Monday, February 08, 2016

Denver Give Peyton Manning More than a Watch as His Departing Gift

Peyton Manning has had an illustrious career. It is hard to argue that claim. And yet his record in the playoffs and the drop-off in performance in those games has always been a mark on his record and the key aspect in those who critique him. With a second ring in four trips to the Super Bowl and the possibility he will become only the second quarterback in NFL history to exit as a champion (alongside Broncos’ President John Elway), has he erased his naysayers? Not completely, of course, given the number of one and dones his teams have suffered throughout his career. And yet he finishes with a winning record in the playoffs (14-13), even in his playoff record with nemesis Tom Brady, with the record for combined regular season and playoff victories (an even 200) and a whole host of other records.

In the playoffs, Manning has thrown for 7,339 yards, completed 63.2 percent of his passes and thrown 40 touchdowns against 25 interceptions (with only two of those touchdowns in the three playoff games this season). With the win yesterday, he became the oldest quarterback to win a Super Bowl, while also being the Super Bowl quarterback with the worst rating ever. Regardless of your take on Manning, it is clear that he is probably leaving on a high and will be a first ballot inductee into the Hall of Fame. Even among those who were not huge fans of Manning throughout his career, most were pushing for him to get that second Super Bowl ring, which now ties him with his brother Eli and makes them the winningest quarterback brothers in history.

Of course, this game was not won by Manning or the Broncos offense. In fact, their ineptitude was almost record-setting. They only converted one of 14 third down conversions in the game, and that one was on the first attempt. Manning finished 13 for 23 for 141 yards, with no touchdown passes, an interception and a lost fumble that almost turned the game around. He was also sacked five times for a loss of 37 yards. The running game was slightly better, with C. J. Anderson rushing 23 times for 90 yards with the game-clinching touchdown he scored with an incredible final lunge. Ronnie Hillman only carried five times for 0 yards, meaning the Broncos stayed under 100 for the game. Sanders was the key receiver with six catches for 83 yards, while Demaryius Thomas continued his postseason struggles with one catch for eight yards and some key drops.

Denver were more impressive with their special teams, with Andre Caldwell returning two kickoffs for 42 yards and Jordan Norwood scampering 61 yards on the one punt return of the game (of the seven Carolina kicks). Brandon McManus was also key, making all three of his field goal attempts (though the longest was 34 yards). Of course, it was the defense that was the difference in this one, stopping the highest scoring offense in football this season. How did they do it? Well it all started with Cam Newton going 18 for 41 for 265 yards with no touchdowns, an interception and two lost fumbles. He did rush six times for 45 yards, but the long was 14 and Denver did an excellent job of containing him in the pocket. They also sacked him six times for a combined 64 yards, pressuring him an incredible 21 times – second in Super Bowl history behind the 25 that Jim Kelley faced in his loss to the Cowboys.

Denver also benefitted from John Elway’s dedication to winning on both sides of the game, first taking the team to the big dance with an explosive offense and then rebuilding with a defensive team that is one of the best in the history of the sport. After Cam was taken first in the 2011 draft, Denver took Von Miller second. Von Miller won the matchup in a big way yesterday, named MVP after his 6 tackles, 2 ½ sacks and two forced fumbles set the tone for the Denver victory. The second wonder stroke was nabbing DeMarcus Ware from the Cowboys, giving Denver the dual threat that no team seemed to be able to deal with. Ware finished the game with five tackles and two sacks, finally winning the elusive ring his career seemed to warrant. But neither of these two stars did it alone. Danny Trevathan led the team with 8 tackles (four solo), T. J. Ward had 7 (including two that stopped the Panthers on third down), Chris Harris chipped in with five tackles (all solo) and a sack and, after a shaky start and some boneheaded penalties, Talib finished the game better, keeping the Panthers receivers from finding any route free from the incredible on-on-one coverage. And the rest of the team chipped in throughout, keeping the Panthers offense off-balance and unable to build any momentum beyond two decent drives.

Elway and the Broncos’ other officials should also be commended for taking a chance on two coaches who had been fired from their last jobs. First was head coach Gary Kubiak, the first to win a Super Bowl with the same team as a player and coach. Second was Wade Phillips, a man who had been out of football but arguably just created the best playoff performance by an NFL defense in history. He mixed up his coverage, confused Bill Belichick by blitzing less and then shut down the best offense in the league. Beating the Steelers, Patriots and then Panthers on the way to another Super Bowl title is pretty extraordinary stuff. In the end, Carolina did rush the ball for 188 yards on 27 carries, but the long was 15 yards and they stopped them when they needed to on all but one occasion throughout the game. Cam, by the way, was by far the leading rusher with his 45 yards, 16 more than Stewart and 19 more than Whittacker. 

On the other side of the ball, Carolina were the architects of their own demise, though the Denver defense was at the heart of their problems. They did gain more yards than Denver (315 to 194), more first downs (21 to a paltry 11), ran more plays (75 to 56) and led in time of possession (32:47 to 27:13). But they also led in turnovers allowed (4 to 2), penalties (12-102 to 6-51) and failed to score a defensive touchdown for the first game in a while, while Denver did score a critical one that built their early lead. It is thus easy to blame the loss on Newton, who has played with such pomp and circumstance this season, most assumed he and his high-powered offense would steamroll the Broncos. That was not the case yesterday, and Cam played a big part, throwing an ill-advised interception, failing to get down to recover the fumble late that essentially ended the contest and fumbling another time. He was throwing the ball high early and never really got into a rhythm other than two drives in the game. But blaming Newton does overlook the fact his offensive line failed him miserably, his running backs didn’t seem to get many yards after initial hits, his receivers dropped a number of passes and the defense made mistakes at key moments that helped the stuttering Denver offense to still post 17 of their 24 points.

Looking back at the preview I wrote of the game (, I wondered how close I was in predicting the five things that would have to occur for Denver to win (I predicted a final score of 21-17, so not too far off there). Let’s take a look:

1. Manning’s Last Stand: I argued that Manning would have to make some plays and not turn the ball over for the Broncos to win and he did make a few plays, though he did turn the ball over twice (with the interception costing them at least three points). Manning was controlled throughout the game, moved the Broncos enough to get them to 24 points and did convert a two-point completion with might very well be his final pass as a professional. His overall numbers for the game were pretty meager, with a postseason QBR of 26.1 amplifying the point, but he did what he needed to to win and was not really given the chance to shine, with Kubiak preferring to rely on his defense and running the clock down through a run-first approach. I’ll give myself half credit for this one.

2. Running Attack: I argued that the Broncos would need to be effective in the running game to have any chance, and while 90 yards rushing is certainly nothing to write home about, it was just enough for the victory. 3.21 yards per carry is below their haul throughout the season and explained why they were so ineffective on third down, but some late runs helped run time off the clock and get the Broncos into a position to win. I’ll again give myself half credit for this one.

3. Denver D: my main argument for why the Broncos could win was their #1 defense throughout the season and playoffs. If they could largely subdue Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady in consecutive games, couldn’t they beat up a quarterback who was the MVP, but still doesn’t have the skill set from the pocket of the two seasoned Super Bowl winners? The answer was yes, in a big way, and their +2 turnover differential, six sacks, 21 pressures, solid tackling and tight man-to-man coverage shut down the most potent offense in the league this season. Why people ignored their impressive stats this year was really beyond me, given how poor their offense was most weeks, and the strength of that defense was on full display in this game. I will thus give myself full credit for this prediction.

4. Keeping Cam Contained: in line with the last point, they needed to keep Cam contained, and while he did rush for 45 yards on six carries, they kept him from escaping their grasp throughout much of the game. There were the aforementioned stats on sacks, pressures and the three turnovers, but the real key appeared to be the man coverage that just didn’t give Cam anywhere to throw the ball. By the second half, he looked like a rookie again, unable to comprehend where the brilliance of the first 18 games of the season had disappeared to. That was partially on Cam, but really on a swarming Denver defense that seemed to blitz at the perfect moments throughout the game. A plus one here as well.

5. Luck: finally, I argued luck would play a role in the game, and there were a few instances where that was the case. The first came on a challenge that Carolina seemed certain to win, giving them the ball at the 45-yard-line, first and 10. Instead the officials saw something different than the rest of us did and stayed with the incorrect incompletion call. Second was the missed field goal from Gano that seemed to stem Carolina gaining momentum at that point in the game. Third, was a great disparity in penalties. Denver had some key early penalties but then improved their discipline and were given the benefit of the doubt on some close coverage calls in the second half, while the penalties just kept piling up on Carolina. Fourth was the fact Denver was first to the three fumbles that could have gone the other way, but for the bounce of the ball (and maybe a little more hunger). Fifth were a couple of potential additional picks of Manning that were dropped by the Panther’s D. And finally, though maybe this isn’t luck at all, was the impressive job of kicking game coverage by the Broncos. Of eight punts (for 367 yards), only three were returned, for a net of two yards! And they were not hurt in kickoff returns either, a problem in some previous games, with the same 42 yards they earned on two returns. Luck is a funny thing, but I’ll take the one point here as well for a total of 4 of 5.

In the end, Peyton got his dream ending, Ward got his ring, Kubiak and Phillips got redemption, Elway led a team to another ring in a wholly different way, Von Miller showed he might rival J. J. Watt for best defensive player of the moment and the Panthers got a reality check that might just help them in the long run. Cam Newton showed an unfortunate lack of class in his abbreviated postgame interview, but one believes he will come back stronger from this loss and ultimately win the ring his unique talents deserve. And so another NFL season is in the books and we have a few months before the media hype machine starts churning all over again (or at least a few minutes on that front).

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