Even though every story was about Peyton Manning for nearly two weeks, the Denver Broncos once again pulled through because of their dominant defense. After a sluggish, grueling, grind-it-out four quarters of play, the Broncos defeated the Carolina Panthers 24-10, en route to the franchise’s third Super Bowl victory, and first since John Elway and the Broncos won back-to-back Super Bowls in 1997 and 1998.
The Panthers were the favorites, bringing a 17-1 combined regular season and playoffs record into the game, and boasting (newly named) NFL Most Valuable Player Cam Newton and NFL Coach of the Year Ron Rivera. Carolina’s rushing attack was second-ranked, and their defense finished in the top-six league-wide. If they were not the clear favorite, they certainly looked like the most well-rounded team…on paper.
But the Super Bowl showed us once again, that an elite defensive team (Broncos) can overcome an elite offensive team (Panthers). Von Miller, Denver’s trusty pass-rushing linebacker, emerged as the standout performer of Super Bowl 50, though we’ll get to him a little later.
Newton, on the other hand, looked like a completely different player than the one who had a combined 50 touchdowns this season and collected both the MVP and Offensive Player of the Year awards. The Broncos forced four turnovers; an interception and two fumbles from Newton, as well as one by fullback Mike Tolbert. Broncos linebackers Miller and Danny Trevathan set the tone of this game.
Not once was Newton able to get comfortable, with the constant Broncos pressure forcing him to make off-target throws and poor decisions. Newton finished the game 18/41 for 265 yards, no TDs, and the three turnovers. Contrast this with Manning, who completed 13/23 passes for only 141 yards, but did enough to keep his team in position to snatch the victory.
Denver jumped out to an early 10-0 lead, but Carolina did not relent. Early in the second quarter, the Panthers marched down the field and cut the lead to just 10-7, thanks to a Jonathan Stewart leaping touchdown. The Broncos added another field goal, but at halftime, the score was only 13-7 in favor of the Broncos. There was plenty of time for the Panthers to make adjustments and turn the game around.
The third quarter saw the Panthers’ Graham Gano miss a 44-yard field goal on their opening drive of the half, and Denver immediately responded with a field goal on the very next drive, pushing the lead to 16-7. Gano’s redemption shot came early in the fourth, trimming the lead to just 6 points.
The two teams went back and forth for three drives until Von Miller forced one of Newton’s fumbles, and Denver followed with an almost-instant touchdown three plays later by C.J. Anderson. This brought the lead back to two scores, 24-10, and with under three minutes remaining, the Panthers were running out of time. On the following drive, the Broncos defense put an end to the game.
Miller and defensive-end DeMarcus Ware again put pressure on Newton, and the result of the drive was a net loss of fourteen yards and a punt. Though the Panthers had one more chance with under a minute to go, they were too late. Denver had ensured their victory. Miller was named MVP, and though he was the clear standout performer, credit is due for the entire Broncos defense.
Following the game, Manning still wouldn’t give a hint on whether he plans to retire or not, but it’s safe to say for now that Super Bowl 50 was Manning’s final game. This victory placed him with his 200th overall, including playoff wins. No matter his decision, Manning goes out on top, the same way his boss John Elway did in 1998.
For the Panthers, this loss is not the end of the world. As we saw with the Broncos in 2014, who lost to the Seahawks, a great team will find a way back to the Super Bowl if they keep their franchise players and focus on fixing their weaknesses. For Denver in 2014, their defense wasn’t strong enough. Now, after drafting and signing better players, the team was strong enough to win the championship. The Panthers should try to follow that route.
And for the Broncos and their fans, enjoy this victory. A long season is finally over, and until next February, you are the champions.
Play of the game: Von Miller sacks Newton and forces fumble, which leads to a Denver TD on the ensuing drive.
MVP of the game: Von Miller of course. 6 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and 2 huge forced fumbles.
Statistics provided by: ESPN.com and pro-football-reference.com
Pictures thanks to: Sporting News, NY Times, LA Times, NFL.com, and ProFootballFocus