Quarterbacks dominated the storylines entering Super Bowl 50, which is only natural considering they play sports’ most prominent and predominant position. Most of the talk centered on Cam Newton’s emergence as the NFL MVP and Peyton Manning’s presumed last go-around.
We mentioned that Denver possessed the league’s No. 1 defense and Carolina wasn’t too shabby at No. 6, but the main questions were how the Broncos could stop the Panthers, who led the NFL in scoring, and how Manning could generate much offense at all, after failing to do so for much of the season.
As it turned out, Manning got to pound a Budweiser and enjoy a second Super Bowl win, but he was merely along for the ride. Denver’s defense and MVP Von Miller were the real story on Sunday, reminding everyone that some old adages still ring true, even in today’s pass-happy, big-hit-averse, fantasy-friendly NFL.
Elders told us what wins titles. Broncos inside linebacker Brandon Marshall blamed the media for letting younger generations forget.
“You guys influence people’s minds to think, ‘It’s all offense, it’s all passing, it’s all this, it’s all that,’” he told reporters after Denver’s 24-10 victory. “Defense wins championships. Two years ago, the Seahawks thrashed us. Best defense in the league. This year, we soundly beat the Carolina Panthers. Best defense in the league. It happens all the time.”
The Panthers went three-and-out on their first possession and Denver punched them in the mouth on their second. Miller wrested the football from Newton on a strip-sack that was recovered for a touchdown. Newton’s size and strength was no match for Miller, who took the ball like a bully picking on a nerd.
Newton was never the same after that. His confidence was shot and his enthusiasm was sapped. His facial expressions throughout the game conveyed a sense of deep stress. He seemed to labor in his breathing, trying to figure out where Miller or DeMarcus Ware would appear next. The Broncos finished with seven sacks, including another forced-fumble by Miller that led to Denver’s only offensive touchdown with three minutes left in the game.
Somewhere, Tom Brady was empathizing. The New England quarterback was hit 17 times and sacked four times by Denver in the AFC championship game. Newton was thought to be too mobile to suffer a similar beating, but he couldn’t overcome his offensive line’s open-door policy.
Denver yielded a total of four touchdowns and 44 points in its postseason run against Carolina, New England and Pittsburgh. While the rest of the world wondered how the Broncos would stop Newton, they wondered how he’d react to seeing them live versus on film.
“We played Brady and Ben Roethlisberger the week before that and it wasn’t anything new [to them],” cornerback Bradley Roby told reporters after the game. “But to [the Panthers], and I said this yesterday in our meeting, they haven’t seen anything like us. I believe that motivated everybody to go out there and prove that y’all really haven’t seen anything like us and what we did today.”
It’s what they did all year, allowing the fewest yards overall, the fewest yards per rushing attempt and the fewest yards per passing attempt. They were led by defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, unemployed during the 2014 season, who molded them into one of the all-time great units. Their sterling efforts essentially turned Manning into an older, weaker version of Trent Dilfer with the Baltimore Ravens in 2000.
Manning will go down as one of the greatest quarterbacks ever, but even Dilfer had a better Super Bowl, passing for 153 yards and a touchdown. Manning passed for 141 yards and no touchdowns. Denver’s 194 yards of total offense are the fewest by any Super Bowl winner. Manning was sacked five times, intercepted once and lost a fumble.
All of that and he’s still a champion for the second time.
“It was just awesome because he was on a team that could help him get a win,” Denver coach Gary Kubiak told reporters after the game. “He didn’t have to go out there and do it all on his own, and he knew that. I told him that I watched John Elway win a championship with 120-something yards passing, and he got one today.”
Newton can seek solace in the knowledge that Elway lost three Super Bowls before concluding his career with back-to-back titles. There’s no guarantee that Carolina will be back, but Newton will have several more shots at getting there.
Conversely, like Elway, Manning has the opportunity to go out on top. Surely he’ll take it. He has nothing to prove and little in his tank. Besides, he won’t have to answer nagging questions about HGH in retirement.
I can imagine the farewell toast he made while raising his glass Sunday night:
“To my defense … this Bud’s for you.”