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John Harbaugh calls Flacco’s contract “very fitting”

Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh talks with quarterback Flacco in the third quarter of the NFL Super Bowl XLVII foorball game against the San Francisco 49ers in New Orleans Reuters

Way back in September, Ravens coach John Harbaugh made his feelings about quarterback Joe Flacco’s contract as plain as possible.

“Pay him whatever he wants. Pay the man,” Harbaugh said after the Ravens’ season-opening 44-13 victory over the Bengals.

That’s pretty much what wound up happening when the Ravens and Flacco agreed to a six-year, $120.6 million salary late last week. The contract is one that makes Flacco the unquestioned leader of the franchise, something that pleases Harbaugh a great deal.

“Just very happy for Joe, his family and also for Ravens fans,” Harbaugh said, via the Baltimore Sun. “He has always been our QB. So, to me, this is very fitting.”

Pretty much what you’d expect from the coach of the Ravens in the wake of the deal guaranteeing him his quarterback for most of the decade. The fact that the early cap hits are low enough to keep the team from losing too many other top contributors only makes it easier for Harbaugh to like.

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Graham Gano misses field goal, Broncos still up six

CHARLOTTE, NC - JANUARY 12: Graham Gano #9 of the Carolina Panthers kicks a field goal held by Brad Nortman #8 in the second quarter against the San Francisco 49ers during the NFC Divisional Playoff Game at Bank of America Stadium on January 12, 2014 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Panthers had a hard time generating big plays on offense during the first half of Super Bowl 50, but they finally hit one on the second play of the third quarter.

Cam Newton found Ted Ginn across the middle of the field and Ginn turned the catch into a 45-yard gain that stands as the longest play of the game for either team. That moved the Panthers into Broncos territory and another Ginn catch gave them a first down after an ill-advised Trai Turner personal foul, but the drive ended without points when Graham Gano clanged a 44-yard field goal try off the right upright.

Gano’s field goal came after officials picked up a flag that appeared to be against Broncos cornerback Bradley Roby for holding on the opposite side of the field from where Newton threw an incomplete pass to Greg Olsen. If the flag stood, it would have been a first down that kept the drive alive. It also looked like Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib may have been offside on the field goal attempt.

Neither penalty was called, though, and the Panthers still trail by six with 10:48 to play in the third.

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Broncos lead 13-7 after bizarre first half of Super Bowl 50

When we envisioned the league’s best defense playing the league’s highest-scoring offense, we didn’t expect this.

Super Bowl 50 has taken a number of strange turns, with the turnovers preventing it from having any kind of organic flow.

The Panthers and Broncos combined for three turnovers, with Carolina’s 2-1 edge in that category translating to a 13-7 Broncos lead at halftime.

It’s one thing for the Panthers to be nervous in this setting, but the Broncos’ offering was a young player’s mistake by quarterback Peyton Manning, when he was picked off by Panthers defensive end Kony Ealy.

But it wasn’t enough to overcome the sack-fumble-touchdown by the Broncos early, and Mike Tolbert’s attempt to make a statement play but losing the ball.

The Broncos can’t afford to make many more mistakes, as they’re playing clutch-and-grab and hoping defense and special teams is enough to get them by. They have just four first downs in the first half, and Manning’s averaging 4.8 yards per pass attempt.

And that will be fine, as long as the Panthers continue to make mistakes, and waste chances like they did with their end-of-half clock management.

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Mike Tolbert fumble leads to Peyton Manning pick

during Super Bowl 50 at Levi's Stadium on February 7, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. Getty Images

Late in a sloppy second quarter of Super Bowl 50, the Panthers and Broncos traded turnovers.

Panthers running back Mike Tolbert fumbled to set up the Broncos’ offense, and a C.J. Anderson run brought Denver into field goal range. But Peyton Manning threw an ugly interception right into the hands of Kony Ealy to waste a good opportunity.

Neither offense has played particularly well so far in the game, and that trade of turnovers epitomized what a defensive struggle this has been.

The Broncos’ offense hasn’t found the end zone yet, but Denver still has a 13-7 lead.

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Jordan Norwood sets SB record for punt return, Broncos lead 13-7

KANSAS CITY, MO - SEPTEMBER 17:   Jordan Norwood #11 of the Denver Broncos at Arrowhead Stadium on September 17, 2015 in Kansas City, Missouri.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Panthers appeared to think Jordan Norwood called for a fair catch as their coverage team bore down on him in the second quarter of Super Bowl 50, but Norwood never gave the signal.

He caught the ball, bounced off Panthers safety Colin Jones and sprinted 61 yards before Mario Addison ran him down on the Panthers’ 14-yard-line. It’s the longest punt return in Super Bowl history, knocking John Taylor’s 45-yarder against the Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII to second place.

The Broncos offense, which has sputtered since opening the game with a long drive, couldn’t get the ball in the end zone. C.J. Anderson converted a fourth-and-one, but it came with the help of a hold by guard Louis Vasquez that pushed the Broncos back 10 yards and forced them to settle for a Brandon McManus field goal.

It’s the latest in a series of costly penalties against the Broncos, who could be up by a wider margin if they weren’t shooting themselves in the foot in the first half.

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Panthers get to end zone, cut Broncos lead to 10-7

during Super Bowl 50 at Levi's Stadium on February 7, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. Getty Images

The Panthers are on the board, now that they’re back to what got them this far.

The Panthers finally got to the end zone, with Jonathan Stewart leaping in for a touchdown which cut the Denver lead to 10-7.

But the progress began earlier, when they finally let Cam Newton start taking off with his own.

Newton’s 12-yard scramble keyed a long touchdown drive, the first signs of life they’ve shown so far. With him using his legs, the Panthers have the ability to slow down the Broncos pass rush, and it created openings immediately.

He hit Greg Olsen and Philly Brown after he started to move, getting the Panthers into position for the score, as they made this interesting early in the second quarter.

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Aqib Talib would be ejected already under proposed rule

SANTA CLARA, CA - FEBRUARY 07:  Aqib Talib #21 of the Denver Broncos warms up prior to playing in Super Bowl 50 at Levi's Stadium on February 7, 2016 in Santa Clara, California.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) Getty Images

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wants to institute a new rule that would result in an automatic ejection for any player who gets two personal fouls in a game. Under that rule, Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib would have been ejected early in the second quarter of Super Bowl 50.

Talib got his first personal foul for taunting in the first quarter, and he got his second personal foul for facemasking in the second quarter.

Does the NFL want to kick a player out of a game for that? Goodell said at his Friday press conference that he does, but in the past the Competition Committee and the owners have been hesitant to pass new rules that would result in players getting kicked out of games.

Expect the owners to vote on Goodell’s proposal this offseason. And expect Talib’s Super Bowl penalties to be a significant part of the debate.

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Jonathan Stewart questionable with foot injury, returned late in first quarter

Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart (28) answers questions during a press conference Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016 in San Jose, Calif. Carolina plays the Denver Broncos in the NFL Super Bowl 50 football game Sunday, Feb. 7, 2015, in Santa Clara, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez) AP

Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart has been fighting through foot and ankle injuries during the latter stages of the season.

The injuries surfaced again in the first quarter of Super Bowl 50. Stewart was stopped for no gain by Derek Wolfe on the Panthers second series and hobbled to the sidelines.

After the Broncos defensive touchdown gave Denver a 10-0 lead, Stewart missed the entire third possession for Carolina as Fozzy Whitaker and Mike Tolbert took over at tailback.

However, Stewart returned to the game late in the first quarter as the Panthers began to move the football. He caught a pass from Cam Newton on the final play of the quarter.

Nevertheless, it will be something the Panthers will have to monitor closely the rest of the game.

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Von Miller strips Newton, Malik Jackson falls on ball for TD

SANTA CLARA, CA - FEBRUARY 07:  Von Miller #58 of the Denver Broncos strips the ball from  Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers in the first quarter during Super Bowl 50 at Levi's Stadium on February 7, 2016 in Santa Clara, California.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Broncos defense has forced the first turnover of the Super Bowl and it led directly to the first touchdown of the game.

On third down from the Carolina 15-yard-line, Broncos linebacker came off the left edge and barreled into Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. Miller yanked the football out of Newton’s hands before taking him to the ground and defensive end Malik Jackson fell on the ball for a touchdown.

Brandon McManus‘ extra point extended Denver’s lead to 10-0 with 6:27 left in the first quarter of the game.

The play came a couple of snaps after a pass to Jerricho Cotchery was ruled incomplete on the field. Coach Ron Rivera challenged that Cotchery caught the ball, but the call was upheld. Running back Jonathan Stewart was stopped for no gain on second down and then limped off the field after taking a painful looking shot to the back of his leg.

The Panthers have played from in front for most of the season, but they’ll have to dig out of an early hole to win the Super Bowl.

UPDATE 4:16 p.m. ET: Stewart is questionable to return with a foot injury.

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The “What’s a catch?” question hits the Super Bowl

SANTA CLARA, CA - FEBRUARY 07:   Bradley Roby #29 of the Denver Broncos breaks up a pass intended for  Jerricho Cotchery #82 of the Carolina Panthers in the first quarter during Super Bowl 50 at Levi's Stadium on February 7, 2016 in Santa Clara, California.  (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images) Getty Images

All season long, NFL players, coaches, officials, media and fans have wondered what constitutes a catch. So it’s only fitting that the biggest play in the early part of Super Bowl 50 would center on what constitutes a pass.

When Panthers quarterback Cam Newton hit Jerricho Cotchery with a perfect pass, Cotchery initially bobbled it, then brought it in as he was going to the ground. The officials on the field ruled it a catch, Panthers coach Ron Rivera challenged, and the replay review upheld the call on the field.

Not everyone agreed with that decision. Mike Carey, the former Super Bowl referee turned CBS officiating “expert,” thought the call should have been reversed.

“I think this is a good challenge by Carolina,” Carey said. “If I was in the booth, I would reverse this to a catch.”

Carey was wrong: There was no definitive angle that showed Cotchery getting his hands under the ball, and so the call on the field stood.

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Panthers open with a three and out

SANTA CLARA, CA - FEBRUARY 07:  Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers warms up prior to Super Bowl 50 against the Denver Broncos at Levi's Stadium on February 7, 2016 in Santa Clara, California.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Broncos got points on their opening drive of Super Bowl 50, but the Panthers weren’t able to follow suit.

Carolina was forced to punt after three plays when a Cam Newton completion to tight end Greg Olsen came up a yard short of a first down at their own 28-yard line. Jonathan Stewart ran for two yards to open the drive and Newton missed an open Philly Brown high on second down to leave them with a long conversion attempt on third down.

While the Panthers surely would have liked to get points on their first possession of the game, they can take away the strong protection from their offensive line on the two passing plays as a positive. Newton had plenty of time to throw on second and third down, but his inaccurate throw to Brown kept the drive from going anywhere.

Some might wonder if Newton’s miss came as a result of nerves, but when he misses he usually misses high and that’s what seemed to happen on the incompletion.

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Broncos open the scoring with a field goal drive

during Super Bowl 50 at Levi's Stadium on February 7, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. Getty Images

It might not have ended in the end zone, but it was definitely better than Peyton Manning’s previous first possession in a Super Bowl.

Of course, it couldn’t be much worse than the safety off a bad snap to open the blowout loss to the Seahawks.

But settling for a field goal on the opening drive is a positive start, as Manning led a 10-play, 64-yard drive.

Manning came out throwing early, and completed 4-of-6 for 47 yards. But they stalled in the red zone, as the Panthers forced them to kick a 34-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead.

It’s too soon to determine much about Manning’s arm strength, but they’re certainly not being shy about testing the Panthers secondary.

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Elway takes another shot at Fox

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Broncos G.M. John Elway hasn’t been bashful about the reasons for his decision to move on from coach John Fox after the 2014 season.

This is why we made the decision,” Elway said this week. “This was the idea — to get better and get past the first round.

In an interview with Phil Simms of CBS that aired during an endless pregame show (yeah, NBC did the same thing last year — and will do it again in two years), Elway was even more specific in his criticism of Fox.

“I just didn’t like two out of the last three years we lost in the first round with home field advantage,” Elway said. “And so to me that hurts. If you can’t get guys excited about playing in the playoffs that time of year, something’s wrong.”

That last sentence was the most potent. And it meshes with what receiver Demaryius Thomas told PFT Live in the days preceding last week’s Super Bowl.

“I feel like some guys, you know, didn’t have the fight or whatever it was,” Thomas said. “I think one thing was, I feel like guys kind of looked over the Colts. You had guys always talking the night before the game, you had, ‘Oh, I don’t want to go to New England and play New England.’ And I think that was one of the big things.”

Elway saw it, and so Elway decided to make a change. And Elway has decided to be incredibly candid about that, given that the change has taken the Broncos back to the Super Bowl.

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Rivera’s handling of Manning helped him become a head coach

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Before Ron Rivera became the head coach of the Panthers, PFT regularly pointed out that anyone in the AFC South who is looking for a new coach should consider Rivera, because Rivera had done very well against Manning as the defensive coordinator of the Chargers.

The dynamic culminated in a 36-14 win over Manning and the Colts in Indianapolis on November 28, 2010, with Rivera’s defense holding Manning to 14 points and picking him off four times.

It pushed the Chargers to 4-1 against Manning during Rivera’s time with the Chargers, including a pair of playoff wins over Manning and the Colts. While Manning beat Rivera and the Bears in Super Bowl XLI, Manning was good but not great in that game, completing 25 of 38 passes for 247 yards, one touchdown, and one interception.

In 2012, Manning’s Broncos faced Rivera’s Panthers. Denver won (coincidentally, by the score of 36-14), but Peyton threw only one touchdown pass.

Rivera and Manning meet again in the postseason on Sunday. If Rivera can do against Manning what Rivera did when with the Chargers, the Panthers will be hoisting a Lombardi. Otherwise, the Sheriff will be walking off into the sunset with that trophy under his arm, matching the one from nine years ago.

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Report: C.J. Anderson to get starting nod at running back for Broncos

Denver Broncos running back C.J. Anderson, right, is tackled by New England Patriots cornerback Justin Coleman during the first half of the NFL football AFC Championship game between the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016, in Denver. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson) AP

Running back C.J. Anderson hasn’t started for the Denver Broncos since Week 6 of the regular season, but he’ll get the call to start Super Bowl 50 against the Carolina Panthers, per Mike Klis of 9News.

While Ronnie Hillman was the more productive back during the regular season, Anderson has been the rock in the playoffs. Anderson has carried 31 times for 144 yards and a touchdown in the postseason. Meanwhile, Hillman has just 54 yards on 27 carries in the playoffs.

Anderson, who grew up in nearby Richmond, had 720 yards and five touchdowns during the regular season for Denver.

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Mike Shula deserves plenty of credit for Cam Newton’s growth

Zz1jZDUyZTZmNTlkYjY5MmE4MTdhYTg5MmJjN2E0YjYwOA== AP

Whether he did or didn’t want to interview for head-coaching jobs this year, Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula deserved to be considered, for one significant reason: His work with Cam Newton.

At a time when more and more college quarterbacks struggle to adjust to the pro game, Shula has helped Newton get there. It started in 2013, during Shula’s first year as the team’s offensive coordinator. After the offense struggled, Shula had an idea — as coach Ron Rivera explained it on PFT Live in December 2013.

“One of the things that Mike and the offensive staff did was they went back and looked at — we have a library of all of Cam’s plays from college — they looked at what Cam did extremely well and said, ‘You know what, let’s adapt a couple of these ideas and incorporate them into what we do,'” Rivera said.  “[Shula] took three or four things that [Newton] did really well and we’ve incorporated that and put that into what we do as an offense.  Mike has made it work and that has really helped us.”

Not coincidentally, the Panthers have won every NFC South title since then, with their run now at three and counting. By the end of Sunday, the Panthers could have their first Super Bowl title. And Shula’s fingerprints will be all over the trophy, literally and figuratively.

It’s Carolina’s gain, and the rest of the league’s loss, that someone else hasn’t realized that Shula might be able to do the same thing for another young quarterback that he did for Newton.

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