SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Early last week, Wade Phillips was asked if the win over the Patriots in the AFC title game had been the best defensive coaching effort of his 40-year NFL career. Phillips scoffed at the notion.
Maybe Phillips knew that the best was yet to come. On Sunday at Levi’s Stadium, the former Bills head coach orchestrated one of the greatest defensive performances in NFL history, a stunning and thoroughly dominant 24-10 victory over the favored Carolina Panthers.
As Super Bowls go, this won’t go down as an aesthetic triumph. But to Phillips and the Broncos, it was a masterpiece, a reminder that even in this pass-happy football era, a great defense will still prevail over offense in the biggest game of all.
It was an unsightly affair, to be sure, a carnival of punts, fumbles and sorry quarterback play. But you won’t hear the Broncos apologizing. This was their winning blueprint for a season in which Peyton Manning was limping toward retirement and needed a strong defense to carry him.
Manning was predictably ordinary. If this was his last rodeo, he spent a lot of it falling off his horse. He went 13 of 23 for 141 yards and was sacked five times. For much of the game, he was unwilling to throw the ball in the middle of the field, especially in the red zone.
The surprise was that Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, the league MVP, was equally bad. Newton was 18 of 41 for 265 yards and was sacked six times. He lost two fumbles and threw an interception. He finished with a rating of 55.4, slightly worse than Manning’s 56.6.
Von Miller, whose strip sack of Newton was recovered by Malik Jackson for a TD late in the first quarter, was a deserving Super Bowl MVP. But you could just as well have given the award to Phillips, whose hiring as defensive coordinator has been called the biggest move the Broncos made in the past offseason.
“Coach Phillips did an amazing job,” Miller said. “I appreciate everything he’s done for this whole team, not just the defense. It just shows what type of team we have. It’s not about offense, defense or special teams. We came together as a whole.”
But it was defense that got the Broncos to this point, and defense that put them over the top. They led the NFL in total defense and passing defense. In the end, they were a perfect match for Wade’s experience and guile.
“He came in and figured out how to utilize the guys, utilize their talents,” said linebacker DeMarcus Ware, who had two sacks and four quarterback hurries. “He changed everything up to where we could be more aggressive and get to the passer, but also create a lot of havoc.”
Phillips had waited 26 years to get back to this moment. He was defensive coordinator for the Broncos in a 55-10 humiliation at the hands of the Niners in 1990. This time, it was the opposition who got humiliated – particularly Newton, who was victimized by Denver’s defensive havoc.
The Broncos made Newton seem ordinary. He looked confused and skittish from the outset, slow to react to Phillips’ blitzes and even uncertain on his handoffs when he attempted – without much success – to run his signature read option.
“We played our game,” Phillips said. “We have a great rush. We have great coverage. They have a tough team; we knew that coming in. We had to keep the scoring down, especially in the first half; they’ve been running away with games. Our defense played tremendous today.”
Granted, Phillips had some wondrous talent at his disposal. Miller is perhaps the best outside linebacker in the league. Ware played like the Hall of Famer he’s destined to be.
The Denver defensive backs made life miserable for the Panthers receivers, an ordinary group who looked it on the biggest stage. They played tight end Greg Olsen, Newton’s favorite target, man-to-man for much of the game and held Olsen to four catches for 41 yards.
For the second straight game, the Broncos’ defense drove one of the league’s elite quarterbacks to distraction. Like Tom Brady two weeks earlier, Newton seemed confused and confounded by Denver’s dizzying array of blitzes.
Phillips sent pass rushers at Newton from every angle. Early in the game, they put a spy on Newton, in case he took off and ran when his receivers were covered. Miller served the role a couple of times. Newton broke a few runs early, but he seemed to grow weary and discouraged later. The game’s best running QB had minus-1 yard rushing after halftime.
At times, I felt bad for Newton. He’s become a popular and charismatic figure this year, the face of the NFL’s future. But he had egg on his face at the end of his first Super Bowl. It was hard to believe this was the same team that led the NFL with 500 points during the regular season.
“Coach Wade did a great job of putting us in position to win,” said Jackson, the Broncos defensive end. “It was an all-around great effort. We had no doubt. We had to stop that No. 1 offense from doing anything.”
They nearly succeeded. In Newton’s defense, his supporting cast got exposed by a great defense. His offensive line, which had protected him well for most of the season, was overrun by the Broncos front seven, who swarmed to the ball and quickly closed whatever running lanes developed.
Newton was clearly flustered and frustrated at times. The Broncos kept him in the pocket for the most part. He made a number of bad throws on the run. His receivers dropped balls. Denver’s tackling – which seems like a forgotten skill at times in today’s NFL – was excellent.
Late in the game, Newton fumbled the ball away on a sack, then backed away from the pile when he had a chance to recover the ball. It was a regrettable moment for the league MVP, who had become a polarizing figure this season for his choreographed celebrations.
But there was little for Newton to celebrate. The skeptics had doubted the Panthers for much of the season. But after their rousing run to the NFC title, people had begun to believe they were an unstoppable offensive force.
I imagine Wade Phillips scoffed at that one, too.