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Peyton Manning and Cam Newton, NFL's once and future kings, provide juicy Super Bowl storyline

Peyton Manning and Cam Newton, NFL's once and future kings, provide juicy Super Bowl storyline

There will be no storyline unturned during the week-long buildup to the enticing Super Bowl 50 matchup between the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos, but there will be one that dominates all others.

It is, of course, the matchup between 39-year-old quarterback Peyton Manning and soon-to-be-named NFL Most Valuable Player Cam Newton — the once and future kings of the NFL.

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The drumbeat has already begun with the strong speculation that Manning will retire after the big game and the not-surprising revelation that Newton believes racism is a major factor driving criticism in some quarters about the way he plays the game.

That sad reality is hard to dispute. We live in a country of more than 320 million people, a segment of which will always give in to baser instincts and now has a largely anonymous mixed blessing called social media to express them.

Combine that with the old-school former players and middle-aged media commentators who bemoan the on-field histrionics of today's players and you get the silly debate over Newton's flamboyant behavior, which juxtapositions predictably with Manning's businesslike on-field persona.

News flash: Professional football is a form of entertainment and there are few players in the NFL more entertaining than Newton.

Make that none.

He can do it all and he has done most of it this season, leading the Panthers on a nearly perfect run to the Super Bowl. The fact that he thinks he's Superman may rankle fans of other teams, but they might recall the words of another famous African-American lightning rod from an earlier era.

"It's not bragging,'' Muhammad Ali used to say, "if you can back it up."

Newton would be the prototypical next-generation quarterback if he wasn't a one-of-a-kind talent. He's the greatest combination of size, speed and quickness ever to play his position, and he's not limited to one style of play. He has the diverse skill set to excel in any offense.

Strangely, the thing that seems to get under the skin of some people is his unbridled exuberance, which is understandably irritating to fans of the teams he dispatched with such regularity on the way to the Panthers' impressive 17-1 record.

Soon-to-be Hall of Famer Brett Favre used to play that way and nobody seemed to mind. Maybe he didn't have a signature touchdown display, but times have changed and post-play celebrations are so common in the NFL now that it's time for the old-schoolers to just get over it.

In Newton's case, it's going to be hard to separate the brainless race-based criticism from the standard fan-hate that every dynamic superstar athlete experiences to some degree.

Tom Brady, for instance, doesn't have to, but he is disliked by a large swath of the football public because of a combination of factors ranging from his involvement in Deflategate to his constant ref-lobbying to his jet-set lifestyle.

Ben Roethlisberger has his detractors because of a sketchy past and Manning never stops hearing about the fact that he has been so much better during the regular season than when it really counts.

Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco even has critics in Baltimore because he isn't Brady, Manning and Roethlisberger all rolled into one.

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Whatever the motivation, Newton has a chance to silence his critics in a hurry. The Panthers are favored to win Super Bowl 50 and take their lofty place in NFL history. They might or might not be one of the game's all-time great teams, but they definitely are one of the most exciting and they can thank their superhero quarterback for that.

Newton will have to put up with the fact that Manning will be the sentimental favorite this week, but that's because of the strong suspicion that he will be playing in the final game of his terrific career.

Manning has been one of the game's beloved figures for much of the past two decades, both because of his tremendous talent and his omnipresence as a lovable commercial pitchman.

It's possible that Manning will be passing the baton to Newton on both of those fronts next Sunday.

Cam appears to be the choice of a new generation.

Twitter.com/SchmuckStop

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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