SANTA CLARA, Calif. - After trouncing their first two playoff opponents, the Carolina Panthers didn't have nearly the same fortune in Super Bowl 50.
On their second drive of the game, following a frantic three-and-out to start, Broncos star pass rusher Von Miller sacked NFL MVP Cam Newton, yanking the ball out of his hands and into the end zone, where Malik Jackson fell on it for the game's first touchdown with 6:27 left in the first quarter.
It was 10-0, and from then on, the Panthers struggled to get anything going, and Miller continued to bother Newton throughout the night, combining with DeMarcus Ware for 4.5 sacks. It was in stark contrast to Carolina's playoff wins against the Seahawks and Cardinals, where the Panthers outscored their opponents 55-7 during first halves.
"One of those things I think we did really well this year was mix up protections and run the ball more effectively in most of the games that we've played, and we didn't," Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula said afterwards.
"They've got good athletes. We tried to work hard to help guys against some really good pass rushers. They know that, too. As most defenses that have got really good pass rushers, they figure out ways to take your help away. But to win games against defenses like this, you've got to have balance, you can't turn the ball over and you have to stay out of long-yardage situations."
The Panthers turned the ball over four times, including two of the biggest plays of the game, starting with Miller's first forced fumble leading to that first touchdown. The second came late in the fourth quarter, when Miller batted the ball as Newton was about to throw deep down field with his team down one score.
That forced fumble led to C.J. Anderson's late touchdown, giving Denver the 24-10 lead after a two-point conversion, salting the game away.
On this night, the Broncos defense vexed Newton and the Panthers, and brought Denver a championship even while Peyton Manning threw for just 141 yards while completing 13 of 23.
Denver's 194 yards were the fewest by a Super Bowl winning team in NFL history.
"I think we just stayed after it defensively," Broncos executive VP and former Super-Bowl winning quarterback John Elway said. "We knew what we were. We knew what we were offensively. We just played to that. Even though we did still have a bunch of opportunities offensively to bury the dagger this game, we didn't do it."
The Broncos' final touchdown was their only red zone score after having to settle for three field goals in their previous three red zone trips.
In the Super Bowl, the Panthers' running backs were held to just 73 yards on 21 carries (3.5-yard average), while Newton led the team with 45 yards rushing on six carries.
"Obviously Cam was the focus of our plan, but we played our defense," Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. "We played things and we played well. We knew we had to get some rush on the guy. We talked about containing him but when you've got Demarcus and Von, you've got to let those guys (go) and know other guys will make up for it. We tried to let them go and they did a great job."
Miller wound up being the easy choice for the game's MVP honors, becoming the fourth linebacker in Super Bowl history to do so.
"It just shows what type of defense that we’ve been playing. It’s honestly not about me," Miller said of winning the MVP. "If I could cut this award, I would give it to DeMarcus and Wolfe and all the other guys. That’s what I would do. This is all great and stuff, but for me, I want to be with my guys. I would take the ring, the MVP is great, but I’ll take the ring."
The Panthers converted just 3 of 15 third-downs while Newton threw for 265 yards after completing 18 of 41 (44 percent) of his throws.
Newton was despondent afterwards, and got national criticism for not saying much during his post-game press conference.
"They just played better than us," Newton said in his most expansive answer during his interview session. "I don't know what you want me to say. They made more plays than us and that's what it came down to. We had our opportunities. There wasn't nothing special that they did. We dropped balls. We turned the ball over, gave up sacks, threw errant passes. That's it. They scored more points than we did."