Today’s sports post: Super Bowl (don’t call me) L [UPDATED]

I’m no football historian, but I have seen nearly all L of the Super Bowls. I don’t recall ever witnessing defense being played as well by two competing Super Bowl teams as it was yesterday.

Denver’s defense must be among the best of all time. A few weeks ago it made Tom Brady, surely one of the best five quarterbacks ever in my opinion, look ordinary at best. Yesterday, they pounded Cam Newton, this season’s most valuable player, into submission.

Carolina’s defense was fabulous too. It limited the Broncos to 11 first downs and 194 total yards. It generated two turnovers and with a few better bounces the number could easily have been four.

I recognize that Denver’s offense isn’t that formidable. But neither was the New England Patriots’ offense that the Chicago Bears shut down in Super Bowl XX. This didn’t stop folks from celebrating the greatness of that Bears’ defense. Let’s give Carolina’s defense, which also obliterated a very good Arizona Cardinals offense, the credit it deserves.

The abiding memory of this game, though, will be the beating administered to Newton by Von Miller and company. He endured seven sacks and thirteen quarterback hits. By the end, he looked almost as battered as a boxer who had gone the distance with Rocky Marciano.

Newton didn’t play poorly, all things considered. In the face of intense pressure, he threw for 265 yards. True, he completed only 18 of 41 passes, but his receivers dropped a number of balls. For what it’s worth, the folks at Pro Football Focus graded him at +1.6 (zero is average).

Newton is under fire, though, for the play late in the game (when Carolina still had an outside chance) in which a pass rusher knocked the ball out of his hands and he didn’t dive into traffic to recover it. He started to, but then stepped back.

Color commentator Phil Simms, a Super Bowl winning quarterback immediately called Newton out. So, subsequently, have countless others.

The play made me think back to Super Bowl XVII. In that game, with the Washington Redskins trailing the Miami Dolphins, Joe Theismann had a passed tipped into the air. The ball fell into the hands of a Miami pass rusher who was about to take it into the end zone for a touchdown that almost surely would have clinched the game for the Dolphins.

Theismann dove at the defender and managed to jar the ball loose before he gained possession. The Redskins came back to win the game.

Unlike Newton, Theismann hadn’t been constantly pounded all game (our offensive line, The Hogs, saw to that). In addition, diving to break up a pass isn’t as perilous as diving into a pile for a loose ball. Regardless, with the game on the line, one would expect Newton to do whatever it might take to recover the ball, the physical consequences be damned.

Is there an innocent explanation for why he didn’t dive? Several have been suggested.

Some say Newton may not have seen the ball. The video makes this claim hard to believe.

It has also been suggested that Newton wanted to pick the ball up and advance it. Maybe, but Newton denied that this was the case during his tight-lipped (and brief) post-game interview.

The most plausible innocent explanation is that Newton saw the Denver player diving for the ball, followed by one of own his linemen, thought the ball might squirt loose (which it did), and wanted to be in a position to go after it then. This is the explanation offered by his coach, Ron Rivera. I can’t rule it out.

Every Super Bowl needs a play shrouded in controversy or mystery. But Super Bowl (don’t call me) L should be remembered not for a single play (which almost certainly didn’t alter the outcome) but for the defensive dominance of both teams and for the remarkable beat down of the NFL’s most physically imposing quarterback by the Broncos.

UPDATE: Newton has now offered an explanation for not diving in. He says he held back because of “the way my leg was [positioned].” “It could have been contorted in a way.”

Newton added:

You can condemn me and say, ‘Well, he gave up,’ It’s easy for a person to nitpick and say, ‘He gave up.’ That’s fine. I’m a grown man. I can understand that.

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