Bears defensive coordinator Ron Rivera before the start of Super Bowl XLI in Miami.
Bears defensive coordinator Ron Rivera before the start of Super Bowl XLI in Miami. (Nuccio DiNuzzo / Chicago Tribune)

The last time Ron Rivera tried to outsmart Peyton Manning with the Super Bowl on the line, he studied acting.

Rivera, the Bears defensive coordinator opposite Manning's Colts nine years ago in Super Bowl XLI, devoted countless hours to watching television broadcasts of Colts games, in addition to the coach's tape, to clue into any of the quarterback's pre-snap cues.

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I still remember Rivera marveling during a pre-Super Bowl media session in Miami at how difficult it would be to determine whether there was any meaning behind Manning's many gestures.

"As he moves down the line and turns and talks to his guys, our guys have to understand that's just part of the choreographed motion he has, (but) when he's set, you better be ready," Rivera said then. "With his ability to make adjustments, he can kill you."

Colts quarterback Peyton Manning holds the Vince Lombardi trophy after his team won Super Bowl XLI against the Bears.
Colts quarterback Peyton Manning holds the Vince Lombardi trophy after his team won Super Bowl XLI against the Bears. (JEFF HAYNES / AFP/Getty Images)

And Manning did just that, killing the Bears slowly and earning Most Valuable Player honors in a 29-17 victory. He completed 25 of 38 passes for 247 yards and a touchdown — taking advantage of a Bears miscommunication in the secondary — as the Colts offense gashed Rivera's defense for 430 total yards.

Manning again stands between Rivera and an NFL title, but things are much different this time as Rivera's Panthers prepare for the Broncos in Super Bowl 50. For one, Manning will be the oldest quarterback to start a Super Bowl, and he fools people at the line — and in the pocket — much less frequently than he did in his prime.

But the biggest difference for Rivera will be the ability to rely on his own star quarterback, Cam Newton, rather than live or die on defense alone. That just wasn't the case Feb. 4, 2007, when Rex Grossman started for the Bears opposite the Colts and Manning. The potential for offensive explosiveness on his own team promises to make this Super Bowl buildup much different for Rivera. In Carolina, Newton's law is to expect greatness.

Rivera doesn't necessarily need his Panthers defense to play the perfect game against Manning, as he needed with the Bears. With Newton playing at an MVP level, the pressure rests on Von Miller and the Broncos defense to dominate the game and carry the offense the way it did in the AFC championship victory over the Patriots. Isn't it odd for Manning to play in a Super Bowl in which his opponent gets the edge at quarterback?

That said, nobody expects the Panthers to underestimate Manning, not with Rivera likely still scarred from their last encounter on football's largest stage. How intriguing that the Panthers defense resembles the one Rivera coached with the Bears, especially up front. There will be much conversation this week surrounding the '85 Bears, given Rivera's role as a linebacker on that historic unit, but in relation to his current defense, a more apt comparison is to the '06 Bears.

To Cam Newton's critics: The Panthers QB is the real, joyful thing

I'm all-in on Cam Newton. A con man would not inspire those around him, guiding an otherwise mediocre offense to the Super Bowl.

It starts with middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, whose athleticism in the 4-3 alignment allows him to make plays to save his defense the way Brian Urlacher used to for the Bears. Weak-side linebacker Thomas Davis, who will try to play despite a broken forearm, complements Kuechly similar to how Lance Briggs did to Urlacher.

Up front, when Rivera sees disruptive tackles Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei wreaking havoc, you wonder if it reminds him of how Tommie Harris and Tank Johnson did it for him with the Bears. Cornerback Josh Norman even emerged as a Pro Bowler with the Panthers, similar to how Nathan Vasher did with the Bears. Cornerback Charles Tillman, who will miss the Super Bowl with an injury, is another common thread connecting both teams.

Da Panthers defense has a definitive Chicago accent. The sports scene in Charlotte also has something to amuse Chicagoans, what with the city's NBA team led by a Bulls legend and its NFL team coached by an '85 Bear. To more of our provincial delight, the big game will carry a distinct local flavor too.

Both head coaches — Gary Kubiak of the Broncos and Rivera — replaced John Fox; Rivera in Carolina in 2011 and Kubiak in Denver a year ago. Fox took both teams to the Super Bowl, so it would be unfair to cast aspersions on his tenures with the Panthers or Broncos. Without question, he made both organizations better. But one of Fox's previous employers will make history he wanted to make there, and only he knows how that feels.

It's a copycat league, but the Bears have no plans to fire Fox tomorrow morning and start making plans to play in the 2017 Super Bowl. Though I did hear from several optimistic fans who took solace in Fox's former teams squaring off in Santa Clara, Calif., and wondering if that meant the Bears might be only one move away from the Super Bowl.

dhaugh@tribpub.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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