SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The aging all-time great quarterback, benched just weeks before, helped his team win an improbable championship. The defensive coordinator with the Texas drawl won the title his father never could. The franchise's biggest legend returned as an executive to win one more title for the ailing team owner.
The Broncos authored one of the greatest defensive performances in Super Bowl history against the NFL's top-scoring offense, helping Peyton Manning potentially go out a winner. Manning is a great story, but make no mistake: He was a supporting actor in this triumph. It was only fitting that the game's decisive moment was made by Broncos linebacker Von Miller, the Super Bowl MVP.
With under five minutes left in a one score game, Miller fought off Panthers tackle Mike Remmers' initial block, dipped his shoulder, kept his balance and reached with his long left arm at Cam Newton. Miller finished the play, like he did all afternoon. The ensuing fumble was Carolina's fourth of the day and fourth turnover overall. Like the high-powered Steelers and Patriots offenses before them, the Panthers' offense had no answers for this incredible Broncos group. The defense will be remembered as the key, yet Manning's journey still resonates.
Manning said after the game that he will "take time to reflect" before announcing any potential retirement, but every sign points to this being Manning's final game. After coming up short so often in the playoffs with high-powered offenses, it will be hard for Manning to resist riding off into the sunset on the back of this Broncos defense.
"I'll take some time to reflect. I got a couple priorities first," Manning told CBS' Tracy Wolfson after the game. "I'm going to go kiss my wife and kids. I want to hug my family. I'm going to drink a lot of Budweiser tonight, Tracy, I promise you that. I'm going to take care of those things first. Definitely got to say a little prayer to thank the man upstairs for this great opportunity. I'm just very grateful."
Manning knows that defenses like this don't come around often. The Broncos hit Cam Newton 13 times and sacked him seven more. The Panthers' high-powered offense kept getting chances in the second half, but Denver's defense kept stuffing them. Denver's special teams and defense essentially out-scored the Panthers on their own, setting up the Broncos for 17 points.
Manning only threw for 141 yards on 23 attempts, and he had two costly turnovers that kept the Panthers in the game. But the Broncos' defense was the best group on the field for three straight playoff games and the Panthers' offense didn't handle the big stage well. Penalties, drops, poor pass protection and fumbles helped ruin Cam Newton's coronation. Instead of a new generation rising, this was perhaps the last gasp of some familiar names.
Manning wasn't the only longtime veteran adding a championship Sunday night. DeMarcus Ware may have put a closing statement on his Hall of Fame candidacy with four QB hits, two sacks and two tackles for loss. Cornerback Aqib Talib bounced back from a terrible first half to help the secondary make big plays after halftime. Defensive tackle Malik Jackson and linebacker Danny Trevathan had monster games on the way to free agency payday. This was an incredibly complete defense, and their success on Sunday night was a validation for Broncos executive VP and general manager John Elway.
Just two years ago, the Broncos were on the wrong side of a 43-8 Super Bowl loss to the Seahawks. Elway was determined to make his team tougher, and he spent like crazy in free agency to build one of the game's best defenses. After another painful playoff loss last season, Elway made the difficult choice to fire popular coach John Fox. Elway brought back old friends Gary Kubiak and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to coach the team. And Phillips capped off his remarkable career running defenses with his first Super Bowl title.
"This one's for Pat!" Elway said, 18 years after Bowlen dedicated the team's first Super Bowl title to John.