SANTA CLARA, Calif. – If this was, in fact, his last rodeo, then Peyton Manning got to ride off into the sunset a champion.
The Denver Broncos didn’t win Super Bowl 50 Sunday night because of their quarterback. They won because of their great defense, just as they did for most of the regular season.
And in stunning the heavily favored Carolina Panthers, 24-10, they gave the oldest quarterback to start a Super Bowl his second win in the big game to take into his likely retirement after 18 mostly glorious NFL seasons.
The play of the game came with 4:04 left in the fourth quarter when outside linebacker Von Miller, the Super Bowl MVP, knocked the ball out of the right hand of Panthers quarterback and NFL MVP and Offensive Player of the Year Cam Newton. Safety T.J. Ward recovered at the Carolina 4-yard.
Three plays later, running back C.J. Anderson plowed through the middle of the Panthers’ defense for a touchdown. Manning threw to wide receiver Bennie Fowler for the two-point conversion to give the Broncos their 14-point margin of victory.
“Peyton, I don’t know if this was your last rodeo, but it was one heck of a ride,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in making the presentation of the Lombardi Trophy to the Broncos. “And thank you for the ride.”
Immediately after the game, Manning wouldn’t say if he planned to retire.
“I got some good advice from Tony Dungy,” the 39-year-old Manning said, referring to his former coach who was with him when he won his first Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts. “He said, ‘Don’t make an emotional decision.’ I’m going to drink a lot of beer … Von Miller’s buying. I’m going to take some time to reflect on this honor.”
Manning looked the way he did for most of a season in which he missed seven games with a foot injury -- like a quarterback with little left in his throwing arm. He was hesitant to test the middle of the field, and with good reason. He completed only 13 of 23 passes for 141 yards, with one interception, finishing with a paltry passer rating of 56.6.
But even if he wouldn’t reveal whether he was hanging up his cleats, Manning acknowledged that he has been more reflective than usual.
“On the bus rides, you get asked a lot of questions, and you reflect about all of the coaches, family members and friends that have helped you get to a Super Bowl and get to this point,” he said. “So, I’m very grateful. I’ve taken the time to call those people and tell them how much I appreciate their support. Obviously, it’s very special to cap it off with a Super Bowl championship.”
Right from the start, the game played out the way one would expect with a pair of strong defenses colliding.
The Broncos, with the top-ranked defense in the NFL, did an excellent job of keeping Newton and the rest of Carolina’s offense mostly in check. Newton fumbled twice, with Miller forcing both, and threw an interception. Newton also was sacked five times by Denver, which led the NFL with 52 sacks in the regular season. He finished with only 18 completions in 41 attempts for 265 yards, and a passer rating of 55.4.
So much for the heavily favored Panthers doing the expected by rolling to an easy win in this game the way they did against the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship Game.
The underdogs came out throwing. Manning beat the blitz on the game’s first play from scrimmage to complete an 18-yard pass to tight end Owen Daniels.
The Broncos continued to be aggressive offensively, with Manning completing four of his first six passes for 46 yards. The biggest gain was a 22-yard completion to Andre Caldwell on third-and-4 to the Panthers’ 34. On second-and-13 from the 17, Manning was almost intercepted by cornerback Robert McClain. But the Broncos survived and settled for a 34-yard field goal by Brandon McManus to make it 3-0 with 10:43 remaining in the first quarter.
The Panthers went three-and-out on their first possession, as the Broncos’ defense set the tone of how it would perform through the balance of the game.
In the regular season, Carolina’s defense led the league by forcing 39 turnovers and had nine takeaways in its two previous postseason games. In the Super Bowl, however, it was the Broncos who were opportunistic and turned the Panthers’ second possession into a disaster. On third-and-10 from the Carolina 15, Miller flew in unblocked to sack Newton for an 11-yard loss and force a fumble that defensive end Malik Jackson recovered in the end zone for a touchdown to make it 10-0 with 6:27 left in the first quarter.
The Panthers’ offense looked somewhat jittery against the Broncos’ hard-hitting defense through much of the first quarter before settling down in the second quarter with a couple of long runs by Newton. And then they gashed the Broncos with a misdirection screen on which Newton rolled to his right and threw left for a 19-yard gain to wide-open tight end Greg Olsen. On the next play, Newton connected with Philly Brown for a 13-yard gain on a crossing pattern. Cornerback Aqib Talib then drew his second personal-foul penalty of the game by grabbing Brown’s facemask and violently pulling him down. That put the Panthers on the Denver 1, from where running back Jonathan Stewart, returning from a foot injury, dived into the end zone to cut the Broncos’ lead to 10-7 with 11:25 left in the second quarter.
A 61-yard Jordan Norwood punt return, the longest in Super Bowl history, gave the Broncos the ball deep in Carolina territory. That set up McManus’ second field goal of the game, from 33 yards, to give Denver a 13-7 advantage with 6:58 left in the half.
The Panthers committed another turnover when safety Darian Stewart delivered a crushing blow to fullback Mike Tolbert, who fumbled. Linebacker Danny Trevathan recovered at the Broncos’ 40. Anderson ripped off a 34-yard run to the Carolina 26. However, the Broncos gave it right back when Manning was intercepted by 275-pound defensive end Kony Ealy, who made a one-handed grab. Denver’s defense didn’t relent, though, and the Panthers failed to capitalize.
The Panthers showed some spark in the second half, with Newton connecting with a wide-open Ted Ginn, Jr., on a crossing pattern for a 45-yard completion to the Denver 35. Newton also hit Ginn for a 14-yard gain to the Denver 25. However, the Panthers’ offense stalled and the scoring opportunity was foiled when Graham Gano bounced a 44-yard field goal off the right upright.
Defense might have carried the Broncos to the third Super Bowl win in franchise history, but the night belonged to Manning.
“It’s just awesome, because he was on a team that could help him get a win,” Denver coach Gary Kubiak said. “He didn’t have to go out there and do it all on his own and he knew that. I told him that I watched (former Broncos quarterback and current Denver executive vice president of football operations and general manager) John Elway win a championship with 120-something yards passing, and he got one today with about 100 and something yards, too. I’m just so proud of him.”