By the end of the game, however, any such notions were quelled.
To be fair, the Panthers' 49-15 victory over the Cardinals on Sunday was the result of stellar play on both sides of the ball. After all, it was the Carolina defense that forced six Carson Palmer turnovers, prompting the inevitable Jake Delhomme comparisons.
But the Panthers offense showed that it can manhandle any defense in the league, and it couldn't have been displayed at a better time. The Panthers' Super Bowl 50 matchup with the Denver Broncos will prove to be their ultimate test.
Denver's top-ranked defense dominates at each level. Linebackers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware are as effective as any edge pass-rushing duo in the league. Linebackers Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan excel at coverage. The cornerback trio of Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr. and Bradley Roby can lock down just about any receiving corps.
If history is any indication of things to come, Super Bowl 50 could be a long game for the Panthers. ESPN Stats & Info notes Carolina's ugly performance against Denver back in 2012, the only time Peyton Manning and Cam Newton have gone head-to-head:
Peyton Manning/Cam Newton have gone head-to-head once: 2012 Week 10 Broncos won, 36-14. Manning 301 pass yds, Newton sacked 7x— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 25, 2016
Despite the result of that grim debacle, it would be shocking for this matchup to have the same result. Carolina's offensive line doesn't appear poised to give up seven sacks again, even against Denver's astounding pass rush. Newton was in only his second year at the time, still struggling to adjust to the speed and complexity of the NFL.
This year, Newton has emerged as the NFL MVP front-runner, and he continued that trend against Arizona. He played a near-perfect game, with the only major blemish being an overthrown pass that was intercepted by Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson. Newton read Arizona's coverages exceptionally well, got the ball out of his hand quickly and kept Arizona's defense on its toes with his dual-threat abilities.
In his postgame column, NFL.com's Adam Schein raved over the sheer brilliance of Newton's performance:
Cam's touch was on display. His toughness was on display. Cam's arm was on display. His legs were on display.
There's also another way to view it: This is the norm. This is what megastars do. This is what the best players in a sport do. This is what Steph Curry does. This is Cam Newton.
Though Newton's 335 passing yards and four total touchdowns stole the show, Carolina's receivers were also exceptional. Corey Brown and the ever-reliable tight end Greg Olsen led the team with 113 receiving yards each, including an 86-yard touchdown reception by the speedy Brown to give Carolina a 17-point, first-quarter lead.
Outside of Newton, Olsen is perhaps Carolina's most important offensive player. He became Newton's favorite receiver, leading the team in targets, receptions and receiving yards. He also ranked in the top five among NFL tight ends in each of these categories, leading to his second straight Pro Bowl nomination.
What makes Olsen's production valuable is that Denver's defense tends to struggle in covering top-tier tight ends. Though it largely shut down Tom Brady in the AFC Championship Game, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski had a spectacular performance, catching eight passes for 144 yards and a touchdown.
While it's tough to put Olsen—or anyone else, for that matter—on Gronkowski's level, he is still an elite tight end who does everything well. No defense in the league, including Denver's, has an easy time trying to limit players of Olsen's caliber.
Carolina's rushing attack was as effective as ever, with Newton and running back Jonathan Stewart leading the way. The Panthers totaled 152 rushing yards and three touchdowns, with both figures exceeding the Panthers' season average.
Carolina will need to establish the run game in the Super Bowl, but that's easier said than done. Teams have struggled to run the ball effectively against Denver's defense. According to NFL.com, the Broncos allow only 3.3 rushing yards per attempt—fewest in the league. They also rank in the top five in rushing yards allowed per game, total rushing yards and points allowed per game.
Perhaps the most impressive performance of the night came via Carolina's offensive line. Led by Pro Bowlers Ryan Kalil and Trai Turner, the line allowed only one sack and gave Newton plenty of time to find an open receiver. Pro Football Focus noted the offensive line's success and the matchup against Denver's top-ranked pass rush:
Strength against strength between Carolina OLine and Denver pass rush. Panthers allowed third fewest sacks + hits in NFL (27) #SuperBowl50— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) January 25, 2016
During his postgame news conference, Newton showed his appreciation for the offensive line's stellar work:
There's a lot of people behind the scenes that make a big difference in my success. You will never hear or see these names in the paper, from Andrew Norwell to Ryan Kalil to Michael Oher, to even Ed Dickson. Trai Turner and Mike Remmers...those guys played their tails off today, and I'm just the recipient of running or throwing with unbelievable protection.
The offensive line's performance will likely determine whether or not the Panthers will hoist the Lombardi Trophy. Remmers, Carolina's right tackle, will line up against Miller, which could be a mismatch in favor of the Broncos if Remmers isn't at his absolute best.
On the other side of the line, left tackle Oher needs to keep up his strong season by shutting down Ware. Kalil and Turner, along with Norwell, will have to handle Denver defensive tackles Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe, who are as dominant in stuffing the run as they are in getting to the quarterback.
All in all, Carolina's sensational offensive performance in the NFC Championship Game was nothing short of a great effort all around. Newton was his usual MVP-level self, the Panthers receivers consistently made big plays and the offensive line kept Newton upright and gave him time to create plays.
Against the Broncos in Super Bowl 50, they'll need a similar performance if they want to take the Lombardi Trophy home to Charlotte.