown” who was completely available for get-to-know-you interviews while everyone was busy chasing Cam and Peyton.
That difference-maker could, like Malcolm Butler of the Patriots last year, come from the defensive backfield.
Here is a rundown of the respective secondary units of the NFC champion Carolina Panthers and the AFC champion Denver Broncos:
Starters: CB Josh Norman, CB Robert McClain, SS Kurt Coleman, FS Roman Harper
Key reserves: FS Tre Boston, CB Cortland Finnegan
Carolina runs a 4-3 defense up front, with a battle-tested yet banged-up group in the secondary.
The star of the unit is Norman, who seemed to come out of nowhere in his fourth pro season and take his place right next to Richard Sherman, Patrick Peterson and Darrelle Revis in the pool of candidates for the title of best cornerback in the NFL. Norman put the clamps on star wide receivers Dez Bryant, DeAndre Hopkins and Odell Beckham Jr., among others, collecting four interceptions, two fumble recoveries and two defensive touchdowns along the way.
Lining up across the field from Norman is McClain, who wasn’t even in the league at the time the Panthers picked him up in December following season-ending injuries to CBs Charles Tillman (torn ACL) and Bene Benwikre (broken leg).
Coleman is another seemingly out-of-nowhere find who blossomed this season (his sixth) with 90 tackles and seven interceptions — one shy of the NFL lead.
Harper is only 33 years old and in his ninth pro season; he just looks like he’s been playing since the AFL-NFL merger due to his signature premature gray hair. Harper suffered a gruesome eye injury in the NFC title game, but he’s expected to start on Sunday. Boston filled in admirably for Harper in that blowout win over the Cardinals, however, getting an interception and a fumble recovery.
Finnegan was a polarizing and antagonistic Pro Bowler with the Titans seven years ago who was done with football until Carolina convinced him to un-retire in November and fortify its secondary. The 34-year-old has since been a solid contributor on defense and special teams.
Starters: CB Chris Harris Jr., CB Aqib Talib, SS T.J. Ward, FS Darian Stewart
Key reserves: CB Bradley Roby, CB Kayvon Webster, FS Shiloh Keo, SS Josh Bush
Denver’s 3-4 front seven of nasty pass-rushers is backed up by arguably the best secondary in the league; one that boasts size, speed, talent, experience, toughness and depth.
Starting safeties Ward (ankle) and Stewart (knee) are expected to play through their injuries, but if they are limited, Keo and Bush have proven they will step up and make plays when called upon. Ward is one of the NFL’s hardest-hitting defensive backs, who has seven sacks and seven forced fumbles in his six-year pro career. Stewart joined Denver’s veteran defense as a newcomer this season and almost immediately became one of its leaders.
Keo is one of the league’s great underdog stories. He was also unemployed as recently as December, with two kids and a pregnant wife at home, before he famously used Twitter to help land his new gig with the Broncos. Keo then made the interception against the Chargers that clinched home-field advantage for Denver in the playoffs, and recovered the onside kick against the Patriots that sealed the AFC title game victory.
Harris made the NFL’s All-Pro second team for the second year in a row in 2015. He doesn’t get talked about as much as guys like Norman and Sherman, but he’s right there with them as one of the best at his position. He recorded 58 tackles, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and a pick-six this season.
Talib is a big, physical corner who has turned around a career that seemed headed for trouble in Tampa Bay by making the Pro Bowl roster each of the last three seasons.
Roby has made some of Denver’s biggest plays this season — from a game-winning return touchdown of a Chiefs’ fumble in Week 2 to an interception on a Patriots’ two-point conversion attempt that helped the Broncos win the AFC title game.
Webster is one of the NFL’s top special teams gunners, an especially important job in this Super Bowl since the Panthers have a potential game-breaking kick returner in Ted Ginn Jr.