The way these things work is we chase the story, all of us, fans and especially media, and this time the story is irresistible so you know how this will go. The story will be about Peyton Manning, for once in his charmed life the genuine underdog, quarterbacking his team to a Super Bowl championship and now in all likelihood ending his legendary career on top just like the boss who brought him to the Broncos.
His face and the goofy self-deprecating character he plays in commercials will continue to be on our televisions but the last time we see him in uniform will probably be the 50th Super Bowl, when his Broncos beat the heavily favored Panthers 24-10 here on Sunday, delaying at least for a year Cam Newton’s ascension to the top of America’s favorite form of entertainment.
You know how much we love this kind of thing, taking so seriously the act of ranking where grown men stand in their ability to play kids’ games, so now we’ll hear a lot of talk about how much this win elevates Manning and whether the Panthers and their soft schedule just aren’t ready for big boy football quite yet.
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It’s a fine story and all, the best story, really, a heartwarming tale of perseverance and one last moment of glory so maybe we can pretend it’s the real story just for another moment or two.
“I want to go kiss my wife, kiss my kids, and go celebrate with my teammates,” Manning said. “I’m going to drink a lot of beer tonight.”
And, well, OK. That’s probably enough. Good for him. Maybe he can use one of those sports drinks he advertises to help with the hangover Monday morning (or afternoon). He is the 11th quarterback to win more than one Super Bowl, and the first to do it with more than one team. Only Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, Tom Brady and Troy Aikman have won more.
But that’s not what happened here. Or, at least, that’s not what went down here. The Broncos — two years after taking one of the worst losses in Super Bowl history against the Seahawks’ dominant defense — won this championship with one of the best defenses in recent league history. Manning completed just 13 of 23 passes for 141 yards. It had been a decade since a quarterback won a Super Bowl completing fewer passes, or for fewer yards. That was Ben Roethlisberger, in his rookie season.
To Manning’s credit, he has been a good sport about this, talking openly and honestly about the Broncos’ defense being the most important part of this team. For virtually his entire career, Manning has been the best player on his team, the sun around which the rest of his team has orbited and the results have been one of the great careers in American sports history.
But this is not that, and those old days are long gone by now. Manning has been hurt, benched, and the subject of published allegations of performance enhancing drug use. Nobody — not even Nick Foles — threw interceptions at a more frequent rate this season.
Now, the best players on Manning’s team are on defense. Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware lead what might be the league’s best group of edge rushers, and Aqib Talib and Chris Harris lead what is probably the best group of defensive backs.
Somehow, one of the game’s best quarterbacks of all-time found himself as an interesting and familiar backup singer. He was one of the league’s worst quarterbacks this season — the worst, by some measurements — but the defense has been good enough and the breaks timely enough that it doesn’t matter. Basically, Miller and Ware and Talib and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips have recast Manning as an older and weaker-armed Trent Dilfer in a surprise sequel to the 2000 Ravens.
The Panthers led the league in scoring, but on this night had their lowest point total since November 2014. Newton was held without a touchdown pass or run for the first time since October 2014.
“This is the rawest defense ever,” Broncos tight end Owen Daniels said. “Ever. 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 crowning moment for the Broncos was like an exaggeration of a season-long trend, Denver winning another ugly game in which the cocky men on a hyper-aggressive defense pushed and bullied another offense into mistakes.
The Broncos did not score an offensive touchdown until late in the fourth quarter, and even that was the result of another fumble by Newton. The only way the Broncos were going to win this game was by overwhelming the Panthers at the line of scrimmage, confusing their blocking and pass plans in a way that played out a little like the entire catalog of Things That Will Get You Beat — turnovers, dropped passes, bad passes, a missed field goal and way too many penalties.
“This football game is exactly how we’ve been winning all year long,” Broncos coach Gary Kubiak says. “We’re grinders.”
Newton’s freakish — even by NFL standards — size and agility were supposed to conspire with the Panthers’ counters and options to nullify the Broncos’ strength on the edges.
That never happened, though, with Miller and Ware emasculating the Panthers’ tackles and the defensive backs behind them doing enough to keep the receivers from making plays down the field.
Miller, in particular, was a revelation, the game tape essentially serving as his highlight reel as he goes into free agency — the Broncos will likely either sign him to an extension, or use the franchise tag on him. One snap, he’s turning Panthers tackle Mike Remmers into a henchman — Boom! Smack! Crash! — as he rushes into Newton’s chest and then on another snap he’s running stride for stride with receiver Jerricho Cotchery in coverage down the sideline.
This was the Super Bowl of defense, the league’s top two units by yards-per-play facing each other, and at least on this night the difference was staggering — especially considering degree of difficulty in facing Newton and Manning.
The NFL is the original copycat league, an incestuous business often defaulting to whatever the last champion did, and with a Super Bowl champion finally being made with mediocre quarterback play you can expect an even greater emphasis on collecting pass rushers, physical corners and nasty attitudes.
There will be broiling takes on Newton, too, about whether he has what it takes to be the best and the replay of his, um, effort to recover his last fumble will run on a virtual loop on television and online. People will have opinions about Newton’s postgame press conference, a disappointing moment that is below his talents and stature in the game.
But the truth of what happened here is actually more about football strategy than anything else, with a talented group of defenders maximized by an old defensive coordinator’s creative and aggressive scheme. This is a team that genuinely cares for each other — one of Miller’s best friends on the team is the kicker — knowing exactly what the best version of themselves looks like and doing everything possible to make it reality.
And, you know, maybe there is one legitimate story line out of this about what is probably Manning’s last game. For so long, his career was about his own individual brilliance ending in disappointment because he and the team around him were not good enough.
After all these years, maybe it’s about time the other guys picked him up.