No one gave the Denver Broncos much of a chance Sunday. Their offense was too lame, people said. Their quarterback, too old.
And yeah, their defense was really good. But so was the Carolina Panthers’.
The latter, at least, held true in Super Bowl 50, as both units came to play in a tight, competitive game. But while Carolina’s defense was solid, Denver’s was flat-out dominant, and that made the difference in its 24-10 win over the heavily-favored Panthers in front of a pro-Bronco crowd of 71,088 at Levi’s Stadium.
“I wanted to say ‘Look, we have one more time — this is the last one,” said safety T.J. Ward, whose Broncos were largely tight-lipped about their brilliance during the lead-up to the game this week. “We are going to tell everybody that we are the best. This is the last time that we are going to tell them they can’t do anything on our defense.”
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And while 39-year-old Peyton Manning is the quarterback — and thus, the man everyone will make the story about, given the fact his legacy got a boost with a win that improved his Super Bowl record to 2-2 — even he would likely admit that this one was all about the Broncos’ defense, the unit that carried them to a 12-4 regular-season record while he struggled through a nine-touchdown, 17-interception season.
“For two weeks all we heard was Cam (Newton) this, Cam that, dab this, dab that,” Denver cornerback Bradley Roby said.
But for the rest of the offseason, everyone will be talking about a historically-dominant defense that effectively shut down Newton and the Panthers and forced them into a bevy of uncharacteristic mistakes.
Consider the following:
▪ The Broncos won their third Super Bowl by holding the NFL’s second-best run offense in check, as their running backs combined for 73 yards in 21 carries.
▪ The Broncos’ ferocious pass rush, led by Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, racked up a Super Bowl-record seven sacks. Miller, who was chosen MVP of Super Bowl 50, had 2 1/2 sacks, while Ware had two.
▪ The Broncos won the turnover battle 4-2 against the league’s leader in turnover margin.
▪ The Broncos’ pass rush harrassed Newton, Carolina’s hulking 6-foot-5, 250-pound quarterback, all game long. He completed only 18 of 41 passes for 265 yards, with zero touchdowns and an interception.
So yes, Denver’s dominant defense took on a starring role.
“This is the rawest defense ever — ever,” said Broncos tight end Owen Daniels. “To do that to the guy that’s changing the game, unbelievable. Our defense, you have to put them up there with the best ever.”
The seeds of the performance were planted two years ago, when Denver learned what a difference a great defense can make in an embarrassing 43-8 Super Bowl loss to Seattle, as the Seahawks’ star-studded group smothered an offense that scored the most regular-season points in NFL history.
So general manager John Elway sought to copy the formula, and it worked; he signed Pro Bowlers such as Ware, Ward and cornerback Aqib Talib as free agents, and supplemented them with a deep, fast group of homegrown players.
And on Sunday, he watched the unit — which led the league in total defense and passing defense — put together another masterful performance under defensive coach Wade Phillips, the NFL assistant coach of the year who was hired last offseason and dialed up multiple blitzes that kept the Panthers on their toes all night long.
“He came in and figured out how to utilize the talent,” Ware said. “With Von, you can see how well he played … he changed everything up to where we could be more aggressive and get to the passer and also create a lot of havoc.”
One of the reasons Carolina was favored coming into the game is because many were unsure how a depleted Manning would fare if the Broncos got behind against a strong Carolina defense. But that became a moot point when Miller made a huge play that set the tone of the game midway through the first quarter.
That’s when the Broncos, who led 3-0 at the time, sent Miller off the edge on third and 10 in Denver territory. Miller sped in untouched and ripped the ball from Newton. The ball bounced around for a bit before it was recovered in the end zone by defensive end Malik Jackson for the first Super Bowl fumble-return touchdown in 22 years.
Just like that, the Panthers found themselves down 10-0 fewer than 9 minutes into the Super Bowl. But Newton, who was crowned the league’s MVP for 2015, responded by leading the Panthers on a nine-play, 73-yard scoring march highlighted by a pair of long scrambles and sizable completions on crossing routes. A short touchdown run by Jonathan Stewart made the score 10-7 early in the second quarter.
A Panthers gift — the second of many — helped the Broncos respond. Carolina’s next drive ended with a punt, but when Denver’s Jordan Norwood fielded the ball two nearby Panthers — Colin Jones and Teddy Williams — eased up, as if they thought he called for a fair catch. Norwood did not, and he hit the edge and returned it 61 yards to set up their next score, a 34-yard field goal that put the Broncos ahead 13-7.
The Panthers weren’t done shooting themselves in the foot. On their next drive, Pro Bowl fullback Mike Tolbert fumbled for the second time in the game. The Broncos recovered, but the Panthers were spared another Denver score five plays later when former Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy dropped into zone coverage and intercepted Manning one-handed.
Carolina attempted to re-establish itself out of the break, and a big throw by Newton to receiver Ted Ginn Jr. on a dig route — which went for 45 yards — helped set up a 44-yard field goal attempt. Talib appeared to jump offsides — but it was not called — which might have caused Graham Gano to rush the kick, which bounced off the right upright and did not go through.
So, the Broncos had the momentum again, and Manning rode the wave, finding receiver Emmanuel Sanders for gains of 25 and 22 yards that set up a 30-yard field goal by McManus that gave the Broncos a 16-7 lead.
Carolina tried to respond, advancing to the Broncos’ 28-yard line on their next drive. But then Newton tried to find Ginn over the middle, the ball deflected off Ginn’s hands and landed into the waiting arms of Ward. Ward fumbled while trying to return the pick, but even that was recovered by the Broncos — the latest bit of proof that on this day, the ball wasn’t bouncing the Panthers’ way.
Want further proof? On the Broncos’ next drive, Manning was stripped by defensive end Charles Johnson. Manning recovered his own fumble, though.
Ealy — who was in the midst of a huge three-sack, one-interception night — again struck, swatting the ball out of Manning’s right hand on the very next play. The Panthers recovered the fumble, and Carolina’s offense returned to the field with a renewed sense of energy. Their next drive ended with a 39-yard field goal that cut the deficit to 16-10 with 10:26 left.
But given the way Denver’s defense was playing, the Panthers were done. Their hopes essentially came to an end with a little more than 4 minutes left, when Miller sacked Newton and stripped him of the ball. It was recovered by Ward, who returned it 12 yards to the Panthers’ 4-yard line.
“This is what you work for,” Miller said.
The Broncos’ offense, which had largely been stifled all day, finally struck paydirt, as C.J. Anderson plunged in from 2 yards out a few plays later to give the Broncos an unsurmountable 12-point lead with 3:13 left.
The Broncos went for two, and Manning — who had been beaten and battered all game as he was sacked five times — ended what might have been his final NFL game with a two-point completion to receiver Bennie Fowler.
When the clock finally struck zero, Manning — who completed 13 of 23 passes for 141 yards, no touchdowns and an interception — was surrounded by waves of people as the confetti fell.
He kept it together all right, joking in his postgame interview that he’s going to be drinking a lot of beers to celebrate. And as for whether he’ll retire, he said he needs to talk about it with his family.
“Those are my priorities at this point,” Manning said with a grin. “I’m going to take care of those things first, and say a little prayer to thank the man upstairs.”
But if Sunday’s game was indeed his last dance, it’s hard to imagine a better ending for him, or a defense that proved how good it really on the biggest stage.
“It is the last time we have to say it,” Ward said. “Because we are world champs.”