Kony Ealy did everything he could to keep the Panthers relevant in the Super Bowl, but it wasn't enough. On an evening where Cam Newton and the Carolina offense couldn't do anything right, it was the second-year defensive end who almost saved the Super Bowl for the Panthers.
That might sound like an exaggeration, but his stat line speaks for itself: Three sacks, a clutch interception and a forced fumble that allowed the Panthers to pull within six points late in the fourth quarter. Without Ealy there wasn't the faintest hope of Carolina could compete on a night where Von Miller tore through the right side of the offensive line and stopped Newton cold.
It's difficult to figure out why Ealy was able to have so much success against a Broncos' offense that did well against other players, but it could be due to a lack of familiarity. Ealy's snap count went down dramatically after the team signed Jared Allen mid-season, and essentially evaporated when Charles Johnson returned from injured reserve. This created a situation where film on Ealy was likely lacking, and it showed -- he became the only defensive player the Broncos didn't have an answer for.
It wasn't long ago that Ealy was viewed as the best defensive end in the 2014 NFL Draft, but a combination of circumstances pushed him into the second round where the Panthers capitalized. There were concerns about his lack of pass rush moves leaving Missouri, but defensive line coach Ron Washington has done a wonderful job forming him into a complete lineman.
We saw flashes during the 2015 season, but nothing like we saw in the Super Bowl. Ealy went from fighting for a starting position with Mario Addison, to a rotational defensive lineman who didn't look like a finished product, to being the only player the Panthers could rely on in the biggest game of the team's history.
Von Miller was deserving of the MVP award for his stellar play, but make no mistake: If the Panthers pulled out the win, it would have been Ealy hoisting the award.