“OK, I want you to remember three things. No. 1, breathe. Don’t forget to breathe out there. No. 2, have fun. And No. 3, compete your asses off.”
Those were Peyton Manning’s words to his offensive teammates just before they officially took the field for Super Bowl 50 on Feb. 7, 2016.
When the clock struck 0:00 and Denver had beaten Carolina 24-10, Manning and the Broncos could finally do the first one - breathe.
It had been a crazy season. Despite starting 6-0, Broncos had won in waning seconds, often on a defensive miracle and with what seemed like barely enough offense to survive. Peyton Manning missed six games with a plantar fascia injury that contributed to him getting benched in Week 10 and coming back after halftime in Week 17 to change momentum and lead the Broncos through the playoffs, riding the backs of the defense.
The beauty of the 2015 Super Bowl season was that the way the Broncos won the Super Bowl - grinding it out on offense while pummeling the other team on defense - was exactly the way they had won almost every game:
Week 1, Ravens - Darian Stewart intercepts Joe Flacco in end zone to protect the 19-13 lead.
Week 2, Chiefs - Demarcus Ware forces a fumble, Bradley Roby scoops it up and scores to win 31-24.
Week 3, Lions - Matt Stafford intercepted by David Bruton, set up a Denver touchdown to protect a precarious lead.
Week 4, Vikings - T.J .Ward gets a strip sack, Von Miller recovers. Brandon McManus kicks a field goal to win 23-20.
Week 5, Raiders - A Chris Harris Jr. pick-six in the fourth quarter gives Broncos 16-7 lead, and the defense holds Raiders to just a field goal on a late drive to keep the game out of reach.
Week 6, Browns - A Bruton interception protects 23-23 tie for overtime; despite a Manning INT, defense stuffs Browns, and on the next drive, a Brandon McManus field goal wins 26-23.
Week 11, Bears - Broncos’ defense stuffs Bears on a potential game-tying two-point conversion and wins 17-15.
Week 16, Bengals - Defense holds Cincy to 90 yards in the second half as Broncos head to overtime at 17-17 after McManus missed a potential game-winning field goal. Broncos can’t score a touchdown in their first possession in overtime but this time get the three. On the Bengals’ possession, A.J. McCarron fumbles the snap and DWare recovers, ending the game, 20-17.
Week 17, Chargers - A late touchdown puts Broncos up 27-20, and the defense stops the Chargers on fourth down to protect the lead.
January 1, 2016. Week 17. #Broncos trail Chargers thanks to 5 sloppy turnovers. Peyton enters to thunderous ovation. One of the most impactful moments in team history. That moment led to— Broncos Outsider (@BroncosOutside) June 9, 2019
1)Super Bowl 50 win
2)Osweiler signing with Texans
3)3 years of QB misery
HUGE moment! pic.twitter.com/vhuywPSrs7
AFC Championship - Manning v. Brady, take 17
The playoffs were no different, especially the Broncos’ 20-18 win over the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game in Denver where a rematch was always going to be a dog fight.
It was the 17th “Manning v. Brady” game, and though neither quarterback was the star of the event, the duel was everything it was meant to be.
At halftime, the leading rushers of the two teams were Manning and Brady. Manning with a 12-yard run (who knew?) and Brady with an 11-yard scamper. Thankfully for both teams, neither quarterback ended up their team’s leading rusher.
And as we had come to expect, the offense got just what it had to while the defense crushed Tom Brady and won in dramatic fashion at the. very. end.
The Broncos had gotten the first touchdown of the game after defense had stopped the Patriots cold on their first drive.
The teams traded a couple of series that ended in punts before a Broncos fumble on their 26-yard line set up an easy two-play touchdown drive for the Pats. But a missed extra point kept the Broncos in the lead.
Then Von Miller intercepted Brady in what was almost a pick six. But another Manning-to-Danield touchdown connection put the Broncos up 14-6. Another field goal by each team before the half would sent the Broncos into the locker room up 17-9.
The second half was a lot of defense and stalled offense that resulted in just one score - a field goal by the Patriots, closing the gap 17-12 before a second Broncos field goal to start the fourth quarter put the Broncos up by 8.
Thanks to the Broncos defense in the second half, Brady’s three drives to the red zone ended on fourth-down stops twice, including a 4th-and-1 from Denver’s 16 and a 4th-and-6 from Denver’s 14.
But the third fourth down in the red zone resulted in a touchdown on 4th-and-4 to Brady’s favorite tight end Rob Gronkowski with 12 seconds left.
It was the next defensive stop that sent the Broncos to the Super Bowl - cornerback Aqib Talib tipped Brady’s pass intended for Julian Edelman, and Bradley Roby picked it off.
Broncos win by two. Whew.
My Top 10 favorite Broncos games of the decade, counted down.— Broncos Outsider (@BroncosOutside) January 1, 2020
January 24, 2016. In one of the most amazing defensive performances in NFL history, the Broncos beat the Patriots 20-18 to advance to Super Bowl 50! The game ended with Talib tipping to Roby!#BroncosCountry pic.twitter.com/TgBav7zwAQ
Super Bowl 50: Broncos v. Panthers (i.e. Von Miller v. Cam Newton)
So the stage was set for another game to come down to the wire.
At least, that’s how the Broncos were planning it. As TJ Ward told us recently, they had all the confidence in the Broncos and in Peyton Manning, but they also knew it would come down to defense.
“We felt like we would win the game like we won every other game,” Ward said with a big laugh. “We knew it was going to be a dog fight; we knew we probably wouldn’t put that many points on the board, I mean let’s be real. They had a really good defense too, and it wasn’t even about how the season had gone for us offensively. They were coming in with the No. 1 offense and No. 2 defense.”
The thing was, this defense KNEW how to win. They planned on getting the game-changing play, whether it was a sack, an interception, a stop short of the sticks, a forced fumble...they were just conditioned to make plays.
“But offensively, we knew they couldn’t mess with us,” Ward said. “There is nothing they can do to beat us offensively, so as long as we can get some points, we’ll be all right.”
But the Panthers seemed to think that behind Cam Newton and the No. 1 offense in the NFL, the almost undefeated NFC champions would roll over the Broncos.
We all remember how that went down.
As things turned out, Ward’s prediction was spot on.
Q: How do you approach a game as the underdog?— Denver Broncos (@Broncos) January 25, 2016
Talib: “Are we the underdog?! (laughter).”#BeatThePanthers
And when he and his fellow defenders watched Manning march down the field on the first drive, throwing an 18-yard completion on the first play, they knew they were going to win.
“When Manning got that first score, it was just three points, but I knew that as long as our offense could keep doing that, there was no way the Panthers were going to win because their offense was not beating us,” Ward recalled. “Their defense would have to score because the offense was not scoring on us.”
And it was the Broncos’ defense to get the first touchdown of the Super Bowl - as if that were a surprise to anyone in Broncos Country.
On third-and-10, Miller strip-sacked Newton and Malik Jackson pounced on the ball in the end zone. Broncos up 10-0.
Manning jumped up on the sidelines in a celebration that rivaled any of his own touchdown passes. It was a moment that Broncos fans just knew this was their day.
Von Miller with the big play.— NFLonCBS (@NFLonCBS) February 8, 2016
Peyton approves. pic.twitter.com/rbgdmzVnn1
The quarterback had been visibly annoyed that he had only been able to lead a field goal-scoring drive but he was reminded on the sideline: “Two three-and-outs by the D and we’re up by 10, that’s a good thing,” followed by backup Brock Osweiler reminding Manning, “we’re in a great position, great position.”
Carolina scored a touchdown at the beginning of the second quarter, and their offense once again looked threatening. But a big play from an unsuspecting player - punt returner Jordan Norwood - gave momentum back to the Broncos.
With the longest punt return in Super Bowl history to that point, Norwood took the ball all the way to the Panthers’ 15. The offense couldn’t get in the end zone again, but again, McManus came through with three more. Broncos up 13-7.
That Jordan Norwood 61-yard punt return was the longest in Super Bowl history. pic.twitter.com/ZI8TGIuB0F— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) February 8, 2016
A Manning interception dashed Broncos’ hopes of another score before the half, but Demarcus Ware’s sack for a loss of 10 gave the Broncos some momentum going into halftime.
On the Panthers’ first drive of the third quarter, Newton & Co. were flustered despite inching down the field. Miller, a menace all over the backfield, also made his presence known in coverage, breaking up a pass near the end zone.
From the sidelines, Luke Kuechly could be heard asking, “Was that Von Miller?” To which a shaking-headed teammate added, “Yeah.”
The Panthers missed their field goal attempt on that drive, and the Broncos’ defense gave Manning & Co. good field position. No. 18 marched the Broncos down to the Panthers’ 12-yard line but three incomplete passes set up 4th-and-5 and another field goal to move the Broncos to 16.
Manning was again visibly frustrated at only getting three, but once again he was reminded on the sideline, this was quintessential Broncos’ 2015: “As disappointing as three is, this is how we won games all season.”
.@BossWard43 on #Manning 2015:— Doctor of Words (and tights) (@docllv) February 5, 2021
"Peyton still found the magic when we needed it. Technically we won on defense, but Peyton always put us in position to win those games. We need 3 points, Peyton’s going to get it. We need 6, Peyton’s going to get it. ...That’s perfect teamwork. pic.twitter.com/QYKnaBTwUT
On the Panthers’ next drive, it was again the defense with a momentum-getter as T.J. Ward intercepted Newton in the red zone, then fumbled as he ran, but Danny Trevathan picked it up and recovered. Broncos’ ball deep in their own territory.
On the sideline celebration, Chris Harris Jr. shouted some truth: CHJ: “This is NO FLY ZONE. They aint’ catchin nothin!”
“Holy cow, that had something for everybody,” the announcer said on TV. His partner added, “This Carolina team is not used to playing from behind; they’re kind of coming unraveled a little bit.”
They would have no idea.
The fourth quarter would start with a sack-fumble by Manning that would eventually yield the Panthers another three points.
Two more drives of missed opportunities for the Broncos would bring the teams to just under five minutes and the Panthers with the ball.
Facing 3rd-and-9, Newton would be sacked at Carolina’s 16 by who else? Von F-ing Miller.
But Miller would fumble in the scrum and eventually as the ball was pushed out toward the end zone, Ward would recover at the nine and run it to the 4-yard line.
This time Manning and the offense would get their one and only - but oh so beautiful - touchdown of the game, thanks to the legs of C.J. Anderson from the 2-yard line.
The Broncos would immediately choose to go for two, and a pass to Benny Fowler open on the right side of the end zone would put the game out of reach, 24-10.
Manning would get his second world championship, first as a Bronco, and ride out into the sunset on top.
But the Broncos’ No. 1 defense - propelled by MVP Miller and assisted by Ware and the No Fly Zone - would prove to the world that defense does in fact win championships.
The NFL’s golden Super Bowl would belong to a truly golden season for the Broncos.
Because they competed their asses off.
"Y'all just wait until we get on the field. You're going to understand why we are so good and why defense wins championships."— Denver Broncos (@Broncos) February 5, 2021
I was privileged to cover the Super Bowl for Mile High Report, which was an amazing experience, but also a different one. I couldn’t “be a fan” like I wanted. I wore orange and blue and couldn’t help but pump my fists at every sack and tackle and score.
And in the end, I had to watch the golden confetti fall on the field from the press room while I got my front-row seat at Von Miller’s MVP press conference.
So I often go back to watch highlights and channel the energy that I felt but couldn’t display that day.
What an amazing season. As a fan who remembers well how ecstatic I was to watch John Mobley bat down Brett Favre’s 4th-and-6 pass (that was easily going to get the Packers a great chance for a second championship in a row) so John Elway could get the Super Bowl ring he deserved many seasons before that, I have a strong affinity for SB 32.
But given how the 2015 season transpired, I can’t help but just think it was the most amazing football season I have ever been part of.
I loved that season. I loved that team. I loved No. 58. I loved that defense. I loved that quarterback.
And I always will.
"I'm just glad I was on the same team as our defense." - Peyton Manning— MileHighReport (@MileHighReport) February 8, 2016
(Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports) pic.twitter.com/6C8hOByw0X