SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Musings, observations and the occasional insight from Super Bowl 50 at a ready-for-its-close-up Levi’s Stadium, which happens to be the 25th Super Bowl I’ve worked....
• In time, all that will matter will be the win. The ring. The ride off into the retirement sunset with an echo of John Elway’s final game. So what if the blaze of glory didn’t really come Peyton Manning’s way after this ragged, defensive-led affair? Not all storybook endings have to be perfect. Or even pretty for that matter. Just as long as they come true.
We’re too close right now to appreciate it, because as it turns out, we were all subjected to cold play for four quarters and the halftime show. But enough about both anemic offenses. How it all went down in Super Bowl 50—a gritty 24–10 Broncos win over a 17-win Panthers team that seemed charmed before Sunday—doesn’t mean the moment won’t end up belonging to Manning in history.
This is the game that closes the chapter on Manning and his legacy, and makes him one of the distinguished dozen, the 12 quarterbacks who have won multiple Super Bowl rings as a starter. He’s in the club now with his little brother Eli, his long-time rival Tom Brady, his current boss John Elway, and eight others. He’s the first starting quarterback to win a Super Bowl ring with two different teams, and his postseason record is now 14–13, making him a winner even in the part of the game that had long tormented him.
And who could ever even have dreamed that a mere five or six weeks ago, when Manning looked as if he might end his long, successful career standing in the shadows, watching someone else play quarterback for his Broncos while he healed up? That’s the storybook part of this tale, the improbable plot twist that seemed too far-fetched to imagine, not the particulars of how this Super Bowl was won.
This game for Manning was a lot like his whole season: a determined struggle, and a battle against time. Manning had a great start but then was largely just hanging on, trying to stave off defeat but losing steam by the minute. But he and his Broncos won this game the way Denver needed to win, putting its stellar defense first, winning the turnover battle 4–2 and containing the damage whenever the Panthers threatened to grab the momentum and run with it.
“This game was like this season has been,” said Manning, who claimed his NFL record 200th career victory, including the postseason, on Sunday night. “It tested our toughness, our resilience and our unselfishness. It’s only fitting it turned out that way.”
Indeed, nothing came easily for Manning or the Broncos this season. But here they are, on top of the NFL mountain, having beaten the team that seemingly staged a non-stop celebration this season. Cam Newton and the Panthers never had a chance to dance Sunday, and the post-touchdown football giveaway program that raged all season in Carolina games came to a virtual halt.
Six years ago Sunday, Manning experienced his first Super Bowl loss, when his favored Colts were upset 31–17 by the Saints in South Florida. The defeat stung Manning and turned on a fourth-quarter pick-six he threw, starting a new wave of criticism regarding his playoff performances. But this time, he was on the winning side. How he got there matters less than the impressive fact he did.
Manning’s night—13 of 23 for 141 yards passing, with two turnovers and a meager 56.6 passer rating—won’t be the stuff of final-game legend, no matter how much time passes. Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu, it wasn’t. But not everyone can be Ted Williams. Then again, nothing Manning did this season portended greatness in this game. Sometimes winning is as straightforward as avoiding defeat, and on that front he got the job done.
Super Bowl 50 was far from a classic befitting a golden anniversary, but it’ll send Manning out a winner, of that much I’m sure. He’s a survivor, but he knows he has milked as much out of his soon-to-be 40-year-old body as possible, and he has enough sense of his legacy to realize he’s been handed the perfect exit strategy. Manning has lost pretty plenty of times in his career, so why not try winning ugly? Especially in the only game they give you the big confetti shower at the end?
“I got some good advice from Tony Dungy, and that’s not to make an emotional decision,” Manning told CBS afterward, when asked about retirement. “I want to go kiss my wife, kiss my kids, and celebrate with my teammates. I’m going to drink a lot of beer tonight.”
He has that coming. Manning has no reason to apologize for how he won this one, and a whole career of accomplishments to celebrate. Just being here, and standing on the winner’s podium after the game as the oldest quarterback to ever start a Super Bowl, was maybe his most remarkable feat of all.
GALLERY: SI’s best Super Bowl 50 photos
• I know the Panthers were favored by six points, but in retrospect you can’t really consider this much of an upset, because Denver had the No. 1 defense in the league this season, and history teaches us that you can count on those in the Super Bowl (not that some of us ever seem to learn the lesson). Teams with the top-ranked defense are now 10–2 in Super Bowls, and it speaks to our fantasy football mindset that we don’t seem to consider games that are decided by a dominant defense as being “good.”
This Super Bowl will get remembered as boring by many, but NFL playoff games once upon a time often featured this kind of defensive football, and fans understood that the other side of the ball could be beautiful in its own way. Not so much anymore. Offense rules in the NFL, and when it’s lacking, it’s perceived as a deficiency, rather than an example of defensive excellence. Broncos linebacker Von Miller, voted the game’s MVP, put on one of the best showings in Super Bowl history with his 2.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. He was everywhere and dictated the action for significant stretches of the game, and the Broncos’ win was a showcase of his superb skills.
On this night, Denver’s defense was the story of the game and the star of the show. And just because offense gets most of the hype, there was nothing cheap about the way the Broncos won their third Super Bowl in franchise history.
“What our guys did, the way they played, they will be in the conversation [as one of the best all-time defenses],” said Broncos general manager John Elway, who made Miller the first player he drafted when he took over the job in 2011. “[Miller] has just gotten better and better. He has been unbelievable in these playoffs. He has got something with [Panthers quarterback] Cam [Newton]. He likes to get after Cam. He did today.”
• Manning’s 2–2 career Super Bowl record lacks the excellence of a Joe Montana (4–0), Terry Bradshaw (4–0) or Tom Brady (4–2), but the most amazing stat is still his trick of somehow getting to the Super Bowl four times with four different coaches: Tony Dungy and Jim Caldwell in Indianapolis, and John Fox and Gary Kubiak in Denver. He went 1–1 with both organizations, but if any statistic speaks to his ultimate value, it’s his ability help four different head coaches to the Super Bowl.
• Cam Newton won the league’s MVP on Saturday night, but he lost quite a bit of luster Sunday night, especially when he appeared to do anything but sell out for his fourth-quarter fumble with the Panthers deep in their own territory and still trailing by just six points.
Newton is going to wear that one for a while. It wasn’t a good look at all, and he appeared uninterested in diving into danger to recover the ball. That’s not something people are going to let him easily live down, and it may even have raised some eyebrows in his own locker room.
“He didn’t want it,” Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib said cuttingly. “That’s the way he is, playing for himself,” Denver linebacker Danny Trevathan said, adding a dagger.
One play does not a reputation make or break, but it was a curious moment for Newton to decide in favor of caution. And his short and sweet session with the media in the postgame wasn’t his finest hour either. Newton came across as not being able to deal with defeat anywhere near the way he does victory, and that’s a sign that his maturing process is not yet complete.
“They just played better than us,” Newton said. “I don’t know what you want me to say. They made more plays than us, and that’s what it comes down to. We had our opportunities. There was nothing special that they did. We dropped balls. We turned the ball over, gave up sacks, threw errant passes. That’s it. They scored more points than we did.”
Newton came up huge all season and was a near-unanimous league MVP. But on Sunday’s big stage, he was at his smallest and never remotely looked comfortable against Denver’s fierce pass rush and defensive looks. It was the not the stuff of Superman, that’s for certain.
• Nobody in either organization waited any longer to celebrate the game’s ultimate victory than Denver defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, the team’s 68-year-old resident sage, and you have to be happy to see such a long and successful career finally reach this pinnacle.
“I said from unemployed [last season] to the Super Bowl [was gratifying], but now from unemployed to winning the Super Bowl is even better,” Phillips said. “It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and my lifetime is getting shorter, so I’m glad we won this one as a coach.”
I’m never really into the “greatest of all time” debate, but it’s hard to not at least include this Broncos defense in the conversation, after they led the NFL in almost every meaningful statistic in the regular season and then dominated the best the league had to offer in the playoffs.
“Any team that holds Pittsburgh to 16 [points], New England to 18 and Carolina to 10, all big-time offenses—I think we’ve got to be up there somewhere,” Phillips said.
• Has there been a more unsung Super Bowl-winning head coach in quite some time than Denver’s Gary Kubiak, who just 26 months ago was run out of Houston after his Texans started a pathetic 2–11 in 2013? Kubiak rehabbed his reputation with a strong season as Baltimore’s offensive coordinator in 2014, and then delicately guided the Broncos through a two-quarterback season that was really unlike any other year in franchise history.
Kubiak is never going to sound his own horn, but he deserves a lot of credit for keeping the Broncos from imploding late in the season, when it looked like their offensive issues simply weren’t going to be fixable. Dealing with Manning’s tricky situation alone qualified as a challenge this year, but Kubiak managed to somehow get the best of both Manning and Brock Osweiler at quarterback, then win a Super Bowl with a team that produced all of 194 yards of offense—the lowest in Super Bowl history for a winning team—and amassed all of 11 first downs.
“I came to a really good football team; I know that,” Kubiak said. “We asked them to make some concessions along the way. We were going to be a little different type of team. We were going to be built a little different. We knew defensively, that was the strength of our team. We had to teach our guys that we were going to win a little bit of a different way.”
They won in a different way this season in Denver. And it wouldn’t have worked without Kubiak’s deft touch. He wasn’t the star of this team, or even its face. Kubiak's GM and his quarterback are both legends, and their shadows are cast in all directions. But he is the first coach to win a Super Bowl for the same team he went to the Super Bowl with as a player, and he’s only the fourth coach to win a ring in his first season on the job—and the first since Jon Gruden did 13 years ago with Tampa Bay.
• The coolest moment of the entire night was easily Elway’s fitting tribute to absent Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, who is fighting Alzheimer’s disease and no longer has an operational role with the team. Elway on the postgame podium took the microphone and yelled “This one’s for Pat!,” in an echo of the words that Bowlen spoke in January 1998, after his Broncos had upset the favored Packers in San Diego: “This one’s for John!”
That was a favor returned and 18 years in the making.
• The Panthers’ magic carpet ride of a season crash-landed in ugly fashion in Santa Clara. They looked like a team that got too amped up for this Super Bowl opportunity and could not stop beating itself. The multiple dropped passes by Jerricho Cotchery were puzzling, Ted Ginn Jr.’s repeated attempts to get out of bounds instead of more yardage were troubling, and Carolina added four turnovers, a missed 44-yard field goal, and a Super Bowl-record 61-yard punt return surrendered when two Panthers defenders appeared to erroneously think Denver’s Jordan Norwood had called for a fair catch.
Carolina never led in the game, and after a season in which they were almost constantly ahead, the Panthers didn’t seem to know how to deal with the adversity of a deficit. When you throw in how badly the Carolina offensive line played in front of Newton, it was a recipe for disaster, and that’s roughly how it’ll be remembered by the team and its fans. At 17–1, the Panthers entered the game almost perfect this season. But against Denver, Carolina couldn’t even manage mediocre.