CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) – Superman is headed for the Super Bowl.
He’s taking the Carolina Panthers with him.
Cam Newton threw for two touchdowns and ran for two others, and Carolina’s big-play defense stifled the league’s top-ranked offense in a 49-15 romp Sunday for the NFC championship. It was the most points for a winner of an NFC title game.
The NFL’s new top man at quarterback – Newton is an All-Pro this season – will lead the Panthers against five-time MVP Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in two weeks.
“Playing the sheriff,” Newton said of Manning. “We’re going to live in the moment right now. We’re going to be excited.”
It will be Newton’s first trip to the Super Bowl and the second trip to the big game for the Panthers (17-1), who lost to New England 12 years ago. Denver, of course, has made a habit of going to Super Bowls, reaching it for a record-tying eighth time.
“We won as a team,” Newton said. “We came out here and fought our tails off and we did what a lot of people said we couldn’t do. It’s not over yet. We’ll be ready to go in two weeks.”
And while the Broncos’ defense carried it past New England 20-18 for the AFC crown, Carolina’s D was just as destructive. It picked off Carson Palmer four times, forced two fumbles by him, and never let up the assault.
Special teams also had a takeaway, and when Carolina grabbed a 24-7 halftime lead this time, it didn’t back off, as it did in nearly blowing a 31-point margin a week ago vs. Seattle.
When Newton flew into the end zone for a 12-yard third-quarter touchdown – no, he didn’t have a cape on – he posed like a superhero, dabbed a bit, and pointed the Panthers toward the Bay Area and Super Bowl 50.
Newton finished with 335 yards passing and 47 rushing as Carolina won its 13th straight home game, including three in the playoffs.
One of his biggest helpers was Ted Ginn Jr., who was dumped by the Cardinals after last season. Ginn had a 32-yard punt return to set up his weaving 22-yard TD run, and chased down All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson to prevent a second-quarter touchdown. He also had 52 yards on two receptions.
Carolina’s defense did the rest, most notably making Palmer uncomfortable in the pocket and turning Larry Fitzgerald, the star of last week’s overtime victory against Green Bay, into a virtual non-entity. It led the league with 39 takeaways, and at times it made an Arizona team that gained more yards than anyone look amateurish.
“We wanted to come out and play a complete game and I think the guys up front played exceptional,” linebacker Luke Kuechly said. “There was pressure all day.”
Capping the barrage was Kuechly, who returned an interception 22 yards for a score. The 49 points were the most this season for Carolina, which led the NFL with 500 points. The last time a team scored as many as 49 in a conference title game was 1990, when Buffalo beat the Los Angeles Raiders 51-3 in the AFC.
The scoring started quickly, as it did for the Panthers against the Seahawks. Newton hit four passes for 35 yards on their opening drive and Graham Gano hit from 45 yards for a 3-0 lead.
Criticized for being too conservative in the passing game in the overtime victory against Green Bay a week ago, Palmer let it fly from the outset. He just connected too many times with the Panthers.
Ginn’s 32-yard punt return set up the Panthers at the Arizona 49. Six plays later, he took a pitch from Newton, headed left and broke a tackle by Justin Bethel. Just as quickly as he was surrounded by red shirts, the swift Ginn emerged to cut across the field into the end zone for a 10-0 lead.
Nearly as swiftly, it was 17-0. On third down from his 14, Newton fired a dart to Philly Brown. Another botched tackle, this one at the Carolina 47 by Rashad Johnson, left Brown with nothing but unprotected turf.
It didn’t get any better even when Arizona finally moved the ball into Carolina territory, only to see Kawann Short sack Palmer and strip the ball.
The Cardinals kept trying, and put together a 79-yard scoring drive on which David Johnson starred after an ignominious start. He was plastered by All-Pro linebacker Thomas Davis for a 6-yard loss on the first play of the series, then came back to gain 25 yards, including a 1-yard TD dive.
Davis, who already had six tackles, left for good with a right arm injury during that drive.
Peterson made a huge muff trying to field a punt later in the second period. Jonathan Stewart ran for 17 and 23 yards – more missed tackles by the Arizona defense – and Newton leaped to extend the ball over the goal line from the 1.
He followed with a dab or two, handed the ball to a fan in the end zone, and ran to the sideline to chants of “MVP! MVP!”
There were plenty more of those during the trophy celebration, and fans danced in the stands as the loudspeaker played “Shout.”
Newton’s counterpart, Palmer, was performing like anything but a Most Valuable Player. On Arizona’s first play after Peterson’s muff, Palmer was sacked by Charles Johnson and fumbled. Newton gave it back when Peterson picked him off and ran 72 yards to the Carolina 23 – and Palmer gave that one back with a weak throw that Kurt Coleman intercepted in the end zone.
At one point, the Cardinals had turnovers on three consecutive plays: the muff, Palmer’s fumble, and Coleman’s first of two picks.