Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
08 Feb 2016
by Scott Kacsmar
The 2015 NFL season ended in familiar fashion: the best defense shut down an MVP quarterback. "Defense wins championships" is sweet music to a quarterback's ear, but Denver's defense drowned out its offense all year long. We knew back when writing Football Outsiders Almanac 2015 that Wade Phillips' defense was going to be the key to winning this team a championship. We saw in Week 1 just how far behind Gary Kubiak's offense was compared to the defense, but little did we know that would continue for essentially the whole season. In fact, these Broncos upheld 13 one-score leads in the fourth quarter and may be the most defense-reliant Super Bowl winners ever, which is made even more incredible by the fact that Peyton Manning was the quarterback for most of the ride.
Manning spent most of his career looking for a great defense. Not one that had to be great all year, but great in the playoffs. He essentially got that in the 2006 season for his first ring, but watched five fourth-quarter leads get squandered in his next five postseason trips. Then came the massive 43-8 blowout at the hands of Seattle in the Super Bowl two years ago, back when Denver was an offensive juggernaut.
But Von Miller and a few other key members of the defense were not active that day. Miller came up huge on Sunday, along with John Elway's veteran free-agent additions such as DeMarcus Ware and T.J. Ward.
Manning, now the oldest quarterback to win a Super Bowl, can enjoy the ending that Elway always had envisioned for this team. Oddly enough, Manning's stat line (13-of-23 for 141 yards and an interception) looks very similar to the one Elway had in his first Super Bowl win against Green Bay. It was fitting to hear Elway return the favor to Denver owner Pat Bowlen, stricken with Alzheimer's disease, crying "This one's for Pat!" at the trophy ceremony.
We will recap the game in full, leading up to the failed comeback opportunity for Carolina in the fourth quarter, but we also have some Manning legacy talk; you know I have to go there after what is likely the final game of his career. But we start with a look at another regular-season champion falling apart in the big game.
Carolina is just the 12th team in NFL history to win at least 17 games in a season (including playoffs), but only the second (along with the 2007 Patriots) to not win a Super Bowl. I was as vocal as anyone in not buying into the Panthers as some all-time great team this season. I may have called them the worst 7-0 team ever, the worst 13-0 team ever, and the worst 15-1 team ever. I thought Seattle would beat them in the playoffs, and only backed off of Arizona after the Cardinals had two shaky performances heading into the NFC Championship Game.
While I always respected Carolina's defense, I never bought into the offense as a legit top-scoring unit. As we looked at in our preview, the Panthers are the only offense since 1970 to lead the league in scoring, but not finish in the top 10 in yards. They were also 13th in yards per play and eighth in DVOA, so there were several numbers that were out of whack with the scoring. This team had Ted Ginn Jr. as a No. 1 wide receiver with Michael Oher and Mike Remmers as the starting tackles. Even Jonathan Stewart ranked 33rd in DYAR, 34th in DVOA and 33rd in success rate this season.
How does a team like that score 500 points without some parlor tricks?
The naive answer is that is why Cam Newton won the MVP award. However, I never bought into Newton having an MVP season either, as I thought Carson Palmer was more consistent from Week 1 to Week 17. I also believe in the various metrics, combined with the eye test, that suggest Newton was merely one of the better quarterbacks this season, but not the overwhelming best. Newton did start playing at a higher level against Green Bay in Week 9, but the first seven games of the season still happened. His completion percentage was still under 60 percent, as he tends to overthrow receivers. He threw interceptions at almost the same rate as in the past, but had five dropped picks since Week 9. He had better yards per attempt averages in his first two seasons. The big change was his higher touchdown percentage this season.
Of course, that can be explained by pointing out that he faced the easiest schedule of defenses in the league and had the second-best starting field position. We also noticed that Carolina likes to give its tackles some more help in blocking instead of taking on all the one-on-one battles. While many defenses in the NFL are not equipped to handle an offense like this, I knew Denver was in good shape as long as Carolina did not get to feast on great field position as it had all season. Sure enough, the Panthers started one drive at their own 49 (resulting in a punt) and one at the 50 (resulting in a field goal), and no other drives starting outside their own 39. Carolina finished with 10 points on 16 drives, easily their worst scoring output of the season.
Newton failed to become the first player to win the MVP award and the Super Bowl in the same season since Kurt Warner in 1999, and his offense looked like a unit heavily dependent on his play to be successful. The receivers were not sharp or good at getting open, and the tackles struggled. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Newton was pressured on 42.9 percent of his dropbacks, the highest rate in a game in his career. By shutting down the run, Denver forced Newton to become a volume passer, which is likely to lead to overthrows, drops, and mistakes in an offense that just was not as efficient as usual scoring leaders.
|NFL's 500-Point Teams (Excludes 1961 Houston Oilers)|
|Rk||Team||Year||PTS||Result||Playoff Opp.||PTS in Playoff Loss|
|1||Denver||2013||606||Lost Super Bowl||Seattle||8|
|2||New England||2007||589||Lost Super Bowl||NY Giants||14|
|3||Green Bay||2011||560||Lost NFC-DIV||NY Giants||20|
|4||New England||2012||557||Lost AFC-C||Baltimore||13|
|6||New Orleans||2011||547||Lost NFC-DIV||at San Francisco||32|
|7||Washington||1983||541||Lost Super Bowl||LA Raiders||9|
|8||St. Louis||2000||540||Lost NFC-WC||at New Orleans||28|
|9||St. Louis||1999||526||Won Super Bowl||-||-|
|10||Indianapolis||2004||522||Lost AFC-DIV||at New England||3|
|11||New England||2010||518||Lost AFC-DIV||NY Jets||21|
|12T||Miami||1984||513||Lost Super Bowl||San Francisco||16|
|12T||New England||2011||513||Lost Super Bowl||NY Giants||17|
|14||New Orleans||2009||510||Won Super Bowl||-||-|
|15||San Francisco||1994||505||Won Super Bowl||-||-|
|16||St. Louis||2001||503||Lost Super Bowl||New England||17|
|17||Denver||1998||501||Won Super Bowl||-||-|
|18||Carolina||2015||500||Lost Super Bowl||Denver||10|
At the end of the day, another 500-point team bit the dust in the NFL playoffs, but Carolina's offense was never really up to the level of the Denver defense this season.
Denver's opening drive traveled 64 yards, its longest of the night if you can believe it. Manning converted his only third down of the game, but the drive stalled once Ronnie Hillman got involved. In fact, the trend this postseason has been for Denver's offense to bomb out once Hillman or Demaryius Thomas were involved. The two combined for 12 targets and runs, only gaining 8 yards. Meanwhile, C.J. Anderson and Emmanuel Sanders combined for 183 yards on 35 chances. Still, the opening field goal was a nice display of offense to get a 3-0 lead. Denver led wire-to-wire for the second game in a row after an opening-drive score.
Newton had eight blockers on his first pass of the night, which is something we talked about Carolina doing more frequently than offenses not named Buffalo this season, but the pass was high to a wide-open receiver -- a sign of the shakiness to come. Newton was 5-of-20 on passes thrown at least 10 yards on the night. I liked the matchup of Aqib Talib on Greg Olsen on third down, and a great tackle stopped Olsen short by a yard. Denver had a solid tackling night, with 39.6 percent of Newton's passing yards coming after the catch.
Carolina's second drive really set the path for the rest of the game. Jerricho Cotchery is supposed to be the one wide receiver with reliable hands on this team, but he bobbled a pass over the middle and tried to make a diving catch that was ultimately ruled incomplete. Even after a challenge by Ron Rivera, the call stood.
We have seen worse efforts ruled complete, and better efforts ruled incomplete. This looks like the nose of the ball is touching the ground, so you could say the ground is helping him secure the catch. Add in some slight movement after he brings it up, and that was probably enough for the officials to stay with the call on the field. Not only did it wipe out a 24-yard gain, but then Stewart was injured on the next run. Maybe that play would have been a different call with the ball near the 40. Stewart obviously returned to the game, but he did not play up to expectations. The biggest problem was Miller owning Remmers to strip the ball right out of Newton's hands for a Malik Jackson touchdown. The play design was FUBAR. Why would you have Olsen, your best receiver, not touch a soul as a blocker, then run a delayed route on third-and-10? Stick him on the other side to help Remmers in that case.
When it's 3rd-and-10, either have Olsen help block someone or run a real route. This design is FUBAR pic.twitter.com/Go8MCkRbhf— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) February 8, 2016
The Broncos led 10-0, which seemed to put the offense into protection mode earlier than usual.
Remember when we said in the AFC divisional preview that Denver was the most penalized defense in the regular season with a lot of dumb 15-yard penalties? That showed up again a little in the Super Bowl, like when Talib negated a third-down sack (which came on a nice blitz) by taunting on the sideline. Fortunately, Carolina still punted after Cotchery had some problems with Bradley Roby in coverage, but Talib did not have the greatest of games. He gave Corey Brown (granted, a fast receiver) a massive cushion on a 20-yard gain as the Panthers started driving to close the first quarter.
Carolina's only touchdown drive of the night involved two Newton scrambles for 23 yards. With his passing rhythm not there, I was surprised Newton did not run more. The Panthers also went to the throwback play to Olsen that we highlighted last week against Houston. This time it gained 19 yards, which was nearly half of a quiet 41-yard night for Olsen. Stewart finished off the drive with a 1-yard touchdown plunge to make it 10-7.
You would think a pristine playing surface would be a must in a new stadium for Super Bowl 50, but the field was slippery and several players had problems with that. One of those players was Manning, who slid down while trying to avoid the rush of Kony Ealy, who had a monster game. Ealy did in fact get a piece of Manning, but the referees missed it, leading to Rivera challenging to pick up 7 yards with 11:11 left in the first half. Was that really worth using your last challenge of the game? I do not think so, but that is what Carolina did. On third-and-17, Manning threw a short pass to Thomas that was only going to gain a couple of yards, but Luke Kuechly crushed the receiver for an incompletion. There were some questionable ALEX decisions from Manning and the offense in this one. This looked more like the Kansas City offense when playing with the lead.
The Panthers showed some (fake) jet-sweep action a few times, but never did anything too creative outside of a lateral to Ginn that was probably going to be a throwback to Newton. Instead it ended up as a 4-yard sack after Denver contained it well. On the punt, Carolina's extremely weird avoidance of making the tackle on Jordan Norwood, who never came close to a fair-catch signal, led to a punt return of 61 yards, the longest in Super Bowl history.
Believe it or not, Carolina's defense ranked 32nd against power (short-yardage) runs this season. Denver had two big cracks at a conversion at the Carolina 5, but Anderson barely converted a fourth-and-1 run. However, that was wiped out by a holding penalty on Louis Vasquez, leading to a 33-yard field goal by Brandon McManus. Carolina may have saved a big four points there.
The traditional running game for Carolina was very much held in check. The running backs only combined for 73 yards on 21 carries, including an 11-yard run that Mike Tolbert fumbled. The way Carolina played all day, you cannot assume they would have scored on that drive -- but they might have. Denver's running game only succeeded on 4-of-12 plays on second down, but Anderson ripped off a big 34-yard run. Ultimately, Manning wasted the takeaway and the big run with an interception at the Carolina 24. He either missed Ealy dropping into coverage or did not expect the big man to make a play, but Ealy made a one-handed interception with some decent YAC skills to boot. That was likely a field goal and 16-7 lead missed out on by Denver.
Roby won another battle with a Carolina receiver (Brown this time) on third down to end a drive, but was then beaten on a high third-and-12 throw to Devin Funchess after Newton extended the play. Some odd clock management may have cost the Panthers a field goal try. DeMarcus Ware ended the half with a sack of Newton after blazing past Oher.
The standard was established, and the 13-7 slugfest certainly favored Denver.
The early part of this quarter teased the idea that this may not be Carolina's day. Cotchery again failed to hang onto a pass, this time inside the 5-yard line after getting isolated on Miller in coverage. Carolina settled for a 44-yard field goal by Graham Gano, but his kick hit the right upright. Manning finally remembered he had Sanders in coverage against cornerback Robert McClain instead of Josh Norman, and went that way for two big completions to set up a crucial field goal for a 16-7 lead.
Carolina went back to an eight-man protection to throw deep, and Brown was surprisingly there for a 45-yard catch with Denver unable to make a play on a pass that hung a little. Unfortunately, Brown missed the rest of the game with a concussion. Ginn's hands have been a topic of interest all year, but it is hard from the lack of CBS replays to tell if he just flubbed Newton's next pass for a pick, or if the pass was thrown too hard. Either way, the ball was deflected to Ward for an interception. Ward should have just stayed down, but struggled to get up before fumbling. That could have been a catastrophe, but Denver recovered that too.
On a third-and-8, Remmers got away with a false start and was still beaten by Miller for another sack, (which was split with Derek Wolfe, who also was out for Super Bowl XLVIII two years ago). Denver took this into the fourth quarter in a familiar position of hanging onto a 16-7 lead.
Another good pass to Sanders combined with a penalty had Denver at the Carolina 37, knocking on the door for more points that could have wrapped this one up. But Manning was still working out the kinks of his "game manager" role. This was really his worst drive of the game as he fumbled twice on sacks, losing the second one at midfield. That was Ealy again, who finished with 3.0 sacks, an interception, and a forced fumble with recovery. Kawann Short was very quiet on the day from inside, but quick edge pressure has always been the best way to get to Manning. It just came as a surprise that Ealy was this dominant.
This had to get Carolina's rally going, but the Panthers only settled for a field goal after another Roby pass breakup on third down. You can definitely say he got away with early contact on Ginn, but Ginn also let the pass go right under his hands.
Things were getting tighter with Denver's lead cut to 16-10 with 10:21 left and even tighter after a three-and-out. Thomas just fell down against Norman, perhaps trying to draw a flag. Incredibly, Thomas caught just 3-of-13 passes for 20 yards in the AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl combined. So, about that contract…
For the 12th time in the last 13 Super Bowls, we had a fourth-quarter comeback opportunity. Carolina's first drive did not last long after another false start by one of the tackles (Remmers) hurt. But Denver was willing to put everything on the defense at this point, even though a 6-point lead is far from ideal. When Anderson gets a handoff on third-and-9, you know what Kubiak has in mind. The defense has earned that level of trust, and on cue, delivered the knockout blow. On third-and-9, Miller got by Remmers one more time for another strip-sack to lock up his Super Bowl MVP award.
The takes are flying on Newton's questionable effort here. Frankly, I think when you are the player who will jump over the line for a little 1-yard touchdown, I do not get how you do not dive for this ball with the Super Bowl hanging in the balance. There is nothing wrong with recovering and punting here, but a Denver recovery is a wrap. That sequence was odd to say the least. Regardless, Ward recovered and moved the ball to the Carolina 4.
Thomas finally drew a penalty on Norman on third down, setting up Anderson for a 2-yard touchdown. Denver came that close to becoming the first team to win a Super Bowl without an offensive touchdown. Manning's last NFL pass may very well have been a two-point conversion to Bennie Fowler for a 24-10 lead. From that point, Denver just continued the rush on Newton, and the Panthers even punted on fourth-and-24 while losing the two-minute warning in the process.
The best defense all season came through again. With this postseason performance, the Broncos certainly have put themselves ahead of great defenses such as the 2003 Patriots, 2006 Ravens, 2008 Steelers, and 2009 Jets. You can put them in the top class with the 2000 Ravens, 2002 Buccaneers, and 2013 Seahawks as far as recent defenses go. In a league where we are used to seeing record-setting offenses crash and burn in the playoffs, the best defenses have a great track record of finishing seasons with championships. That is why the mantra of "defense wins championships" is not going away. You need a little offense too, but Denver even challenged that this postseason and still finished on top.
If you think Peyton Manning is the greatest quarterback in NFL history, you already had that thought before Sunday night. If you did not have that thought, then Super Bowl 50 would not change your mind. By some measures, Manning had the least effective game of his 27-game postseason career. His DYAR (-115), DVOA (-74.8%) and QBR (9.9) were the lowest of his playoff career. He tied his career-high by taking five sacks and fumbling twice (one lost). He became the first quarterback to win 200 starts (including playoffs), but the 141 passing yards were the fifth-fewest he has had in a win he finished.
Manning has had 293 drives in the playoffs, but had his first scoring drive that lost yards (minus-1 yard on a field goal drive). He also had the shortest touchdown drive of his playoff career (4 yards) after Newton's late fumble. Manning's contributions to Denver's 24 points were basically a few completions for two field goals and a two-point conversion pass. The Denver offense failed on its last 13 third-down conversions, finishing 1-of-14. The Broncos had 194 net yards of offense and just five first downs via passing. For much of the game it looked like Manning was trying to offset his previous bad playoff luck with a night of fortuitous bounces and good fortune.
I am just going to repeat what I wrote about Manning on Saturday:
"Getting a second ring, a winning playoff record (14-13), maybe another game MVP award, and becoming the first QB to win Super Bowls with different teams would all be an outstanding way for Manning to walk away from the game. However, he's probably best equipped to get those things by doing less and getting more from his teammates. Doing less should not enhance your legacy, but that's the kind of odd situation we arrive at when it comes to rings.
"If anyone ever deserved a break in the playoffs and a win on the backs of his teammates, it's Manning."
That is basically what happened too. Manning had seven drives in the first half alone and the Broncos were not very effective, going three-and-out four times and throwing an interception in scoring territory. Manning would have been blown out again in the big game with a performance like that on his other teams that did not have this defense.
In Super Bowl XLIV with the Colts, Manning's seventh possession ended with the Tracy Porter pick-six late in the fourth quarter, as Indianapolis is probably still wondering how that game got away so quickly. Manning thought he might have had a playoff defense with Denver two years ago in reaching his third Super Bowl, but by that seventh possession the Broncos were down 29-0 to Seattle halfway through the third quarter. Hell, they were down 15-0 after one Manning incompletion (a pick returned to the Denver 37).
When you give Manning a strong defensive effort, he is always going to take advantage. Manning is an all-time best 89-0 when his team allows fewer than 17 points, excluding a 16-10 loss for "playoff rest" (read: "Jim Sorgi game" once Manning left after two series) against the 2007 Titans. He just happened to get his best defense in his worst season while he was on his last legs as a 39-year-old quarterback.
Manning has had several postseasons where he played better than 2006 and this year, but lost. The fact that two of his least impressive postseasons are his Super Bowl runs just throws a real corkscrew into the logic of counting rings and looking at win-loss records in the playoffs as the measures of quarterback success. The fact that someone with a career as special as Manning's is the ultimate case study for blowing up playoff narratives is a great thing for us all.
Defense does win championships, but the whole team still has to contribute at some point, and good fortune always helps as well. Denver may have had more balanced teams in the previous three seasons when the Broncos finished No. 2 in DVOA each year, but this one had the best combination of talent, coaching, timely plays, and luck. This team needed everything from late-game takeaways to a Manning comeback drive in Kansas City to a Chris Harper muffed punt to perhaps an Antonio Brown concussion and a two-point conversion stop for everything to fall into place. One misstep and the Broncos could have been a wild-card team or out of the playoffs entirely. Everyone contributed and Kubiak held things together in his first year on the job with the uncertainty of what would happen at the quarterback position. But at the end of the day, they knew they had Phillips' defense to lean on.
This championship is indeed for Pat, and it is for John and Peyton again. It also is one for Wade, Gary, Von, DeMarcus, Emmanuel, and it is even one for punter Britton Colquitt and backup quarterback Brock Osweiler. This was a Super Bowl won by the Denver Broncos with a full team effort, and that is how it should always be remembered.
Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 72
Game-winning drives: 91 (plus six non-offensive game-winning scores)
Games with 4QC/GWD opportunity: 162/267 (60.7 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 34
Historic data on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives can be found at Pro-Football-Reference. Screen caps come from NFL Game Pass.
113 comments, Last at 11 Feb 2016, 12:02pm by WeaponX