SANTA CLARA, Calif. – A brilliant NFL legacy was cemented at Levi’s Stadium in Super Bowl 50 on Sunday night. Congratulations … Wade Phillips.
Time and again, Peyton Manning, the Denver Broncos’ 39-year-old legacy-seeking quarterback, came up short or turned the ball over in his fourth Super Bowl and possibly final game of an 18-year career. But, time and again, Phillips, the 68-year-old defensive coordinator bailed him out by turning loose a swarming defense that stymied the Carolina Panthers’ No. 1-ranked scoring offense and punished MVP quarterback Cam Newton with a Super Bowl record-tying seven sacks en route to a 24-10 victory.
“Great defenses do this all the time,” Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall said. “Two years ago, we had the best offense and we got beat 43-8 in the Super Bowl. Seattle had the best defense and they kicked our butts. [General Manager] John Elway went to work. He built this team for this moment right here.”
To toughen the Broncos, Elway turned to defensive free agents such as DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward, Aqib Talib and Darian Stewart. To pull it all together, he and his new coach, Gary Kubiak, turned to Phillips, who was out of work last season after being fired in Houston along with Kubiak.
“We’re the No. 1 defense of all-time, in my opinion, over the ’85 Bears,” linebacker Danny Trevathan said. “If not No. 1, then No. 2. We believe in Wade’s defense and he believes in us. The fact he didn’t have a job last year is bogus. He’s the greatest defensive coordinator in the league.”
This is Phillips’ second stint with the Broncos. In 1989, he was defensive coordinator when the 49ers thrashed Denver 55-10 in Super Bowl XXIV. This was Phillips’ second Super Bowl and first victory. It’s also the Broncos’ third championship in a record eight Super Bowl appearances, joining the two Elway won as quarterback following the 1997 and 1998 seasons.
Ironically, Manning could be remembered for going out a winner in a game in which his only touchdown “drive” went 4 yards for the game-clincher following Super Bowl MVP Von Miller’s strip sack of Newton inside the 5-yard line.
Denver’s top-ranked defense forced Carolina to turn the ball over a season-high four times. The Panthers scored a season-low 10 points — 21.3 points below their average — and committed 12 penalties for 102 yards.
For the Broncos, this performance came after they held Pittsburgh, the No. 4-ranked scoring team (26.4), to 16 points and New England, the No. 3 scoring team (29.1), to 18. Overall, the Broncos won an NFL-record 11 games by seven points or fewer this season.
“We were underdogs,” Phillips said. “They said we can’t stop this quarterback or that quarterback. So it’s real gratifying. From unemployed to the Super Bowl is good. From unemployed to winning the Super Bowl is even better.”
Miller won the MVP by punishing Panthers right tackle Mike Remmers, a former Viking (briefly), for 2½ sacks and two forced fumbles, including a first-quarter play in which Miller ripped the ball out of Newton’s hands for defensive end Malik Jackson to recover in the end zone for a 10-0 lead.
“Coach Phillips did an amazing job,” said Miller, who also had six tackles, two hurries and a pass defense against a receiver deep downfield. “He always says the mistakes we make are on him. Then the Super Bowl is on him, too.”
The Panthers were a league-high plus-27 in turnover ratio and were trying to join the 1984 49ers and 1985 Bears as the only teams to go 18-1 and win a Super Bowl. But it was Phillips’ defense that tied the ’85 Bears, who had seven sacks in Super Bowl XX. The 1975 Steelers also had seven sacks in Super Bowl X, before they became an official stat.
Manning, meanwhile, raised his Super Bowl record to 2-2. If it’s his last game, never will an uglier game be remembered so beautifully.
The offense generated 194 yards — a record low for a Super Bowl winner, topping the 244 of the 2000 Ravens — and failed to convert 14 consecutive third downs after converting the first one during Denver’s opening drive, which produced a field goal. Manning threw an interception, lost a fumble, had eight three-and-outs and produced a touchdown once in four trips into the red zone.
One of those red-zone trips came when Jordan Norwood had a Super Bowl-record 61-yard punt return to the Carolina 14. Four snaps later, the Broncos had backed up a yard and settled for a field goal and a 13-7 halftime lead.
Newton had been hit only three times in Carolina’s first two playoff games. The Panthers couldn’t protect him and had four false starts, including two by left tackle Michael Oher, who was beaten for two sacks by Ware.
Manning completed only 13 of 23 passes for 141 yards and a 56.6 passer rating. It became obvious late Sunday that he would not be able to pour the cement for his legacy.
From late in the third quarter until late in the fourth, he lost a fumble and produced four punts and one first down.
Finally, with Carolina trailing only 16-10, Miller got his second strip-sack, giving Denver the ball at the 4 and handing the Broncos offense its only touchdown with 3:08 left.
Finally, Phillips, son of Bum, could celebrate. His late father, former Houston Oilers coach Bum Phillips, never could fulfill his promise of kicking down the door to the Super Bowl by beating the Steelers dynasty of the 1970s. Wade was on his father’s coaching staff at the time.
“You’d have to say this is a special, all-time defense,” he said. “[Bum] would be glad that we finally kicked the door down.”