It's Cam Newton versus Peyton Manning in Super Bowl 50! Well, not really. It will be all about the two top defenses in Santa Clara (Feb. 7 at 6:30 p.m. ET on CBS). The narrative shouldn't be whether Manning can beat his age, but if he can beat Josh Norman. Not whether Newton can beat his inexperience, but if he can beat Denver's pass rush. That's what will matter.
Another Super Bowl win would be huge for Manning, but we also know that his best days are behind him. Newton, though, has an opportunity to go from phenom college player to legitimately living up to and then blowing right past all of the hype. This would be the topper that solidifies a move from "NFL star" to "face of the league."
So what does history tell us about this matchup?
Youth over experience
There have been 57 Super Bowl starting quarterbacks (if we don't count the repeats) and out of those, 22 were under the age of 27 like Newton, who is 26. The age gap between him and Manning, 39, is the largest in Super Bowl history.
Those under-27 QBs went 10-12 in the big game, and this will be the fourth year in a row that the Super Bowl features at least one QB who fits that standard.
The best performance to-date by a QB under 27 in the Super Bowl belongs to Troy Aikman, who had four touchdowns and no picks in the Cowboys' 52-17 win over the Bills in Super Bowl XXVII. Russell Wilson went to each of the last two Super Bowls at ages 25 and 26, throwing four touchdowns and one interception over those games, while Colin Kaepernick threw for 302 yards and scored twice in the 49ers' 34-31 loss to the Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII.
Newton is not the youngest QB in the game's history (Dan Marino, 23, 1984 Dolphins), but he's certainly bringing a small fraction of the experience that Manning has -- both in playoff games and general football knowledge.
Shutting down the passing game
As the game evolves (or devolves, depending on your opinion) into more and more of a passing league, teams are finding it near impossible to stop offenses from successfully moving the ball through the air. Consider that in 2008, nine teams allowed fewer than 200 passing yards per game, which is more than the number of team that have done that over the last four seasons combined.
The only team to do that this year was the Broncos, who allowed 199.5 passing yards per game. The last three teams to hold the opposition to fewer than 200 yards per game in the air all won the Super Bowl: 2013 Seahawks, 2010 Packers, 2008 Steelers.
The Panthers allowed 253.3 passing yards per game, but led the NFL in interceptions (in case you forgot what they just did to Carson Palmer). They had 24 picks in the regular season, and among the teams with that many interceptions in recent years are the 2013 Seahawks, 2010 Packers and 2009 Saints, all of whom won the Super Bowl.
How will Newton do against the No. 1 pass defense? All kinds of outcomes are possible, but keep in mind that Seattle had the No. 1 pass defense a year ago, and Tom Brady managed two touchdowns in the final eight minutes to win the Super Bowl.
Check the scores
Newton scored an unfathomable 45 touchdowns in the regular season (35 passing, 10 rushing), which only six other players have ever done. However, oddly enough, Newton could become the first to win the Super Bowl after doing so.
Of the other six, Manning, Brady and Marino were the only ones to make the Super Bowl that year, and they all lost. The most touchdowns by a player to win the Super Bowl? Kurt Warner in 1999 with 42 for the Rams, but we'll get back to him in a second.
Don't count on the MVP award to help you
Newton winning the MVP this season is a foregone conclusion. It's a runaway race, unlike what we normally see, thanks to the outstanding 15-1 record, all the touchdowns, and the fact that there wasn't a lot of competition by year's end. But winning the MVP has not correlated at all with winning the Super Bowl. At least not in this century.
The last player to win both the MVP and the Super Bowl in the same year was Warner in 1999. The MVPs to even make the Super Bowl since then are Warner again in 2001 (lost), Rich Gannon in 2002 (lost), Shaun Alexander in 2005 (lost), Brady in 2007 (lost) and Manning in 2009 and 2013 (lost both).
So on one hand you've got this "curse of the MVP," but on the other, you've got the knowledge that Manning has lost his last two Super Bowl starts. One of those things has to give.
First-timers vs. repeaters
Bottling all of these things together, we see that we've got one guy going to his fourth Super Bowl (though not in nearly the same shape as he was for the first three) and the other who is already two games deeper into the playoffs than he's ever been before. Has that mattered much in recent years?
These are the most recent examples:
2013: Wilson over Manning
2010: Aaron Rodgers over Ben Roethlisberger
2009: Drew Brees over Manning
2008: Eli Manning over Brady
2004: Brady over Donovan McNabb
2003: Brady over Jake Delhomme
2002: Brady over Warner
So in the last seven such meetings, the new guy is 5-2, with Brady winning once as the new guy and twice as the veteran, while Manning has lost championships to two first-time Super Bowl starters.
Which way will it go this time?