Cliche coming in 3… 2… 1…
Defense really does win championships. The Denver Broncos defeated the Carolina Panthers this Sunday in crushing fashion, holding the league’s top scorers to only 10 points.
It was a relatively boring game to watch, that is except for those clad in orange that night. Denver never trailed and held the lead for over 55 minutes in a game keyed by punishing defense and key turnovers. Though Carolina was never too far behind, Denver had the game in hand well before the final whistle.
After Denver notched a field goal on their first drive, Von Miller set the tone for the game by strip-sacking Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. Broncos defensive end Malik Jackson then scooped the ball and tumbled into the endzone for the first touchdown of the game. Denver rolled to a 10-0 lead before the second quarter, and here is the kicker: it almost didn’t happen.
Just a couple plays before Newton was strip sacked inside his own 10-yard line, wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery seemed to have caught a 20+ yard pass to put Carolina near mid-field. The catch, however, was ruled incomplete after Cotchery bobbled it on the way to the ground. Panthers Coach Ron Rivera challenged the play, and early predictions suggested that the call would be overturned. However, the refs did not see conclusive evidence to suggest the ball did not hit the ground (one may start to wonder what exactly constitutes “conclusive”). The call robbed Carolina of a momentum swing and two plays later, Jackson was celebrating in the endzone.
This was not the last time the Panthers came up short on a potentially game-shifting drive. With about six and a half minutes left to play in the first half, the Panthers were starting to find their groove. Now down 13-7, the Panthers were just short of midfield when running back Mike Tolbert took a handoff from the shotgun. Tolbert ran past the Denver 40 and seemed to be on his way to field goal range before losing control of the football and handing possession right back to the Broncos.
From that point on the Panthers never quite looked like themselves. Offensively the team was sloppy and uncharacteristically boring. They committed turnovers and couldn’t do more than move the ball up and down the field with no points to show for it. In a word, the Panthers offense looked anemic.
The Broncos, on the other hand, were ravenous. The league’s top defense showed up to play, logging a Super Bowl record-tying seven sacks, along with four forced fumbles and an interception. Denver pushed the Panther’s front line around all day long with little to no resistance, culminating in Von Miller’s strip sack of Cam Newton with 4:16 left in regulation. The fumble recovery led to the game-clinching touchdown, officially ending Carolina’s hopes of a comeback.
As strange as it may sound, Peyton Manning had little to nothing to do with Denver’s 24-10 victory. What may well be the game which solidified Manning’s legacy consisted of mostly conservative, short throws and draws that kept the ball safe. Essentially, Manning’s job was not to blow it. To his credit, he accomplished just that, notching a meager 141 yards on 13 completions out of 23 attempts. He did, however, throw an interception inside the red-zone and fumble twice (losing one). Regardless, Manning did just enough to outscore the lifeless Panthers.
Von Miller was rightfully named the Super Bowl MVP after recording 2.5 sacks and two force-fumbles. The game that seemed destined to be Cam Newton’s coronation as the league’s top offensive threat instead served to launch the Broncos defense into the conversation for best defense of all time. After all, embarrassing the league’s top scoring offense on the league’s biggest stage will do that, just ask the 2013 Seahawks.
As the confetti settles, we are left with the lingering question of Manning’s career. Should he so choose, Manning can now walk into the sunset as a champion à la Jerome Bettis, Michael Strahan, and Ray Lewis. While many reports state that Manning is likely to do just that, the nagging feeling that Manning isn’t done just yet remains. After all, the aging future Hall-of-Famer winning back-to-back Super Bowls on the back of a strong run game and defense is not a new storyline in Denver. Having General Manager John Elway there as living proof that one can finish strong might be enough to tempt Manning to stay for one more year.
One thing is for sure: with a destructive defense capable of embarrassing the league’s best in the biggest game of the year, the Broncos will be favored to repeat next year whether they have a future Hall-of-Famer or a first time starter under center.