Super Bowl L (Denver Broncos vs. Carolina Panthers): An Ultimate Recount of the Game

Today we have Super Bowl 50, held on February 7, 2016, between the second-time NFC champion Carolina Panthers and the eight-time AFC champion Denver Broncos.
As always, we have a pop quiz, and then homework at the end of the episode.

The pop quiz question for today is: how many franchises have had a fumble return for a touchdown in the Super Bowl? Here’s a hint: one came in this game, and one came in the most recent Super Bowl. The answer will come near the end of the podcast.

Prelude to Super Bowl L

The Denver Broncos started their 2015 season off 7-0, and it looked like everything was perfect. But quarterback Peyton Manning’s skills were declining, and at no time was that more evident than in a 29-13 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, in which Manning’s interceptions triggered an exodus of Denver fans and caused head coach Gary Kubiak to replace him with Brock Osweiler.

Osweiler went 5-2 the rest of the way, but after being injured in the final game, Manning came back to replace him and to play in the playoffs for Denver. The Broncos then survived two close games in the playoffs, beating Pittsburgh 23-16 and New England 20-18 to advance to their eighth Super Bowl.

Manning’s stats were horrendous. He threw just nine touchdowns while being picked off 17 times. He had managed to break the all-time records for most touchdown passes and most yards, records that have since been surpassed by Drew Brees and eventually Tom Brady.

He was a liability on this team, though, a quarterback who had nothing left in the tank. Osweiler had helped save the season, throwing ten touchdown passes despite playing fewer games. Receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders both went over 1,100 yards and scored six times. Running backs Ronnie Hillman and C.J Anderson each ran for over 700 yards.

Of course, the strength of this Denver team was their defense, which carried them through the playoffs. Linebacker Von Miller had 11 sacks, and defensive end DeMarcus Ware had another seven-and-a-half. Three other players had at least five sacks: linebacker Shaquil Barrett, defensive end Derek Wolfe, and defensive tackle Malik Jackson. It was also very hard to throw against this defense, nicknamed the “No-Fly Zone.”

As for the Carolina Panthers, this was “their year.” They started the season 14-0, quarterback Cam Newton was league MVP, and they rolled through the playoffs. They went up 31-0 on Seattle, before holding on to win by seven, then crushed Arizona 49-15 to advance to the second Super Bowl in franchise history.

As opposed to his Super Bowl counterpart, Newton had a brilliant year. He threw for over 3,800 yards and 35 touchdowns with just ten interceptions while rushing for over 600 yards and ten touchdowns. He was a shoo-in for league MVP with the Panthers finishing 15-1. His top receiver was tight end Greg Olsen, who caught 77 passes for over 1,100 yards and seven touchdowns.

Receiver Ted Ginn caught 44 for over 700 and ten touchdowns. The Panthers’ top rusher was Jonathan Stewart, who finished just shy of 1,000 yards and six touchdowns. The Panthers also had a tough defense, with four players with at least five sacks, including defensive end Kony Ealy. The Panthers went into the Super Bowl as five-and-a-half point favorites.

Super Bowl L: First Quarter

The Panthers won the toss and elected to defer. Manning, the oldest starting quarterback in Super Bowl history at the time, completed his first pass to tight end Owen Daniels for an 18-yard gain. He then hit Sanders for six and receiver Andre Caldwell for 22 yards. Anderson broke off runs of seven and 12, setting up Denver in field goal range. Kicker Brandon McManus made a 34-yard field goal to put Denver out in front, 3-0.

Both teams went three-and-out, and Carolina took over at its own 14. Newton seemingly had a pass complete to receiver Jerricho Cotchery, but he lost control as he hit the ground, and it was ruled incomplete. Head coach Ron Rivera challenged the play, but the play stood as an incomplete pass. Two plays later, Miller sacked Newton and forced a fumble, which Jackson recovered for a touchdown and a 10-0 Bronco lead.

On the next drive, Denver defensive backs Darian Stewart and T.J. Ward combined for a sack of Newton on third down, but the Panthers were given a first down when defensive back Aqib Talib was called for taunting. Ultimately, it didn’t matter, as Carolina was forced to punt.

Carolina forced another Denver punt, thanks to a sack by linebacker Luke Kuechly. Newton got the ball back and threw to receiver Philly Brown for a first down.

Super Bowl L: Second Quarter

Starting out the second quarter, Newton scrambled for a first down at the Denver 48. The Panthers got called for a false start, but then Newton ran it again for 12 yards. Two plays later, Newton hit Olsen for 19 yards. A pass to Brown and another flag on Talib gave the Panthers a first down at the 1. Stewart then leaped over the line for a touchdown, and Carolina cut their deficit to 10-7.

An incompletion by Manning got overturned on review to be a sack, but that challenge cost Rivera the ability to challenge anything the rest of the game. The teams traded three-and-outs, but on Carolina’s next punt, returner Jordan Norwood took back the kick 61 yards for the longest return in Super Bowl history at the time.

It was not a touchdown, as there still has never been a punt return for a touchdown in Super Bowl history, but it set up the Broncos in great field position. Denver had a first down called back on a penalty, forcing the Broncos into kicking a field goal. McManus made a 33-yard field goal, and the Broncos went up 13-7.

On Carolina’s next possession, running back Mike Tolbert fumbled, and linebacker Danny Trevathan recovered for Denver. Anderson ripped off a 34-yard run, but Denver’s drive was stopped when Manning threw an interception to Ealy. The teams traded punts after that.

The Panthers got one last try for points at the end of the first half. Newton threw a 24-yard pass to receiver Devin Funchess, and the Panthers got beyond midfield. However, Ware got a sack of Newton, and the clock ran out on the first half, with Denver up by six.

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    Super Bowl L: Third Quarter

    To start out the second half, Newton threw long to Ginn for a 45-yard gain to the Denver 35. He’d later go to Ginn again for 14 yards, but the drive would stall there. Kicker Graham Gano then missed a 44-yard field goal off the right upright that would have cut the lead to three.

    Manning took advantage of the good field position. He threw to Sanders twice, the first time getting to the Carolina 41, and the second time for 22 yards down to the 17. Anderson ran it to get to the 12, but at that point, the Broncos ran out of steam. They settled for a 38-yard McManus field goal to increase their lead to nine.

    The defenses took over the game at this point. Newton was intercepted by Ward, who fumbled, but Trevathan recovered for Denver. The Broncos went three-and-out thanks to a sack by Ealy. Then Newton was sacked by Wolfe and Miller to force a punt. At the end of the third quarter, the Broncos still led, 16-7.

    Super Bowl L: Fourth Quarter

    Ealy sacked Manning once again, and this time he forced a fumble which he recovered. Newton threw to Funchess for a first down, and Stewart ran for another first down to the 22. But the Broncos broke up a third-down pass for Ginn, forcing Carolina into a field goal try. Gano made this one from 39 yards out, and the Panthers cut their deficit to six points.

    The Broncos punted twice after that, but each time Carolina couldn’t score to either tie or take the lead. The Denver defense was punishing Newton just too much. The Panthers punted once, then had disaster strike on the second one when Miller sacked Newton and forced a fumble which Ward recovered.

    On the play, Newton seemed to back away from diving for the fumble. He got heavily criticized for this, but the fact of that matter was, he wouldn’t have recovered it anyway. The ball ended up bouncing backward and near the referee. If Newton had jumped in, the ball would have bounced in some other crazy direction. He didn’t do anything wrong by not diving headfirst in after the ball.

    Denver took over in great field position, but it was still a struggle to move the ball. It looked like the Panthers stopped them on third down, but a holding penalty gave the Broncos another chance. Anderson ran it in for a touchdown from two yards out. Manning threw the ball one final time for his career, hitting receiver Bennie Fowler on a two-point conversion pass to make it 24-10.

    The Broncos were up two scores, and that was enough to ice this game.
    The Broncos defense nearly ended this game with a safety. Jackson and Ware sacked Newton back at the 5, then they almost sacked him on the next play as well, but he got the ball out for an incomplete pass. Facing fourth-and-24 from his own 5 with two minutes left, Rivera opted to punt, essentially waving the white flag. Carolina would get the ball back one last time but never came close to scoring. The Broncos had won Super Bowl 50, 24-10!

    Super Bowl L: Aftermath and Awards

    Von Miller was named MVP for his three sacks and his two forced fumbles. Fortunately, this time they didn’t just give it to the quarterback, because Peyton Manning did not deserve MVP.

    If I were to give out an MVP to someone on the offense, it would be running back C.J. Anderson, who rushed for 90 yards and a touchdown. But this game was clearly won by the defense, and there’s no reason an offensive player should have stolen the MVP away from them.

    The Most Valuable Player of the losing team was easy: Kony Ealy, who had three sacks and an interception, plus a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. He would have won Super Bowl MVP for sure had Carolina come back to win. If not for him, Carolina probably gets blown out of this game. What a performance he put up, and he deserves to be remembered for having his biggest game on the biggest stage.

    The Least Valuable Player? Sadly, that has to go to Newton. He completed only 18 of his 41 passes and threw an interception while fumbling twice. Sure, the Denver defense was unbeatable on this day, but he was the league MVP. He needed to put his team on his back, and he was unable to do so. He never made it back to the Super Bowl, either; it looks unlikely that he’ll ever have that opportunity again.

    The biggest play of this game was Miller’s sack in the fourth quarter when the Panthers were down just six. He forced that fumble which the Broncos recovered to set up an easy score. It’s hard to imagine the Panthers driving for a touchdown, but that sack clinched it for the Broncos.

    A close second would be his forced fumble earlier in the game, which was recovered for a touchdown by Jackson. And that leads us to this week’s pop quiz answer: the Broncos became one of only four franchises to return a fumble for a touchdown in the Super Bowl. You probably remember the Chiefs doing so in Super Bowl LVII. You probably remember Dallas taking back several through the years, as they are the only team with more than one. But you probably forget Washington taking back Garo Yepremian’s failed pass in Super Bowl VII.

    As for the biggest play, you don’t remember? How about this one? Newton was intercepted by T.J. Ward, but he fumbled the interception. He got lucky, as Trevathan was there to recover for Denver. Had the Panthers fallen on that, they would have gotten at least three points. Instead, the Broncos got the ball. If that play goes differently, then you never know what could have happened in the end.

    Peyton Manning won his 200th game here in Super Bowl 50, and he went out a winner. He won the Super Bowl in his final career game, and now he was on to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Maybe he wasn’t the greatest of all time, but he was certainly far up there. He became the first quarterback to lead two different franchises to Super Bowl victories; we all know who the second one was.

    Homework

    I’m going with Peyton Manning: The Last Rodeo by Mark Kiszla as this week’s homework. It goes through Manning’s comeback journey from having neck surgery and being cut by the Colts, to going on to win the Super Bowl with the Broncos. 

    Manning is up there in the top five quarterbacks of all-time discussion. He went to four Super Bowls and won two of them. I’d rank him right there with Joe Montana behind Tom Brady.

    For now, I’m going to be going on hiatus for a while, as I feel like Super Bowl 50 is the perfect place to leave off on. In the meantime, you can find all my books at tommyaphillips.com.

    I’m sure you can find something you’ll like, whether it’s my NFL books Nifty Nineties, Great Eighties, Sweet Seventies, or one of my college football books like Penn State Bowl Games or The Orange Bowl. Until next time, this is Tommy A. Phillips, signing off. So long!

    Lombardi Memories is a show that takes you back in time, into January or February, to the greatest one-day spectacle in all of sports. This is the every-other-Tuesday podcast that looks back at each and every one of the 50-plus Super Bowls and tells the story of who won and why.  Tommy A. Phillips is your host on this Super Journey.  He’s an author of multiple NFL books.  You can purchase below.

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