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Defense dominates as the Broncos edge the Panthers in Super Bowl 50

If this is to be Peyton Manning’s last ride, then it is fitting that he can walk away from the modern game he did so much to help shape as a Super Bowl champion. It was not necessarily the prettiest or the most dramatic of performances, but the Denver Broncos came with a game plan to disrupt the Carolina Panthers offensively and they most definitely succeeded carving out a deserved 24-10 victory in Santa Clara, California.

It speaks volumes about the character of these Broncos to overcome adversity. Manning had statistically the worst season of his career and missed seven games through a succession of injuries in which his back-up Brock Osweiler deputised, but this Broncos defence came to play illustrating why they were the number one ranked unit in the league last season. Led by star linebacker and Super Bowl 50 MVP Von Miller, they suffocated Cam Newton’s ability to make plays, continuously collapsed the pocket and brought incredible pressure to shut down the Panthers’ high powered number one ranked offence who drop to 0-2 all time in Super Bowls.

The Broncos’ opening drive did much to set the tone as Manning marched down deep into Panthers territory. Having looked set to score a touchdown on their opening possession, they were forced to settle for a Brandon McManus field goal to open the scoring, 3-0.

Carolina themselves were looking for a solid start but, despite favourable field position, they went three and out and were forced to punt. Panthers coach Ron Rivera challenged the ruling on the field of an incomplete pass to wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery but lost his appeal and lost a timeout in the process. As expected, it was already abundantly clear that both defences were forcing considerable pocket pressure.

And that was epitomised with the biggest play of the first half. Denver defensive coordinator Wade Phillips dialled up a blitz and the sensational Miller stripped Newton of the football enabling teammate Malik Jackson to recover for the touchdown. In what was to become quite a low scoring game, this was a critical momentum swinger with the Broncos racing out into an early 10-0 lead in the first quarter.

The Panthers offence did kick into life though registering their first points of the game with a solid drive where Newton connected with his favourite target, tight end Greg Olsen, to move the chains. A good drive got even better when a 15-yard personal foul penalty was called against Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib for a use of the facemask giving them an automatic first down. It moved the Panthers to first and goal and running back Jonathan Stewart, whose production was stifled all night, went up and over on a 1-yard touchdown run to pull the game within three.

That energised the Panthers and firmly kicked the game into life, but it was not a pattern we were about to see continue as both sides exchanged punts after going three and out respectively. But we were about to witness some history as Jordan Norwood, aided by some tremendous blocking on special teams, returned a punt 61 yards deep into Carolina territory – the longest punt return in Super Bowl history.

With the clock winding down in the first half, the Broncos run game led by C.J. Anderson was being kept in check by a ferocious Panthers front four led by defensive tackle Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei. However, Gary Kubiak and the Broncos rolled the dice opting to go for it on fourth and one rather than kick the chip-shot field goal and they momentarily got it, only for it to be negated by a 10-yard holding penalty. So out came McManus again to extend the Broncos’ lead to 13-7.

The Panthers were eying up the go ahead touchdown score just before the half, but their task got more difficult when monster running back Mike Tolbert fumbled the football under duress from Broncos linebacker Danny Trevathan to give the ball back to Manning. Things looked promising for Denver’s hopes of capitalising on that takeaway when Anderson burst through on a lung-busting, 34-yard run to maintain their ascendancy. It was the longest run by either team all night.

Yet with the Broncos looking to open up a two score lead, Manning made his worst decision of the evening throwing a floaty spiral straight into the hands of Panthers defensive end Kony Ealy who gladly intercepted it. With a minute to go in the first half, and facing a third and twelve situation, Newton connected with wideout Devin Funchess, only the second of eight successful third down attempts by Carolina in the first half. But the Broncos’ Demarcus Ware would have the final say of the first half sacking Newton to leave things nicely poised at 13-7 in favour of Denver at half-time, the fourth sack of the half on the Panthers quarterback.

After a suitably glitzy Super Bowl half-time show, it was back to the action in the second with the Carolina Panthers receiving the opening possession of the second half. Things began promisingly as Newton continued to drive his offence down the field, connecting with Ted Ginn Jr for 35 yards. But both sides were struggling converting on third down so the Panthers reluctantly had to settle for a 44-yard field goal attempt by Scottish-born kicker Graham Gano. With the opportunity to pull the game within three, Gano’s effort clipped the left upright and went wide – a huge momentum swinger.

Manning then added another accolade to his collection with his 100th Super Bowl completion of his career, moving second on the list only behind the New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. It was a steady drive, and although the Broncos had to settle for a third McManus field goal (this one from 35-yards out) psychologically it was huge as it stretched their advantage to 16-7 and made it a two possession game the very next drive after Gano had missed for the Panthers.

Both sides were struggling to carve out any sort of offensive momentum. The Broncos only managed four first downs in the entire first half, compared to the Panthers who had nearly triple that yet trailed 16-7 at this stage early in the third quarter. Newton had shown signs of exploding into life, in particular with a nice scramble for positive yards in the first half, and with a rocket throw to wide receiver Corey Brown who held on for the first down after a 42-yard gain, the longest reception of the night. But when the Broncos defence needed to come up big it did, as Newton was picked off by Broncos safety T.J. Ward having seen his pass deflect off the intended receiver Ginn.

After the Broncos had another quick three and out, the Panthers were unable to capitalise with Newton having no time to make his reads and pick out a man. The Broncos’ ability to collapse the pocket, even with someone as physically mobile as Newton, was particularly impressive as they continuously closed off potential running lanes and brought the heat time and again. This time Derek Wolfe was the man to sack Newton who went down for a fifth time in the game, forcing the Panthers to punt.

Midway through the third quarter the game remained finely poised and it was remarkable that there had only been one touchdown to this point and that was a defensive one, indicative of how much both defences were on top in this one.

However, the momentum would swing back the way of Carolina late in the third when Charles Johnson stripped Manning of the football and then recovered to turnover possession and give the ball back to Newton and the Panthers offence. Both sides were poor with regards to third down conversions, the Broncos only converting 1/11 on third down late in the third and the Panthers only marginally better converting 3/11. This stuttering offensive rhythm, or lack of, frustrated both sides as Carolina had to settle for a 39-yard Gano field goal to cut the Broncos lead and make it a one score game again at 16-10 in the fourth quarter.

This game had already witnessed several records before a pass was thrown, and was adding records all the time. In particular the combined total of 10 sacks late in the fourth tied the most all time in Super Bowl history. On the Broncos defence, Miller was again causing havoc off the edge causing Newton to fumble and Ward to recover deep in their own territory with the opportunity to ice the game with another score.

Matters were made worse for the Panthers when star cornerback Josh Norman was called for pass-interference setting up an automatic first down deep in the redzone. Broncos running back Anderson charged his way up the middle resisting several tackles including one by Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, to squeeze his way into the endzone with just three minutes remaining in the game. It effectively confirmed the result as Newton on the sideline could only collapse to his knees and watch on helplessly.

The Broncos went for a two-point conversion to make it a two-touchdown game and got it when Manning connected with Bennie Fowler to make it 24-10.

Despite the Panthers attempts to haul themselves back into the game, they were always working against the clock. Newton, who had been sacked seven times and whose side had committed four turnovers, tried to muster one last drive but to no avail as the game finished 24-10 in favour of Denver. Carolina’s astonishing season in which they went a franchise record best 15-1 in the regular season and beat the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals to reach their second ever Super Bowl, would end in heartbreak without a first Vince Lombardi Trophy to show for it.

The Broncos meanwhile, while heavily leaning on a brutal 3-4 defence led by assistant coach of the year Phillips caused all sorts of problems for the Panthers. It laid the foundations for a third Super Bowl win in franchise history, but a first since the days of John Elway who won back to back titles in 1997 and 1998. It is hard to believe that Phillips was unemployed and sat out the 2014 season and is now a Super Bowl champion.

How about the Broncos coach too, Kubiak? He won two Super Bowls as the offensive coordinator with the Broncos in the late ‘90s but was fired by the Houston Texans in 2013. Now he is a Super Bowl winning head coach.

And then there is Manning himself. Hardly a vintage performance by either quarterback who between them failed to combine for a single passing touchdown, but he made plays when he had to and was the beneficiary of a stout defence. Given the trials and tribulations Manning went through, it looked inconceivable that both he and his team would be here or that Manning would ever see the field again. Manning finished this game 13/23, 141 yards, 0 touchdowns and 1 interception. By winning the Super Bowl as he did, Manning also became the first starting quarterback in NFL history to win two Super Bowls with two different teams and moves to 2-2 all time in Super Bowls.

Miller, meanwhile, deservedly took home the MVP award following a stunning performance where he made 5 tackles, had 2.5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles.

In the pass-first league we now find ourself in, a large consequence of how Manning revolutionised the quarterback position with the shotgun offence, who says defence doesn’t win championships anymore?

It was a crazy, topsy-turvy year where Manning only had 9 regular season touchdown passes, missed seven games through injury, came off the bench in week 17 to secure home field advantage in the play-offs, saw off the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots, and now won a Super Bowl.

He now has the opportunity, should he wish too to ride off into the sunset, as Elway did, a Super Bowl Champion. If this was ‘The Sheriff’s’ last ride, it was fun while it lasted.

 

Image courtesy of Jeffrey Beall.

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