The Broncos are a nice story, recovering from the Super Bowl blasting by the Seahawks to get back to the big show. The Panthers, however, are a nasty crew. Again, it won’t be pretty for Denver.
The Seahawks deserve at least partial credit for the return of the Broncos to the Super Bowl. In the manner of the liquid-metal Terminator, the Broncos two years ago were splattered into puddles, 43-8, by the Seahawks, yet regenerated. Impressive feat, especially considering that Peyton Manning, then 37, is now 47 in QB years.
Had Super Bowl XLVIII been a close game, things may have been different for the Broncos. Certainly for head coach John Fox. He survived through 2014 season, but was fired after a one-and-done playoff exit because general manager John Elway is all about championships.
Really, Fox was done in the minutes after the game at MetLife Stadium when he was asked what he would have done differently.
“Probably everything,” he said. Honest as it was true, the remark did not suggest a man in command of the two-week run-up to the game.
The most prolific offense in NFL history — Manning threw for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns that season and won his fifth league MVP award — was humiliated by Seattle’s voracious defense.
Immediately, Elway knew he had to get one of those.
So he did. In 2014 free agency, he hired three defenders from the top shelf, signing DE DeMarcus Ware, FS T.J. Ward and CB Aqib Talib. The Broncos already had pass-rushing ace DE Von Miller, the second pick in the 2011 draft behind Cam Newton. No more were the Broncos going to depend on a quarterback who could no longer run nor throw downfield.
“We broke all of those (offensive) records that year,” Elway told reporters this week in San Francisco. “But we had the opportunity that offseason to get better on the defensive side. You look at the mentality that (Ware, Ward and Talib) play with — they’re physical, fast and love playing the game. That was definitely part of the process to get those type of players.
“I think it’s all come together. It’s allowed us offensively to try and run the ball a little bit more and take some pressure off the quarterback.”
Elway hired for 2015 as head coach his one-time QB back-up in their Denver playing days, Gary Kubiak, who walked from his job with the Houston Texans smack into success in his first year. Kubiak hired Wade Phillips, one of the NFL’s great defensive architects, as coordinator.
The Broncos became No. 1 in the NFL at 283 yards given up per game, eight fewer than the Seahawks, who led in fewest points for the fourth consecutive year. Had the Seahawks managed the rematch, it might have been fun, in a perverse way, to see the first 8-5 final score in Super Bowl history.
But the Seahawks didn’t make it, as you may have heard. The Carolina Panthers did.
This time, the Broncos might lose only 31-8.
Good as the Broncos defense is, the Panthers defense is every bit its equal, and Carolina’s offense is way more ready for this stage than Denver’s.
The Panthers’ 31-0 first-half thrashing of the Seahawks two weeks ago was immense. Seattle may have had the hottest offense in the regular season’s second half. It chilled for a week in Minnesota, the third-coldest game in NFL history, but that would have happened to every offense in the NFL.
The weather was routine in Carolina. The manhandling was not. The Panthers’ front seven, benefiting from the bye and the home field, smothered the Seahawks line, which regressed to the chaos of the first week.
They harassed QB Russell Wilson into two first-half interceptions, one a pick-six, and Wilson is the best escape artist in the league. Manning is the worst.
A lot of things went wrong for the Seahawks, but nearly all the errors were forced by Carolina coach Ron Rivera’s game plan and athletes. Knowing how well-prepared Carroll’s teams have been during the four-year run at the top of the NFL, the 31-0 score might have been the stunner of NFL season.
Yes, the Seahawks’ 24-point comeback was impressive. But it happened because Carolina inevitably relaxed after dispatching their nemesis of the previous three seasons so easily.
I wrote before the Seahawks-Panthers game that that game was the Super Bowl. No team remaining team in the NFC or AFC would match them. I’m sticking with it.
You saw it already: Panthers 31-8. Manning this time will catch the first snap. Then he’ll catch hell. Again.