SANTA CLARA, Calif. – In the closing minutes, Von Miller, who would soon become the Most Valuable Player of the Super Bowl, came charging toward the Most Valuable Player of the league, Cam Newton, and grabbed his arm with his left hand as Newton tried to pass. The ball flew loose, the Broncos recovered, the 2016 championship was all but decided, and the only notable dancing of the night was being done by Denver’s defense.
Von Doom. An orange army just won the 50th Super Bowl. It swallowed Newton, the superstar Carolina quarterback, along with his running backs, receivers, linemen and pretty much anything else in sight. For all we know it is chewing on the Levi’s Stadium grass this morning. It was that voracious.
And for Broncos fans, that satisfying.
Two years ago, Denver was in the Super Bowl and got throttled by Seattle, 43-8. The Seahawks’ defense swallowed a mighty Broncos offense that night, a lesson not wasted on their GM John Elway, who immediately began building a defensive wall of his own. On Sunday, Denver returned to the Super Bowl with an offense that was an old-if-respected car — and a defense that was a racing engine.
And in a championship game that is so often about quarterbacks, that constructed defense outshone both Newton and Peyton Manning — the new and old faces of the NFL — combined. Denver won the Super Bowl, 24-10, with seven times as many sacks (seven) as third-down conversions (one). And Miller, the second pick of the 2011 draft (right after Newton), was just a runaway train, who may make GMs think twice about how to select players.
Because the highlights of this game were all defensive. A strip sack that resulted in a fumble. A thundering hit that caused another fumble. A tipped pass for an interception. An endless series of wrapping up Newton, the most powerful quarterback in the league, and putting him on his back.
How good was the this Denver defense? There were numerous times where the Broncos offense, on third down, simply handed the ball off rather than try for big gains, trusting the defense would be a better bet.
And it was.
“We call ourselves the grinders,” Denver coach Gary Kubiak said on the victory stand. Newton knows that word too well this morning. Used to having lots of time to throw, run or both, he was under duress all night. There was no dapping – because there was precious little scoring. He didn’t throw a touchdown. He didn’t run one in. His final worst memory would be looking at a ball that had been stripped out of his hands and not even diving for it. He completed less than half of his passes.
The big names of this one were not the ones you see in commercials: Miller, T.J. Ward, DeMarcus Ware, Bradley Roby.
Peyton’s place on winning side
Now, no matter what happened in this game, Manning, 39, was going to be a story line. One of the greatest to ever take a snap, he had become a shadow of himself this season, a gimpy, balloon throwing ghost who tossed far more interceptions than touchdowns and had the ignominy of being benched mid-game for a guy named Brock Osweiler.
Yet somehow, with Manning doing just enough and the defense doing the rest, the Broncos made this Super Bowl by straight-arming New England to the finish of an AFC championship slugfest. And suddenly, good ’ol Peyton was back to where he wanted to be, one win away from a second Super Bowl ring and a chance to go out a winner. Two years ago he tried. Remember that? Before fans had found their seats a snap was flying over Manning’s head, and the Broncos were getting hammered into the ground by the Seahawks. Some thought that was his last best chance at another title — and instead ended an embarrassment.
But here he was Sunday afternoon in Santa Clara, under a beautiful sunny sky, having already been seen by a nationwide TV audience telling CBS’s Bill Cowher, “Two of the most important things for me would be that my teammates would say that I was a great teammate … and coaches that I played with and that I played against would say that they respected me.”
He was choking up when he said that, all but crying, and if there was any doubt that Sunday was his final game, that interview erased it.
But there’s story lines and there’s the game. And while a better story line would have been a 300-yard, four-touchdown day – that was never going to be Peyton Manning’s 2016 final scene. The truth was, the Broncos worried they might have to win this game – and what would be Manning’s 200th career win – despite the quarterback as much as because of him.
They were mostly right. Peyton would finish with an awful stat line – 141 yards, no TDs, a pick, a lost fumble …
Oh, yeah. And a ring.
“I’m gonna drink a lot of beer tonight,” he said, laughing on the victory stand.
Cam’s coronation must wait
Which kind of describes Newton’s night. Remember, he came into this game a king awaiting his crown. The night before he’d been named MVP of the NFL for the first time. His coach, Ron Rivera, was named Coach of the Year. It felt, to some, as if the only award the two of them hadn’t been given was the Super Bowl trophy, and that was just a matter of time.
But there’s story lines and there’s playing the game. As Newton, 26, prepared for his first snap Sunday, already trailing 3-0 after Denver’s first drive, he began, as he always does, with a quick prayer.
He soon realized he might have prayed a bit longer.
Newton was under pressure from the start but minus the escape lanes that he enjoyed against lesser defenses. He overthrew receivers. He couldn’t find a rhythm. After Carolina lost a challenge on what would have been a long pass completion, Newton dropped back near his end zone and was met by Miller, who stripped the football as if ripping books off a shelf. The ball bounced over the goal line, Malik Jackson fell on it, and it was quickly 10-0, Denver.
That would prove a pattern. Denver was all over the MVP all night, almost never letting him get to the outside and swallowing him if he held the ball very long. The first half ended, fittingly, with Newton being smothered by Ware. Newton got up and ran off the field alone, heading to the corner of the end zone. Only at the last second did someone scream at him that he was going the wrong way.
Things didn’t improve much in the third quarter. Harder hits and more pressure led to one drive ending in an interception and another in a sack. The third quarter ended with Carolina, the most powerful offense in the NFL, with just seven points.
In the end, defense matters most
But Super Bowls have taught us not to make any assumptions. Fourth quarters are unpredictable — anyone remember Seattle’s last play last year? Sure enough, the Broncos got the ball into Carolina territory, then saw Manning lead them backward, a sack and a fumble that Manning recovered, then a sack and a fumble that he did not. Carolina took that turnover and drove quickly for a field goal, making it a 16-10 game with plenty of time to go.
At this point, the Denver offense became a placekeeper for the defense, little more than a three-and-out exercise to chew as much time off the clock as possible. Kubiak seemed determined to let his defense decide the fate of the night, and when Carolina got the ball with 4:51 to go, that was exactly what would happen.
The Panthers, who are known for gulping huge chunks of yardage quickly, barely moved. They gained 1 yard on a first-down run, nothing on a second-down incompletion. And then came the Newton strip by Miller, who dominated Tom Brady in the AFC championship two weeks ago and left his mark all over this game as well. T.J. Ward fell on the loose ball, and the game, for all intents and purposes, was over.
“We have been working on this for two years,” Miller said after accepting his award. “This is what you work for. I am so proud of my buddies. … It’s a college atmosphere. We have a lot of love for each other.”
Von Doom. This was nice night for Wade Phillips, Denver’s defensive coordinator who was out of football two years ago (and the Lions couldn’t have signed him? Really?) and it was nice for Elway and, of course, it was nice for Manning, who, if not excellent Sunday, certainly was for the rest of his career. Was this his last game?
“I’ll take some time to reflect,” he told the cameras. “I have a couple of priorities first. I want to kiss my wife and kids. I want to go hug my family. … I’m going to take care of those things first and say a little prayer to thank the man upstairs.”
Don’t forget to mention the defense. Sunday was a reminder that a game that is so often about high flying offense is still won more with sacks, strips, hits, knockdowns, collisions, coverage and flat-out dominance.
If that sounds like an awful lot to overcome, it is.
Just ask Cam Newton.