They say that defense wins championships.
That's something Broncos GM John Elway learned when one of the greatest offenses ever assembled -- a group Elway hand-picked and built himself -- was dismantled by the dominating defense of the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII. He took that loss to heart.
In just two short years, Elway completely redesigned the Broncos, altering their core identity from one centered on a high-octane passing offense to another whose foundation is a swarming, tough, deep, and talented defense. They say styles make fights. It's that defense that we saw dominate Cam Newton and the Panthers in Super Bowl 50 to bring the Broncos franchise its third championship. It's that defense that put on one of the most incredible performances in NFL playoffs history.
The stage had been set for Super Bowl 50 to be an epic showdown. The NFL's best offense in Carolina against the league's best defense. Most pundits and analysts (including me) sided with what looked to be an unstoppable Panthers offensive juggernaut led by Cam Newton.
Their punishing ground game would neutralize Denver's elite pass rush, we thought. Their passing game, with the versatile Greg Olsen leading the way, could find holes in Denver's secondary, we thought. Newton's dual-threat run-pass ability and red zone prowess would help Carolina put enough points on the board, we thought. It would be close, we thought, but the Panthers were just too good to be stopped. Wrong.
In the end, Super Bowl 50 played out just like Super Bowl 48 did, with defense winning the day, but this time the Broncos were the owners of that elite group.
The Broncos' plan comes together
While Carolina's offense is unique and had steamrolled just about everyone they faced all year long -- including two really good defenses in Seattle and Arizona in their run to the Super Bowl -- Denver was completely unfazed by the hype. They just played their style of ball and did what they'd done to just about everyone all year. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips put together a brilliant game plan and utilized his players perfectly.
First, Denver took away the Carolina run game. Phillips stacked the box with seven defenders frequently, relying on the skill of his secondary in man-to-man outside. It worked. Jonathan Stewart finished with just 29 yards rushing on 12 attempts, while Mike Tolbert gained just 18 yards on five attempts and fumbled twice. Newton found some room to run, picking up 45 yards on six carries, but for the most part the Panthers were forced to rely more heavily on their passing game.
This played right into the Broncos' strengths -- their pass rush and excellent pass coverage in the secondary is what makes them most dangerous.
All told, Cam Newton threw the ball 41 times, completing just 18 passes (44 percent) for 265 yards and an interception, and he also two lost fumbles in trying to avoid the unrelenting Denver pass rush. The Broncos hit Newton 13 times -- he hadn't been hit more than six times in any game all year -- and racked up a Super Bowl-record seven sacks. When they weren't hitting or sacking Newton, the Broncos were making him uncomfortable in the pocket, and pressured him on 42.9 percent of his dropbacks -- the highest percentage in a game of his career, according to ESPN Stats and Info.
This still looks like a video game glitch to me - Oher looks like he's on ice pic.twitter.com/M8qxc3XlwY— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) February 8, 2016
The game's MVP, Von Miller, was unstoppable off the edge, finishing with 2.5 sacks, two quarterback hits, two forced fumbles, and a pass defensed. His first forced fumble was recovered by Malik Jackson in the end zone, and the second led to another Denver touchdown four plays later. DeMarcus Ware had two sacks of his own, two tackles for a loss, and four quarterback hits. Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson provided push up the middle.
Knowing Carolina likes to sit back with six or seven men in protection (including a tight end and the fullback), Wade Phillips dialed up a lot of blitzes in man-coverage schemes, which confounded the Panthers protection schemes and gave Newton very little time to let plays develop downfield.
The pressure is what created key turnovers for Denver, and those turnovers were ultimately the difference in the game. Carolina gave the ball away four times -- three lost fumbles and a Cam Newton pick -- while the Broncos, who got little from their offense all day, at least took care of the football.
"We tried a lot of different things," said Panthers coach Ron Rivera after the game. "We knew those guys coming in were the best we've seen, and they proved it. They're fast to the ball, they can rush the passer, they do a good job against the run game. A lot of contested catches. They were contesting our receivers. You throw in the fact that we were just off on some things, had a couple turnovers early, just a little bit off on some other things. It can add up, and unfortunately it looked like that."
Denver executed in the secondary, racking up 10 passes defensed on the day -- including three from corner Bradley Roby, two from Aqib Talib, and two from safety Darian Stewart. Meanwhile, safety T.J. Ward picked off Cam Newton midway through the third quarter.
They took Carolina's leading pass catcher, tight end Greg Olsen, out of the game for the most part. The most-targeted player in the Panthers' offense this year, Olsen caught just four passes for 41 yards. Whether it was man-coverage with Aqib Talib or bracketed coverage with a combination of linebackers and safeties, the Broncos made Olsen a non-factor for most of the game.
Carolina's receivers weren't much more effective. Corey Brown led the way, catching four passes for 80 yards on seven targets. Ted Ginn caught just four of his 10 targets for 74 yards. Denver's corners weren't perfect -- Talib got burned on a couple of plays -- but in the end they put together a hell of a performance.
All in all, Denver held Carolina to a season-low (10) in the most important stat category of them all: points.
The bigger picture
Denver's run to the Super Bowl 50 Championship earns them a spot among the list of all-time great defenses, that's abundantly clear. In their three postseason wins -- first over the Steelers, then the Patriots, and then the Panthers -- they gave up just one passing touchdown. Put another way, Denver's incredibly dominant defense gave up one touchdown pass to Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady, and league MVP Cam Newton, a trio that combined to throw 92 touchdowns in the 2015 season.
In those three games, the Broncos gave up 16, 18, and 10 points respectively (14.7 points per game) to teams that ranked fourth (Steelers), third (Patriots), and first (Panthers) in scoring this year. They did so without the benefit of a top-tier (or even middle-tier) offense to help much with time of possession or field position. This is a pass rush that hit Tom Brady an incredible 20 times in the AFC Championship (more than any quarterback had been hit in any game in the past decade), then followed that up by hitting Cam Newton 13 times (more than he'd been hit all year). This has been no fluke.
Does this mean that the 2015 Broncos defense is better than the 2013 Seahawks group, the 2002 Buccaneers gang, or the 2000 Ravens squad? Do they compare to the '85 Bears? The '76 Steelers? The '69 Vikings? That's a question that will surely be asked a lot in the coming years. The stats above present some legit arguments in their favor.
Wade Phillips wasn't shy about his thoughts on the matter.
"Any team that holds Pittsburgh to 16, New England to 18, and Carolina to 10, all big-time offenses -- I think we have to be up there somewhere," Phillips said. "Tremendous performance throughout the playoffs. We almost led the league in every category, so we've got to say this is a special, all-time defense."
I can't disagree with that. But wherever you put this Broncos defense on that list of all-time greats, there's no arguing that it carried Denver to a Super Bowl win.