For two weeks it didn’t feel like the Denver Broncos were given a chance to win Super Bowl 50.
They were overmatched in nearly every area, we were told. They couldn’t muster enough offense to keep pace with Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and the dynamic attack he leads, we were told. And they were definitely screwed if their rushing attack went silent, we were told.
All of that was true, both in hindsight and foresight. The Broncos were largely overmatched, with the exception of one critical area that became the defining difference in their Super Bowl 50 win, just as it was in the AFC Championship Game.
The Broncos’ pass rushers took the game in their collective grasp, and stomped on it repeatedly. They were relentless, making sure that time became a precious gift Newton wanted to have so badly, but he would be denied it again and again.
There are many ways to quantify just how much Von Miller, the game’s MVP who finished with 2.5 sacks and two forced fumbles, and his fellow defensive end DeMarcus Ware dismantled the Panthers’ passing game. Newton was sacked seven times after absorbing just two sacks throughout the playoffs prior to Sunday. And as a result of that pressure he averaged only 6.4 yards per pass attempt. In the divisional round and conference championship he averaged 9.9 yards.
But here’s the most stunning evidence of the destruction.
— Ben Volin (@BenVolin) February 8, 2016
As Ben Volin of the Boston Globe noted, Newton’s single-game high for hits taken this season prior to Super Bowl 50 was seven. The Broncos whacked him 13 times. They delivered that beating two weeks after hitting New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady 20 times.
The Broncos won in an unorthodox way for a team that calls Peyton Manning its quarterback. They won with defense that deprived the Panthers of any offensive oxygen whatsoever, while also ensuring Denver’s offense could cruise along on a smooth ride toward championship ring sizing. Which is about how we can sum up most of the Broncos’ 2015-16 season, but the display on the NFL’s brightest stage took the defensive slugging to another level.
The Broncos offense finished with 194 yards, which was the lowest winning-team total in Super Bowl history by a whopping 50 yards. Carolina held an advantage of over five minutes in time of possession, and Manning’s offense converted just one of its 14 third-down attempts. That’s a putrid seven percent conversion rate, and the same offense went 1-for-4 in the red zone. Elsewhere in compensating for a nearly absent offense: the Broncos were dramatically outgained on third down.
— John Dickinson (@JDJohnDickinson) February 8, 2016
Yet none of that mattered, because for the 10th time in 12 tries since the 1970 merger a top-ranked defense during the regular season won the Super Bowl, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
The Broncos swarmed Newton, creating turnovers at key moments to erase promising drives. The Panthers had two 50-plus yard drives to start the second half that resulted in zero points, once because they were forced into a long field-goal attempt and Graham Gano missed, and once because of safety T.J. Ward’s red-zone interception.
The Panthers crumbled, managing 10 points after averaging a league best 31.2 throughout the season. They faced the hammer of a team fueled by defensive aggression, and one that could win a game purely by brute force, even while Manning posted the second worst playoff passing game of his career (141 yards).
The Broncos knew all too well how it felt to have an offensive juggernaut snuffed out. Two years ago their own offense had shattered records before Super Bowl XLVIII, but then it vanished against the Seattle Seahawks while scoring eight points.
Now the Broncos have built a different kind of juggernaut, one that held Newton, Brady and Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to a combined one passing touchdown in the playoffs. That shouldn’t be possible, but it really did happen.
The NFL calendar moves at warp speed, and soon tough salary-cap decisions will lie ahead for the Broncos as they look to begin a dynasty. Will they give Miller the franchise tag? Can they afford to re-sign defensive tackle Malik Jackson? And what about linebackers Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall, who are also pending free agents?
Those questions loom in the not-so distant future. But right now the business of parade planning can begin for the third time in franchise history.