The Carolina Panthers clinched a spot in Super Bowl 50 after a 41-15 win over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, making it a historic night for Latinos in the NFL.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera became just the second Latino in history to take a team to the title game. He follows in the footsteps of Tom Flores, who led the Raiders to Super Bowls XV and XVIII.
Rivera, who won a Super Bowl as a player with the Chicago Bears, told Fox News Latino ahead of the Cardinals game that he credits his success to his Latino roots and military upbringing.
"On one side I'm getting a strong and deep sense of family, tradition and culture," he said. "On the other side I'm getting this discipline and pride that you get growing up and living on Army bases."
The Panthers (17-1) will take on the Denver Broncos (14-4), who earlier on Sunday beat the 2015 Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, 20-18, on Feb. 7 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California.
"For everyone who wears the blue and black, it has been a long time coming," Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said after another virtuoso performance Sunday that included two touchdown passes and another two TD leaps, all achieved without a Superman cape. "It's a question you got to ask: Why not us?”
"We've been dreaming about this moment since Day 1," Newton said. "Our pen has a lot more ink left."
The NFC champions have written quite a story so far. The Panthers manhandled two prominent defenses in the playoffs, Seattle (at least for a half) and then Arizona. They led the league in points (500) during the regular season, and against the Cardinals' top-ranked offense they forced six turnovers by Carson Palmer.
So now it's on to the Bay Area to face Peyton Manning and the Broncos. Manning, a five-time league MVP, will play in his fourth Super Bowl and Denver is making a record-tying eighth appearance. Carolina, a loser 12 years ago to New England, gets its second trip.
"When I was growing up," said All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly, who had a 22-yard interception return touchdown to give Carolina the most points in an NFC championship game, "it was Peyton Manning and the Colts putting up big numbers. He was the guy, and still is the guy, that everyone looks at. It's going to be a lot of fun."
Some memorable things from the Panthers' romp:
CAM OF STEEL: Newton's superhero image was enhanced by yet another fabulous performance. On both of his TD runs, he laid out the ball or himself to get into the end zone.
And one of his TD passes was an 86-yard catch-and-run by Philly Brown, helped by Rashad Johnson's botched tackle.
Newton set an NFL mark with 45 touchdowns: 35 passes and 10 runs. On Sunday, all of those talents were on display.
"We knew from the get-go when he first got here," said center Ryan Kalil, like Newton an All-Pro, "we had something special. Watching him grow each and every year, it's been incredible, and this has been a big year for him?"
But it's not enough, the fifth-year quarterback admitted.
"Yeah, we are going to the Super Bowl. We are not going just to take pictures," Newton said."We are trying to finish this thing off."
BIG-PLAY DEFENSE: Denver was practically overwhelming defensively in edging the Patriots 18-16 for the AFC crown. Carolina WAS overwhelming against Arizona.
Palmer threw four interceptions and lost two fumbles; a seventh Carolina takeaway came on special teams.
Kurt Coleman, who had an NFC-best seven picks during the season, grabbed two. Tre Boston had one and Kuechly got the capper.
There were also three sacks. Kawann Short forced a fumble on his, and so did Charles Johnson. Kyle Love had the other sack.
"They can do it all," Palmer said. "It's a very solid group. They have a lot of young guys and then a lot of experience, too."
GINNED UP: Ted Ginn Jr. spent a very unproductive 2014 with the Cardinals, who quickly released him after that season. He hooked back up with Carolina, where Ginn spent 2013.
Ginn has had his best year, and against Arizona he had one of his best games. His 32-yard punt return set up his darting, weaving 22-yard TD run. He had 52 yards in receptions, and he tracked down All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson to prevent a touchdown on an interception return.
Man, that felt good.
"I felt like deep down inside they felt like I couldn't do it," Ginn said of the Cardinals. "They sent me back out to the wolves.
"Yes, it was personal," Ginn said. "My team knew it was personal."
DISTRESSING POSTSEASON: After going 13-3 and looking like the league's most balanced team, the Cardinals played inconsistently in outlasting the Packers in overtime in the divisional round. They were awful on the final step toward the Super Bowl.
"This is as low as you can feel," Palmer said. "You put so much in and you come in here with such high expectations. To leave the way we're leaving, it just hurts."
THE SHERIFF: Newton dubbed Manning "the Sheriff" when asked about the Super Bowl 50 matchup in two weeks in Santa Clara, California. All of the Panthers recognize the storybook ending Manning could write to his Hall of Fame-caliber career.
They don't want any part of that.
"Great achievement for him," said Panthers cornerback Josh Norman, yet another All-Pro. "But we plan on winning."
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.