Projected starters and key players for the Super Bowl at Santa Clara, California:
Cam Newton, QB (1), 6-5, 245, 5th season, Auburn
A front-runner for MVP honors, passed for 35 TDs and ran for 10 … Has been dynamic in playoffs with three TD passes and two runs … Strong in the pocket, elusive and powerful outside of it … Likes to show off how much fun he is having, especially after Panthers touchdowns.
Jonathan Stewart, RB (28) 5-10, 235, 8th season, Oregon
Became the true No. 1 runner this season when DeAngelo Williams departed … Rushed for 989 yards and six TDs during season, had 59-yard sprint on Panthers’ first play of postseason … Strong runner with a burst to break big plays.
Mike Tolbert, FB (35), 5-9, 245, 8th season, Coastal Carolina
All-Pro fullback who is solid blocker and receiver … Can play halfback when needed and did when Stewart was injured during season … Scored four times during season.
Ted Ginn Jr., WR (19), 5-11, 185, 9th season, Ohio State
Resurrected his career in second stint with Carolina … Has overcome penchant for drops to use his speed and improved routes to have his best season … Also a dangerous punt returner with 32-yarder to set up own 22-yard TD run vs. Arizona.
Philly Brown, WR (10), 5-11, 185, 2nd season, Ohio State
Real name is Corey, got nickname in college from then-Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel … Speed is his strength, broke an 86-yard TD reception against Cardinals … Scored four TDs in regular season, has one in playoffs.
Greg Olsen, TE (88), 6-5, 252, 9th season, Miami
Among the most valuable tight ends in football, Newton’s favorite target … Versatile, can get open deep or short, over middle or outside … Already has 12 catches in postseason, one TD … Made 77 receptions for 1,104 yards and seven touchdowns in regular season.
Michael Oher, LT (73), 6-4, 315, 7th season, Mississippi
Yes, the “Blind Side” guy … Already has won a Super Bowl, with Baltimore in 2013 game, but has never become a star … Had one mediocre season with Tennessee after five years with Ravens before Panthers added him.
Andrew Norwell, LG (68), 6-6 325, 2nd season, Ohio State
Has emerged quickly on a vastly improved blocking unit … Undrafted free agent who became starter for nine games in 2014, then started 13 times this season.
Ryan Kalil, C (67), 6-2, 300, 9th season, Southern California
All-Pro for a second time (2013) … Excellent in pass protection, smart and durable … Rarely is overpowered … Has started every game he’s played since 2008 … Brother Matt plays tackle for Vikings.
Trai Turner, RG (70), 6-3, 320, 2nd season, LSU
Most-improved blocker on Panthers … Had strong regular season and has been even better in playoffs … Third-round pick who took over position for good midway through 2014 … Strong, aggressive, doesn’t get intimidated.
Mike Remmers, RT (74), 6-5, 306, 3rd season, Oregon State
Has been with half-dozen teams in short career … 2015 his first season as starter after mostly being on practice squads … Some considered Remmers weakest link on line, but he’s been steady in postseason.
Charles Johnson, DE (95), 6-2, 282, 9th season, Georgia
One of NFL’s highest-paid defenders … Has two sacks in the postseason, but has been inconsistent as pass rusher … Was activated from injured reserve/designated for return in November after missing seven games (hamstring).
Among the league’s best, his 11 sacks tied for most for position in NFL … Became starter for nine games in ’14 and hasn’t looked back … Made 55 tackles in regular season, impressive for a DT.
Star Lotulelei, DT (98), 6-2, 320, 3rd season, Utah
Sometimes overshadowed by Short, but is very reliable … First-round pick in 2013 who doesn’t pile up statistics — he helps his teammates do so by occupying blockers.
Jared Allen, DE (69), 6-6, 270, 12th season, Idaho State
Veteran seeking first ring … Was traded by Bears after three games this season, found a home in Carolina … His 136 sacks rank ninth all-time, and he says he remembers nearly every one … Missed NFC title game with broken foot, expects to play in Super Bowl.
Kony Ealy, DE (94), 6-4, 275, 2nd season, Missouri
Second-round pick who had so-so rookie season, came on in 2015 but has not been a dominator … If Allen is hobbled, Ealy will need to play more and pick up his game.
Mario Addison, DE (97), 6-3, 260, 5th season, Troy
Has had strong playoffs after good season … Can get to passer, had six sacks during regular season … Played for three teams in first two pro seasons, has been in Carolina since 2012.
Thomas Davis, LB (58), 6-2, 235, 11th season, Georgia
Terrific leader, All-Pro outside backer who broke right forearm in NFC title game … Had surgery and expects to suit up for Super Bowl … Has overcome series of knee surgeries, was NFL’s Man of the Year in 2014 … Was in on 105 tackles … Longest-tenured Panther.
Luke Kuechly, LB (59), 6-3, 238, 4th season, Boston College
A tackling machine, the All-Pro linebacker also has two interception returns for TDs in playoffs … Perennially among league leaders in tackles, had 118 this season while missing three games … 2012 Defensive Rookie of Year and won top defensive player in 2013.
Shaq Thompson, LB (54), 6-0, 230, 1st season, Washington
Rookie who played safety in college … Panthers drafted him 25th overall and moved him to linebacker … Came on at end of season, seems to have settled in at position.
Robert McClain, CB (27), 5-9, 195, 5th season, Connecticut
Journeyman who has been with two other teams after being selected in seventh round in 2011 by Panthers … Returned in December when Bene Benwikere was lost for season, has been solid … Peyton Manning will be looking his way often.
Manning might not be looking Norman’s way. All-Pro has been among best shutdown cornerbacks this season … Sometimes gets too aggressive — remember ugly feud with Giants WR Odell Beckham Jr. in December — but has superb coverage skills … His matchup with either Demaryius Thomas or Emmanuel Sanders will be highlight.
Rugged veteran who helps best when he keeps his cool … No longer a great coverage guy, but hits hard, understands positioning and reads QBs well … Released by Miami in March, was out of football until Panthers called in November.
Roman Harper, S (41), 6-1, 205, 10th season, Alabama
Veteran who damaged eye against Arizona but has returned to practice … Durable and dependable, has started all 16 regular-season games since joining Panthers … Forceful tackler, especially coming forward.
Kurt Coleman, S (20), 5-11, 200, 6th season, Ohio State
Having by far the best season of previously checkered career … Played for Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott for one season in Philadelphia … Tied for NFC lead with seven picks, then had two in conference championship.
Graham Gano, K (9), 6-2, 205, 6th season, Florida State
Gano finished second in NFL in points with 146, and is good, not great, from long range … Missed three PATs in 2015 … Went 30 of 36 on field goals, with long of 52.
Brad Nortman, P (8), 6-2, 215, 4th season, Wisconsin
Middle of the road punter who had fine gross (45.4 yards per kick), but a 39.8 net, which says something about coverage teams … A rare punter who was drafted (sixth round, 2012).
Is this the final game for the Hall of Fame-bound Manning? … Only player to win five MVP awards … Came off torn plantar fascia, took back job in season finale from Brock Osweiler, and led two playoff victories … Never should be underestimated … This is fourth Super Bowl for Manning, who won with 2006 Colts.
C.J. Anderson, RB (22), 5-8, 224, 3rd season, California
A godsend for Broncos, who came from nowhere to seize starting job in 2014 … Short but stocky and powerful, also has nice burst … Knows how to find end zone.
Ronnie Hillman, RB (23), 5-10, 195, 4th season, San Diego State
Not as consistent or reliable holding onto ball as Anderson … Led team with 863 yards rushing, but has been used sparingly in postseason … Third-round pick in 2012 who hasn’t broken out.
When he holds onto the ball, Thomas is among most dangerous receivers in NFL … Tall and rangy, uses his size well … For much of recent seasons, was favorite target of Manning … Made 105 receptions for 1,304 yards and six TDs this season.
Also had some drops vs. Pittsburgh, but was much better against New England … Best deep threat for Manning … Has 10 catches for 147 yards in postseason … Plays bigger than his size.
Bennie Fowler, WR (16), 6-1, 212, 1st season, Michigan State
Manning’s confidence in the newcomer has grown … Fowler has ability to make big plays, averaging 17.5 yards on two playoff catches … Rookie free agent in 2014 who was on practice squad and appears to have learned his trade.
Owen Daniels, TE (81), 6-3, 245, 10th season, Wisconsin
The perfect tight end for Manning, who loves to throw over the middle and in the red zone to TEs … Daniels was a standout in Houston for eight seasons, played one year with Baltimore, then joined Broncos … Had 46 catches, three touchdowns during season, and already has two TDs in playoffs.
Ryan Harris, LT (68), 6-5, 302, 9th season, Notre Dame
Harris has had to replace Pro Bowl tackle Ryan Clady, a difficult chore, and protect Manning’s blind side … Uses savvy and experience as much as physicality … Played four years in Denver, two for Houston, one for Kansas City before returning to Broncos this season.
Evan Mathis, LG (69), 6-5, 298, 10th season, Alabama
An All-Pro in Philadelphia who forced his way out, rarely gets beaten in passing game … Versatile, good fundamental blocker … Can get worn down.
Matt Paradis C (61), 6-3, 300, 1st season, Boise State
Imagine being a first-year guy snapping the ball to Manning. That’s Paradis, a practice squad player in 2014 after being drafted in sixth round … Struggles at times as blocker and might have issues with Short and Lotulelei.
Louis Vasquez, RG (65), 6-5, 335, 7th season, Texas Tech
Signed away from division-rival San Diego in 2013 as free agent … Was All-Pro that year as Broncos made Super Bowl … First Denver guard to make All-Pro.
Michael Schofield, RT (79), 6-6, 301, 2nd season, Michigan
First-year starter after spending rookie season without an appearance … Third-round pick who does his best work in the running game.
Derek Wolfe, DE (95), 6-5, 285, 4th season, Cincinnati
Has best season with 49 tackles, 5½ sacks in 12 games … Benefits from single blocking by opposition … Already has two sacks in postseason.
Vance Walker, DE (96), 6-2, 305, 7th season, Georgia Tech
Highly serviceable rotation player … With fourth pro franchise … Only season as a starter was 2013 in Oakland … Signed as free agent before this season.
Sylvester Williams, DT (92), 6-2, 313, 3rd season, North Carolina
Massive space-eater who is beginning to justify first-round selection in 2013 … Won’t get many stats, but clogs the middle vs. run game, frees up linebackers to make plays … Has career-high three sacks this season.
Malik Jackson, DE (97), 6-5, 293, 4th season, Tennessee
Underrated defensive lineman with a knack for big plays … Had 45 tackles and five sacks in 2015 … Started every game this season.
Antonio Smith, DE (90), 6-3, 290, 12th season, Oklahoma State. Veteran who brings savvy and aggression to the D-line … Productive wherever he has played (four teams) … Was on 2008 NFC champion Cardinals.
Von Miller, LB (58), 6-3, 250, 5th season, Texas A&M
All-Pro and one of best defenders in league … Hellacious pass rusher, but also can drop in coverage … Made life miserable for Tom Brady in AFC title game … Second overall draft pick in 2011 — behind Cam Newton.
Ware’s name already in Hall of Fame conversation for down the road … Spent first nine pro seasons in Dallas, getting 127 sacks … Made only 25 tackles in 11 games this season, but 7 1-2 were sacks, has 1 1-2 sacks in postseason.
Jets WR with same name gets more publicity, but this Brandon Marshall is a stud, too … Became starter in 2014 and had sensational season, was nearly as productive in ’15 … Drafted by Jaguars in 2012, went to Denver practice squad before breaking through.
Danny Trevathan, LB (59), 6-1, 240, 4th season, Kentucky
Like Marshall, Trevathan doesn’t always get his due, but he’s solid … Had breakout 2013 season when Broncos made Super Bowl, was injured for most of ’14, made strong comeback this season … had 109 tackles and two picks in 2015.
Aqib Talib, CB (21), 6-1, 205, 8th season, Kansas
Physical, aggressive cornerback … Sometimes loses focus, but when on his game, he excels … Could wind up covering Greg Olsen at times … Despite playing past four seasons with either Broncos or Patriots, has not been to previous Super Bowl.
Chris Harris Jr., CB (25), 5-10, 199, 4th season, Kansas
Talib gets much of the notice, but Harris is the Broncos’ top CB … Undrafted free agent in 2011 who has consistently made his mark in NFL … Tore ACL in 2013, yet has started every game in past two years.
Bradley Roby, CB (29), 5-11, 194, 2nd season, Ohio State
Hard-hitter with knack for finding ball … First-round draftee who supports run defense well … Pretty versatile … Had habit of overpursuing early on, seems to have licked it.
T.J. Ward, S (43), 5-10, 200, 6th season, Oregon
Has started every game he’s played (81) … Second-round pick by Cleveland in 2010, signed as free agent by Denver in 2014 … Good tackler, disruptive in opposing backfields.
Darian Stewart, S (26), 5-11, 214, 6th season, South Carolina
First season with Denver after four with St. Louis, one with Baltimore … Solid contributor who had 63 tackles, 10 passes defensed, two fumble recoveries … Works well with Ward in middle of secondary.