Four days before the biggest game of his life, former University of Missouri star Kony Ealy already had his game face on.
During one of many mandatory media sessions, Ealy — a second-year defensive end for the Carolina Panthers — essentially dismissed a question about how much he was looking forward to facing former Mizzou teammate Shane Ray, a rookie defensive end for the Denver Broncos.
“I’m not facing Shane Ray,” Ealy said, sharply. “I’m facing the Denver Broncos’ offensive line.”
And by the end of Super Bowl 50 on Sunday, Denver’s offensive line definitely had their fill of Ealy during the Broncos’ 24-10 victory.
Though he didn’t start, Ealy didn’t waste much time making his presence felt. With the Broncos facing a first and 10 at their own 20 early in the second quarter, Ealy beat Denver right tackle Michael Schofield off the edge and tracked down quarterback Peyton Manning — who was trying to evade the pocket — for a sack.
The sack was the first of the postseason for Ealy, who finished the regular season with 32 tackles and five sacks. But he made an even bigger play later in the quarter.
That’s when defensive coordinator Sean McDermott called on Ealy — who is listed at 6 feet 4 and 275 pounds — to drop into zone coverage with Denver facing a third-and-8 at the Panthers’ 24-yard line. Manning slid to his left and spotted Emmanuel Sanders running near the numbers a few yards downfield, but he apparently did not see Ealy, who was standing between the two.
Ealy hauled in the pass with his right hand — one handed, no less — and proceeded to weave his way through several Broncos for a 19-yard gain. The play didn’t lead to a score — the Panthers’ offense went three and out — but it did prevent the Broncos from building on a 13-7 lead, which remained the score at halftime.
The play was Ealy’s first interception as a professional, and his first since 2013, when he was a redshirt junior at Missouri.
It also made him the fourth player in Super Bowl history to record a sack and an interception in the same game, joining New England linebacker Tedy Bruschi, New England safety Rodney Harrison and Dallas safety Thomas Everett.
But again, Ealy wasn’t done. In the third quarter, he picked up his second sack of the game by beating Schofield again and hauling down Manning, making him the only player in Super Bowl history to record multiple sacks and an interception in the game.
And early in the fourth quarter, with the Broncos leading 16-7 and driving, Ealy’s strip-sack of Manning gave the Panthers new life, leading to a field goal that cut their deficit to six.
Ealy’s three sacks tied the Super Bowl sack record held by Reggie White of the Green Packers in Super Bowl XXXI and Darnell Dockett of the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII.
For Ealy, it was an outstanding performance, especially when you consider Ealy was not an every-down player on Sunday. However, the Panthers did not win — the offense made too many errors, and too many breaks bounced Denver’s way — leaving Ealy without the one thing he wanted most before the game: a Super Bowl win.
“It will hit me when we get this trophy,” Ealy said when asked before the game if he was excited to play in the Super Bowl. “It will be oh-so-real then.
“Now, it’s just like a job to me. I don’t look at it as, okay, it’s the biggest thing on the planet. I look at it as another day doing my job, another opportunity to get the job done. It’s a degree of purpose. That’s the way I look at it.”