On Friday, we laid out the Broncos’ priorities for Super Bowl 50, and damned if they didn’t nail just about all of them. Good thing, because the golden anniversary game had more than a little rust on it. The Broncos and Panthers combined to go a horrendous 4-for-29 on third down, committed six turnovers, and allowed a dozen sacks. The Broncos’ 194 yards of total offense was the lowest ever for a Super Bowl winner, but in the end it was enough to bring home the Lombardi. Here’s how they did it.
Our Prediction: “Well, duh. The point here is that the Broncos scored 30 or more points only twice all season, including the playoffs. The Panthers topped the 30 mark 10 times and surpassed 40 three times. The Broncos’ best hope for victory will come if they can keep the score down, hang around until the end, and get their defense to make a game-changing play. (The team is 11–3 in games decided by seven points or less; the Panthers are 6–1.) If the Panthers have 17 or more points by halftime, it could be a long day for the orange and blue.”
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How They Did It: By grabbing the early lead and holding the NFL’s highest-scoring team to only 10 points, the Broncos defense made sure that any offensive futility wouldn’t be a factor. And they bookended game-changing plays in the first and fourth quarters that led to the team’s only two TDs.
Brandon McManus vs. Graham Gano
Our Prediction: “Eight of the past dozen Super Bowls have been decided by a TD or less, and a close game obviously makes the kickers that much more important. The additional wrinkle this year is the longer extra point; the league changed the rule last spring, so now the point-after requires a 33-yard kick rather than a 19-yarder. Gano missed three of 59 XPs in 2015 and McManus missed one of 36, and a hiccup early can change the math and the strategies later in the game. (See: The Broncos’ AFC title-game win over the Pats.) Gano and McManus have similar field goal percentages, but McManus has slightly longer range, although that could be neutralized by this one being played at sea level.”
How They Did It: The kickers weren’t much of a factor in this 14-point game, but McManus went 3-for-3 on his field goals and made his extra point, while Gano thunked a 44-yard field goal off the right upright early in the third quarter. The kick would’ve made it a three-point game, and the Broncos promptly marched the other way for a FG of their own, giving them a nine-point cushion that helped the defense stay in attack mode.
Our Prediction: “Peyton Manning threw 17 interceptions in nine games before injuries set in, by far the worst in the league to that point. But he hasn’t thrown any since his return in week 17. The Panthers’ defense had 39 takeaways, easily the most in the NFL. This doesn’t mean a single turnover will doom the Broncos; it only means that they’ll need at least one takeaway for every giveaway.”
How They Did It: Manning threw an ugly red zone interception and also fumbled, but the Broncos had their own red zone INT and forced three fumbles, the first of which they recovered in the Panthers’ end zone for the TD that set the bruising tone for the rest of the game.
The Running Game
Our Prediction: “The Broncos’ backs were a mixed bag all year, but three of their four losses featured some of their most abysmal rushing totals. They’ll need to establish at least some kind of running threat to give Manning some breathing room—no easy task, as Carolina’s rushing defense is every bit as good as the Broncos’. Surpassing the 100-yard mark for the game would be nice; surpassing 150 could change everything.”
How They Did It: The Broncos rushed for a mere 90 yards—all of it from C.J. Anderson—and only 3.2 yards per carry, but it was just enough to keep the heat off Manning.
Cam Newton’s Jersey
Our Prediction: “The multitalented QB runs a lot, so he’s going to get dirty. The key will be whether his mud and grass stains are on his front rather than his back. If it’s more of the latter, it means the Broncos’ pass rush and containment are doing their job.”
How They Did It: This was the key to the game. After MVP Von Miller mugged Newton at his own goal line about eight minutes in and Malik Jackson recovered the fumble in the end zone, the famously animated Newton spent the rest of the contest looking like a kid who’d lost his dog.
Where Newton Lines Up
Our Prediction: “When Newton takes the snap under center, his running attack ranks 30th in the league this year; when he’s in the shotgun, it’s third. (The split for the season between these formations was almost exactly 50–50, which begs the question of why they don’t just stay in the shotgun.) Having Newton several yards back from the center gives Carolina the read-option, uh, option, which is where they—particularly Newton—are most lethal. The key word for the Broncos’ edge rushers in this situation will be discipline; if Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, and others over-pursue Newton, it will free him up to wreak all kinds of havoc.”
How They Did It: The Broncos’ defensive discipline was a thing of beauty. The Panthers had a respectable 118 yards rushing for the game, but Newton showed little of the dynamism that won him the league MVP award. And when the Panthers tried to set up what could’ve been a game-changing trick play—throwing a backward pass to a receiver that was supposed to be a throw back across the field to Newton— Jackson blanketed the QB, resulting in a sack of the receiver.
Every Receiver Not Named Demaryius Thomas
Our Prediction: “The Panthers will assign Josh Norman, probably the best cornerback in football this year, to shadow Thomas for much of the game, so any production the Broncos get from him will be gravy. The rest of Carolina’s secondary is banged up and far less formidable, which could open the door for someone like Emmanuel Sanders, Owen Daniels, or TBD to steal the show. (The last three wideouts to win Super Bowl MVP honors weren’t superstars, and the game’s history is full of pass-catchers who went from no-names to legends because of a single pivotal play.)”
How They Did It: Thomas had one catch for eight yards, and Sanders led the team with six for 83, including several first downs on the initial second-half FG drive. Andre Caldwell and Owen Daniels each had just one catch, but each went for a first down during the team’s opening scoring drive.
Wade Phillips’ Creativity
Our Prediction: “The most important person in the stadium on Sunday might not set foot on the field. The 68-year-old Phillips dialed up a brilliant game plan against the Patriots that saw the Broncos beat the holy hell out of Tom Brady time and again. If Phillips’ scheme this time, against a completely different type of QB, can disrupt the Panthers’ momentum, the game could come down to this one final factor…”
How They Did It: Newton can relate to Brady more than ever this morning. The Broncos became the third team to hit an opposing QB more than 20 times in a Super Bowl. They started early with Miller’s first strip-sack, and by Miller’s second strip-sack with four minutes remaining, Newton was so rattled that he visibly shied away from recovering the ball he’d just dropped, creating a viral GIF that the cocky QB is going to spend a long time living down.
The Broncos’ defensive performance carried the team all year, enabling them to win a record 11 games (including playoffs) by a TD or less. During the postseason the unit was so dominant—it held three of the top four scoring offenses in the NFL to a total of 44 points while getting almost no help from its own offense—that it has a strong case for being the best defensive team of all time. (Note: I’m saying that as a Chicago native and 30-year worshipper of the ’85 Bears.) The man behind it all was Phillips, who couldn’t get a job in 2014.
Gary Kubiak’s Patience
Our Prediction: “This goes way beyond whether the Broncos’ head coach will stick with the running game if it struggles early. The bigger question is, what if Manning coughs up the ball a few times or simply doesn’t move the offense? Standing near Kubiak will be Brock Osweiler, no longer too inexperienced and the likely Bronco QB of the future—i.e., the guy they think can lead them back to the Super Bowl—once the team re-signs him this offseason.
Manning has more than earned this start because he’s as healthy as he can be at this point, and because his legendary track record deserves the nod. Seeing him go full Elway with a ring and a sayonara would be one of the great sports stories of this era, and if Osweiler were to step in and lead the Broncos to victory, Manning’s second Lombardi Trophy would come with an asterisk. But the guess here is that Denver fans will accept a W by whatever means necessary.”
How They Did It: Thanks to that D, this potential drama never unfolded. If Manning had coughed up those same numbers with the team down seven or 10 points, Kubiak may have had some tough choices to make. But Manning’s stat line—13-23, 141 YDS, 0 TD, 1 INT—was virtually identical to John Elway’s in Super Bowl XXXII (12-22, 123, 0, 1). Much like in Elway’s first title run, Manning’s second was made possible by a lot of help from his friends. For that, Denver diehards couldn’t be happier.
Follow 5280 editor-at-large Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad.