ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- There was no other way than this for the Denver Broncos to win Super Bowl 50.
Their offense, inconsistent and sluggish all year, stalled. Their defense, a high-performance engine from the moment the keys were in the ignition in September, roared and then towed the offense along.
Against the highest-scoring team in football, the Broncos' top-ranked defense again delivered. Linebacker Von Miller's strip-sack fumbles of Carolina Panthers quarter Cam Newton led to two touchdowns, which represented all the offense the Broncos needed in a 24-10 win that returned them to the league summit for the first time in 17 years.
Throughout the week leading up to Super Bowl 50, the Broncos tended toward respect for Newton and the Panthers. However, as they practiced and talked, they seethed underneath.
Despite dismantling Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game and dominating Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers earlier in the season, the Broncos hadn't gotten much due because 11 of their 14 wins heading into the Super Bowl came by seven points or fewer.
So amid the talk that the Broncos would have to finally be involved in a shootout, and that their struggling offense would need at least 24 points to win, the defense gritted its teeth and nodded its heads. After the game, truth poured out like pass rushers into the Carolina backfield.
Sure, the Panthers were good. However ...
"They hadn't faced us," inside linebacker Brandon Marshall said. "And my thing is this: When you look at who they'd played this year, what great defense had they played? I think the best defense other than us is Seattle, but Seattle is not the same as they were two years ago.
"They hadn't faced anybody. Look who they played, man: the AFC South, the NFC South, whatever the case may be. They hadn't faced anybody like us. With our team speed, our team athleticism, our soundness, our grit. From top to bottom on our defense, everybody can run. Everybody can play."
It was the all-around athleticism of the Broncos defense that stole the day. In an effort reminiscent of how Seattle's defense overwhelmed the Broncos' top-ranked offense in Super Bowl XLVIII, using power up front to close lanes, speed on the outside to prevent long gains and blanket coverage to force Newton to throw into tight windows.
"We dared (Cam) to throw. The game plan was, 'Can you throw on us -- me, (Aqib) Talib and (Bradley) Roby?'" cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. "We knew he couldn't throw on us."
Newton made some plays, but he misfired to some open targets and was plagued by dropped passes. The key was sacking Newton six times and frustrating him. By the game's end, he was slamming his hands to the turf; he carried that frustration over to his postgame press conference, where he pouted his way through several questions before leaving.
Cam sulked. The Broncos rejoiced. Their defense joined the ranks of the 1985 Bears, 2000 Ravens, 2002 Buccaneers and 2013 Seahawks and proved again that even in an offensive-centric era, a dominant defense can still carry a team.
Whether this Broncos defense is the best of those is up for debate, but the players feel they made their case.
"Definitely," defensive end Antonio Smith said. "The stats say it. The Super Bowl says it. The only people who disagree with are probably the '85 Bears. Forever, they're going to be like, 'No, we're the best,' but hey, man, if the proof is in the pudding, and it's there down on paper, we're No. 1."
REPORT CARD VS. PANTHERS
--PASSING OFFENSE: D -- The Broncos won in spite of their aerial attack, not because of it. Aside from brief spurts on their first drives of each half that led to a pair of field goals, Peyton Manning and his receivers could get little going under pressure from a fierce Carolina pass rush that would have been the story of the game if the Panthers had won.
--RUSHING OFFENSE: B-minus -- Ronnie Hillman was limited to a brief cameo in what could be his final game with the Broncos unless they re-sign the pending unrestricted free agent. That left C.J. Anderson to carry the load, and he ground out 90 yards on 23 carries, including a 34-yard, second-quarter burst into the open field. Anderson's determined running moved a scrum of players 5 yards forward on one third-quarter play and resulted in his game-sealing touchdown in the fourth quarter.
--PASS DEFENSE: A -- The Broncos dared Cam Newton to throw against their defensive backs, and he and his wide receivers could not capitalize on a consistent enough basis, ensuring Carolina's defeat. Denver wanted Newton to throw into man coverage, and although Philly Brown, Devin Funchess and Ted Ginn Jr. each made plays, they didn't do so with the consistency needed to sustain the offense. Two strip-sack fumbles and an interception of Newton left him resembling his second-year self, when the Broncos harassed him into mistakes during a 36-14 win at Bank of America Stadium.
--RUSH DEFENSE: B -- Although the Panthers were able to hit the Broncos with some outside runs on zone-read plays, the Broncos' strategy of taking away the inside runs paid off, forcing Newton outside and ultimately setting him up to throw, which was what the Broncos wanted. The inside-out strategy eventually made the Panthers one-dimensional, and they called for passes on 24 of their last 32 snaps.
--SPECIAL TEAMS: A -- Jordan Norwood's 61-yard punt return led to one of three Brandon McManus field goals, and Britton Colquitt's solid punting coupled with outstanding coverage corralled Carolina punt returner Ginn and limited the Panthers' chances for explosive plays in special teams. McManus drilled 10 field goals in the postseason, the most for any kicker since the Colts' Adam Vinatieri hit 14 in the 2006 playoffs.
--COACHING: A -- Gary Kubiak and his staff hit all the right notes during Super Bowl week. They talked down their own chances and praised the Panthers, and they got the players on board. They had light practices during the week, focusing on teaching and tempo with helmets worn only two days. They installed their game plan before leaving Denver, mimicking the philosophy of Mike Shanahan during the Broncos' two Super Bowl wins of the 1990s.