CHARLOTTE — There was a moment when Superman took flight on Sunday night — not because he had to, but because he wanted to.
Cam Newton could have barreled past safety Tony Jefferson with 2:14 left in the third quarter and still scored another touchdown, but the Carolina Panthers’ star instead took off at the goal line, briefly going horizontal. He landed in the end zone a moment later, giving his Panthers a 27-point lead.
It was one of six Panthers TDs Sunday night, but it still provided an apt exclamation point on their 49-15 demolition of the Arizona Cardinals in an NFC title game that seemed a coronation all night long. In front of a raucous crowd at Bank of America Stadium, Newton and the mighty Panthers punched their ticket to Super Bowl 50 by eviscerating a high-powered Arizona team and turning MVP candidate quarterback Carson Palmer to mush.
And it wasn’t even hard. At least not to Newton, who rushed for two TDs, passed for two more and talked of how he’d “dreamed” of this game before.
“Yeah, it may be a surprise to some people,” he said, “but that’s how I envisioned it in the dream.”
Peyton Manning, this is what awaits you in Santa Clara in two weeks, a Panthers team that rolled up 487 total yards on offense on Sunday and held the Cardinals, with the league’s second-best scoring offense, to 15 points and 287 total yards. The Panthers ‘D’ harassed Palmer, steady all season, into six turnovers, including four interceptions. And Newton piloted an offense that raced to a 17-0 first-quarter lead on its way to its first Super Bowl in 13 years.
One week after nearly blowing a big lead against the Seahawks, Carolina never let up. Palmer’s third interception came with 5:11 to play, when he was picked off by linebacker Luke Keuchly, who returned it 21 yards for a score and a 42-15 lead. Forty-one seconds later, Palmer threw his fourth to a diving Tre Boston. Arizona turned the ball over seven times overall.
“We wanted to finish this one off,” said tight end Greg Olsen, who had a team-high six catches for 113 yards. “This was much more like it, to finish the game with a pick-six by Luke. I think it just put an exclamation point on an awesome defensive effort. And offensively we were pretty efficient.”
This one had the makings of a rout from the start. For a second straight week, Palmer, who entered Sunday with just one career playoff victory, started the game with a case of postseason butterflies, completing just 1-of-5 passes on two fruitless Arizona drives, running for his life regularly.
The Panthers capitalized quickly. A 45-yard Graham Gano field goal on Carolina’s opening drive started the scoring, and the Panthers’ second drive ended with Ted Ginn Jr. scoring on a play out of a high school playbook, taking a handoff from Newton on second-and-3 from the Cards’ 22 and dashing left to the 10. Ginn seemed bottled up there, but then he reversed field, cutting all the way across the grain and waltzing untouched into the end zone, a 22-yard score.