By Mark Schiff
To win his second championship, all Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning needed was a little help from his friends.
In what may be the final game of his legendary career, Manning won Super Bowl 50 thanks to the play of his teammates on defense. Denver held the highest scoring team in the NFL to just two scores and defeated the Carolina Panthers 24-10 to capture the team’s third world title on a spectacular afternoon at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. For the second game in a row, outside linebacker Von Miller was a one-man wrecking crew as he forced two fumbles by Panthers quarterback (and league MVP) Cam Newton en route to winning Super Bowl MVP honors.
As Denver’s defense takes its place among the greatest units of all-time, here are your Super Bowl Team Grades.
One look at the numbers on offense and it’s hard to believe that Denver won the Super Bowl. The offense tallied just 194 total yards and went an atrocious 1-14 on third down. And unlike his boss John Elway, who collected the MVP award in his final game, Manning hardly looked like the team’s best player; he threw for a just 141 yards, had a pick and a fumble, and finished the game with a passer rating of 56.6.
But as they have all season, the team did just enough to win, including making the big plays when they counted. Running back C.J. Anderson—who finished with 90 yards and had a late touchdown that sealed the win—was the best player on offense, as his gritty effort epitomized the unit as a whole. And although they struggled in the red zone, the fact that the Broncos were able to score a field goal on their first possession helped calm the team down and build confidence after their horrendous start to the Super Bowl two years ago. Save for Anderson and receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who lead the team with six catches for 83 yards, there was nothing pretty about the offense, but the Broncos made plays when it counted at the beginning and the end of the game, and with a defense this special, that was more than enough.
They may not have had the flash of the ‘85 Bears or the swagger of the ‘13 Seahawks, but this defensive unit can be included among the NFL’s all-time elite. Facing the best player in the NFL, Denver’s defense sacked Cam Newton seven times, forced him into three of his team’s four turnovers and held Newton to only 18 completions on 41 attempts for a passer rating of 55.4. Although Denver never trailed, their lead always felt tenuous and the defense consistently made crucial plays in the face of tremendous pressure.
While DeMarcus Ware, the team’s defensive leader, had an excellent game in recording two sacks against a very strong Panthers offensive line, Von Miller had one of the greatest defensive games in Super Bowl history. His stat line was staggering: A team-leading 5 solo tackles; 2.5 sacks; two quarterback hits; one pass deflection; and two forced fumbles. It was an utterly dominant performance that should make Miller a very wealthy man when he hits free agency (provided the Broncos don’t use the franchise tag on him).
Denver may have given up some big plays and big penalties, but their depth was on display all night, from unheralded players like Bradley Roby and Malik Jackson to big name stars like T.J. Ward and Miller. There’s no two ways about it: Denver’s defense got them to the Super Bowl and won it for them.
Special Teams: A
Denver’s special teams also played a huge part in the team’s win. With little experience at the position, Jordan Norwood returned a second quarter punt a Super Bowl record 61-yards to set the Broncos up with great field position, which they turned into three points. With Denver unable to convert on third down, punter Britton Colquitt had one of his best games of the season, averaging 45.9 yards on eight punts. And while Panthers kicker Graham Gano doinked a 44-yarder off the right upright on Carolina’s opening possession of the second half, Broncos kicker Brandon McManus had no such problems coming through in the clutch, nailing all three of his field goals in the biggest game of his career. In what was truly a total team win, special teams played their role to a T.
Denver’s offense was choppy all season and in the Super Bowl, the unimaginative run plays up the middle were predictable and easy to snuff out. Yet the bland play-calling served a purpose, as Denver tried to milk the clock and play a field position game, which catered to the team’s strengths on defense.
And one of the defense’s greatest attributes was the man in charge of running it: Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Phillips had a rather ignominious head coaching stint with the Broncos back in the ‘90s, but his return to the team was instrumental in their Super Bowl victory, as his scheme consistently befuddled elite quarterbacks like Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady and Cam Newton, while taking advantage of his own player’s strengths.
From the coaching staff to the front office, from the special teams to backup players like Brock Osweiler, it took the efforts of everyone in the organization to complete this improbable Super Bowl season. Peyton Manning may have broad shoulders, but he can go out a champion because he didn’t have to carry all the weight.
Mark Schiff is a freelance writer and music journalist for AXS.com. In 2013, his coverage of the Seattle Seahawks ended in heartbreak when they defeated the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. Now covering his beloved hometown team, his knowledge and passion for pro football has resulted in multiple fantasy football championships. Find him on Twitter at @mihilites.