SAN FRANCISCO — All week everyone said the same thing about Peyton Manning, that this one game would not define or alter his legacy as an all-time great.
But for the Broncos’ defense, it was a different story. They knew they needed to not only win Super Bowl 50 but shut down one of the league’s most dynamic quarterbacks and the recently crowned Most Valuable Player in order to cement their place as one of the top units in the history of the game.
Did they succeed?
“Easily, easily,” cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said on Sunday night after the 24-10 win over Cam Newton and the Panthers. “That was the number one offense in the world before this. All that you were talking about was Cam Newton every day and their offense, how we’re going to stop them, how we cannot stop them. For us to [allow] 10 points, four turnovers, to have a game like we had, we proved that we were one of the greatest ever defenses.”
Saying it — especially as a member of it — does not simply make it so. But the performance on Sunday certainly puts the Broncos in the conversation with the 1985 Bears, the 2000 Ravens and the 2013 Seahawks.
“Any team that holds Pittsburgh to 16, New England to 10 [actually 18] and Carolina to 10, and they were all big-time offenses, I think has got to be up there somewhere,” defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said of his team’s postseason stinginess. “And we led the league in almost every category. You’d have to say this was a special all-time defense.”
The MVP of the Super Bowl, Von Miller, said on Monday that he is uncomfortable with comparisons. “The game is the way it is because of the players who have come before us on defenses like the Bears’ defense and all those great defenses,” he said.
But he added that his team will have a special place in his heart, if not in history.
“The type of defense that we played this year has just been special,” Miller said. “We spend a lot of time with each other. It’s not just a 7-to-5 type thing. I have teammates who spend a couple of weeks at my house. It’s truly a family environment and I think that’s where our success came from.”
Not everyone was so political.
“We proved we’re the No. 1 defense,” defensive end Derek Wolfe said. “If you ask me, or anybody on this defense, we’re the best to ever do it.”
“Everybody bet against us,” linebacker Brandon Marshall said. “They said Carolina has too much firepower. But they didn’t realize how much talent we have on defense, how much speed, how much athleticism, how much grit.”
Even Hall of Fame quarterback turned Super Bowl-winning general manager John Elway put his group on a pedestal with a stamp of significance.
“They just kept getting stronger and stronger in the playoffs,” he said. “I couldn’t be more proud of them and I’m really happy for them because that’s the best defense I’ve ever seen.”
Had they not won the Super Bowl, they would be remembered as good but not good enough. And while most of the headlines all week were about quarterbacks, the defense stewed about being overlooked.
It was hard to overlook them on Sunday. A victory, and one in such dominating fashion, upped the echelon where they reside.
“People swept our defense under the rug,” Harris said, “and now it just feels so great to be one of the greatest of all time.”
One of the greatest?
“I think we are the best ever,” he said.
The numbers show how stingy the Denver defense was in the Broncos’ three postseason games:
Points per game
Yards per play
Opp. 3rd-down pct. (7-for-42)