The championship win that could be Peyton Manning‘s last ride could end up as the best kind of exit.
The Denver Broncos defeated the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50 24-10, riding their veteran defense and explosive kick return unit.
Jordan Norwood made the play that could slide under the mainstream radar, but ultimately, the one that turned the tide.
Denver’s returner took an excellent punt back 61 yards, and nearly scored before being taken down at the Panthers’ 14 yard line.
The return is the longest in Super Bowl history, and culminated in a Denver field goal, giving the Broncos a 13-7 lead and control of their destiny.
Denver would start the second-half scoring with a field goal late in the third quarter, which the Panthers matched early in the fourth.
Quarterback play was largely even, with the legendary Peyton Manning going 13-of-23 for 141 yards while taking five sacks.
Emerging legend Cam Newton had his worst game of the season at the worst time. Blame jitters, butterflies, or Newton just being off his game, but he overthrew three receivers early in the game, and when he was accurate, his receivers didn’t always haul the ball in.
Newton finished with 265 yards on 18-for-41 passing attempts with a costly interception.
Both defenses played sound football, and were near equal on the score sheet. But Denver’s unit made plays when they mattered most, when Carolina was inching on, threatening to take back some rope.
Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak said the Panthers gave the sort of looks that Denver prepared for:
“The things we practiced, we were concerned with the zone read and those types of things. The play action, the way they gap protect, is something different than what we see on a normal basis. I thought we were very well prepared, but I think it got down to our effort and our ability to win up front and really have the athletic ability to catch a player like Cam Newton and get him on the ground.”
Safety T.J. Ward picked off a Newton deep pass deep in Broncos territory, though he fumbled it even closer to his end zone.
The Broncos would recover, preserving the turnover and control of the game.
Cornerback Bradley Roby said he considers two weeks to be enough time to prepare for anything. But Roby said when the Panthers were dabbing and taking team photos during the opening media session on Monday night, it was a huge sign of disrespect:
“I think that they didn’t respect it. When I saw them dabbing in the team picture, I was like ‘Okay, I see where their mindset is at. Let’s go show them.'”
Show them, the Broncos did. Their defense set multiple records Sunday afternoon, including driving their own offense to only 194 total yards — and the win. Linebacker Danny Trevathan set the record for two fumble recoveries in a Super Bowl.
While the game’s MVP, Von Miller, won’t get statistical credit for his impact on the game, he showed up everywhere. But he says he never thought he would be the leader of a defense that would lead a team to a Super Bowl win:
“I do a lot of self-visualization. I never really thought about that, winning the whole thing on defense. I just wanted to be the type of guy that influences the guys around me. Not just my defensive teammates, but special teams guys. Me and Brandon McManus have a really good relationship. It’s not just the defensive guys.”
The box score, for the most part, shows a close game. A game where teams went back and forth. But the reality of Super Bowl 50 is that it was the Broncos defense going back and forth.
Back and forth to hit Cam Newton. Back and forth from the field to the sidelines because they forced another three-and-out. Back and forth from having a hand in the turf to spiking the ball in the end zone.
The reality of Super Bowl 50 is not what the Panthers expected. A team as giddy as ever, with naive showings from the first day they arrived in Santa Clara. More concerned with taking pictures and showing off for a crowd.
Carolina went through the entire postseason without trailing, but they never took a lead in the Super Bowl.
Jason Leskiw is SFBay’s Oakland Raiders beat writer and member of the Professional Football Writers of America. Follow @SFBay and @LeskiwSFBay on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of the Oakland Raiders.