Bears

Broncos ride suffocating defense to Super Bowl victory over Panthers

von-miller-cam-newton-super-bowl-50-slide.png

Broncos ride suffocating defense to Super Bowl victory over Panthers

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — Peyton Manning gave himself a chance to have a Super ending to his career. Von Miller and the Denver defense made the plays to secure the title for the Broncos.

Manning and Panthers quarterback Cam Newton were harassed all game Sunday, and the Broncos made enough big plays for the 24-10 victory, Manning's 200th and perhaps his last before retirement.

[GALLERY: Broncos crowned Super Bowl 50 champions]

He wasn't the star — game MVP Miller seemingly was everywhere on every Carolina play — but Manning really hasn't been the headliner in this injury-shortened season.

"This game was much like this season has been, testing our toughness, our resiliency, our unselfishness," he said. "It's only fitting that it turned out that way."

Emulating his Broncos boss, John Elway, the 39-year-old Manning can ride off with the Lombardi Trophy after leading Denver to its third NFL title, first since 1999 — when Elway was the quarterback.

"I'll take some time to reflect," Manning said when asked if Super Bowl 50 is the end. "I got a couple priorities first. I'm going to go kiss my wife and my kids. ... I'm going to drink a lot of Budweiser tonight. Take care of those things first."

Denver's suffocating defense kept Newton jittery all day. Despite wearing gold shoes before the golden Super Bowl, Newton couldn't finish off a dynamic season in which he was the league's MVP. Miller twice stripped him, once for a touchdown, the second time setting up a clinching TD. Denver's top-ranked defense, the one that ran roughshod over Tom Brady in the AFC championship, simply wouldn't let Newton get comfortable.

[RELATED - See how the CSN analysts fared in their Super Bowl predictions]

"It's every one of these guys who got me to this," Miller said.

Newton was sacked six times — receiver Ted Ginn Jr., went down once on an aborted trick play — and if Miller wasn't torturing him, DeMarcus Ware was. Ware had two of the seven sacks, equaling the most ever by one team in the Super Bowl.

"He was stressed," cornerback Bradley Roby said of Newton.

Carolina's potent offense that led the league with 500 points was held to its fewest points of the year, and Denver set an ignominious mark with 194 yards gained, the fewest for a Super Bowl winner.

So what: The Broncos (15-4) are champions and Manning is the first quarterback to win Super Bowls with two franchises, Indianapolis in 2007 was the other. Gary Kubiak is the first to win a Super Bowl as player and coach for the same team.

Manning finished 13 for 23 for 141 yards against a strong Carolina (17-2) defense that just couldn't match Miller and company.

"I feel very, very grateful," Manning said. ... "Obviously, it's very special to cap it off with a Super Bowl championship."

Denver's defense stole Carolina's act. The Panthers led the league with 39 takeaways and were a plus-20 in turnovers. On the Super Bowl stage, though, Assistant Coach of the Year Wade Phillips got his first ring because his unit was impenetrable.

It was a far cry from two years ago, when the Broncos were routed by Seattle 43-8.

"It feels great," said Miller, who had six tackles, 2 1-2 sacks, two hurries, the two forced fumbles and a pass defensed. "Peyton and DeMarcus and coach Phillips and all the guys that have been deserving their whole, whole career. I did this for them. I put my neck on the line for those guys."

[CSN BAY AREA: Super Bowl MVP Miller goes for forced fumbles 'every single time']

Carolina has made a habit of sprinting out of the gate in the playoffs. This time, it was Denver that got the quick start.

Manning opened the game with an 18-yard completion to Owen Daniels, later hit Andre Caldwell for 22, and C.J. Anderson had a 13-yard run. When the Panthers held, Brandon McManus kicked a 34-yard field goal.

The Panthers went nowhere on their first series, then their defense forced a three-and-out. It was the first of seven such aborted drives for both sides in the first half.

Carolina's Ron Rivera, the Coach of the Year, lost a challenge on a pass to Jerricho Cotchery , and it was a key decision because two plays later, Miller burst through and didn't even go for the sack. He reached directly for the ball, stripping it from Newton. It rolled to the goal line, where Malik Jackson pounced on it for a 10-0 lead.

Miller dabbed in the end zone in front of legions of orange-clad Broncos fans after Denver's first defensive touchdown in a Super Bowl.

Miller spied on Newton at times, and Newton noticed. But Newton escaped him for runs of 11 and 12 yards — Miller's hard tackle out of bounds bothered several Panthers — and a 19-yard pass to Greg Olsen on a misdirection play kept alive Carolina's first scoring drive.

Jonathan Stewart, back from hurting his right foot earlier, dived in from the 1 to make it 10-7.

But sloppiness — and strong defense — marked the rest of the game.

The first half ended 13-7 after McManus made a 33-yarder that followed the longest punt return in Super Bowl history. It was a strange runback, too.

[MORE - Sports Business Minute: Super Bowl commercials]

Brad Nortman's kick from his 12 was barely deflected, and the ball fluttered to Jordan Norwood. One Panther bumped Norwood, but he didn't call for a fair catch, then took off to his right. Escorted by a bevy of blockers, he appeared headed for a touchdown until DE Mario Addison chased him down at the Carolina 14, a 61-yard jaunt.

Denver also forced the first fumble of the season by All-Pro fullback Mike Tolbert.

But the Broncos also had a giveaway when Manning was picked by DE Kony Ealy on a zone blitz deep in Panthers territory. And the lead was only six at halftime.

The margin stayed there when Graham Gano hit the right upright on a 44-yard field goal attempt to open the second half. Then his counterpart, McManus, made his 10th in as many postseason tries for a 16-7 margin. The kicker was rescuing Denver's inept short-yardage offense, just as he did in a playoff win over Pittsburgh when he made five field goals.

Gano made up for his miss with a 39-yarder to make it a one-score game with 10:21 remaining. The 50th Super Bowl came down to the last quarter — and as it had all day, Denver's defense dominated.

The finishing touch came when Miller again stripped Newton and T.J. Ward recovered at the Carolina 4. Anderson scored from the 2 following a third-down holding call on All-Pro CB Josh Norman. A 2-point conversion was simply window dressing.

"Anybody who has watched us knows this was not our style of play," Olsen said. "Some of that you have to give credit to Denver's defense forcing people into bad games."

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Low

Decisions to be made on: Christian Jones (free agent), John Timu (free agent), Jonathan Anderson (free agent); Jerrell Freeman has reportedly been cut

Possible free agent targets: Demario Davis, Preston Brown, Anthony Hitchens, Avery Williamson, Navorro Bowman, Derrick Johnson

How the Bears rate Nick Kwiatkoski will be the key to figuring out what this unit will look like in 2018. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio thought Kwiatkoski finished last season strong, but strong enough to rely on him in 2018 as the starter next to Danny Trevathan?

The thing with the Bears’ inside linebackers, though: Trevathan makes whoever is playing next to him better. The problem is Trevathan hasn’t been able to stay on the field — he missed time in 2017 with a calf injury and a one-game suspension, and missed half of 2016 after rupturing his Achilles’. Trevathan hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2013, so durability is an issue for the soon-to-be 28-year-old.

So that leads to this question: Do the Bears need to find someone in free agency, regardless of how they value Kwiatkoski, who’s also missed time due to injuries in his first two years in the league?

Free agency could provide a few options. Demario Davis had a career high 97 tackles for the New York Jets last year and has never missed a game as a pro. Preston Brown had some decent production in Buffalo and also hasn’t missed a game since being drafted in 2014. Avery Williamson may not be a world-beater but has only missed one game in his four years in the NFL.

The Bears could also opt for someone who fits more of a rotational mold, like Dallas’ Anthony Hitchens, or try to lure a veteran linebacker like Navorro Bowman (who played for Vic Fangio in San Francisco) or Derrick Johnson (who Matt Nagy knows from his Kansas City days) to play next to Trevathan and/or Kwiatkoski.

The Bears could opt to keep the status quo and re-sign Christian Jones and John Timu for depth, and enter 2018 with Kwiatkoski and Trevathan as the team’s starters (Jerrell Freeman, who suffered a season-ending injury and then was hit with his second PED suspension in as many years, was cut on Tuesday). Signing a starting-caliber free agent isn’t out of the question, either, but there is a third option for the Bears if they appear to stand pat in free agency: Draft an inside linebacker in April. If that’s the route they go, Georgia’s Roquan Smith could be the guy. But again, those more pressing needs at other positions could mean the Bears don’t burn a first-round pick on an inside linebacker.

With Josh Sitton on his way out, what’s next for the Bears’ offensive line?

With Josh Sitton on his way out, what’s next for the Bears’ offensive line?

The first major move of Ryan Pace’s 2018 offseason hit on Tuesday, as NFL Network reported the Bears will not exercise Josh Sitton’s $8 million option for 2018. 

The move accomplishes two things for the Bears: 1) It frees up about $8 million in cap space and 2) Removes a veteran from the offensive line and creates a hole to fill, presumably by a younger free agent or draft pick. 

The 31-year-old Sitton signed a three-year deal with the Bears after Green Bay cut him just before the 2016 season, and was a Pro Bowler his first year in Chicago. Sitton played 26 of 32 games in two years with the Bears, but him being on the wrong side of 30 was likely the biggest factor here. If the Bears saw his skills eroding, releasing him now and netting the cap savings while going younger at the position does make sense. 

“Going younger” doesn’t guarantee the Bears will draft Notre Dame brawler Quenton Nelson, though that did become a greater possibility with Tuesday’s move. Nelson might be one of the two or three best offensive players in this year’s draft, and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand knows him well from the four years they spent together at Notre Dame. 

There’s a natural fit there, of course, but a few reasons to slow the Nelson-to-Chicago hype train: Would he even make it to No. 8? Or if he’s there, is taking a guard that high worth it when the Bears have needs at wide receiver, outside linebacker and cornerback? Still, the thought of Nelson — who absolutely dominated at Notre Dame — pairing with Hiestand again is tantalizing, and Nelson very well could step into any team’s starting lineup and be an immediate Pro Bowler as a rookie. 

If the Bears go younger in free agency, Matt Nagy knows 26-year-old guard Zach Fulton (No. 25 in Bleacher Report’s guard rankings) well from their time in Kansas City. Fulton — a Homewood-Flossmoor alum — has the flexibility to play both guard positions and center, which could open the door for Cody Whitehair to be moved to left guard, the position he was initially drafted to play (though the Bears do value him highly as a center, and keeping him at one position would benefit him as opposed to moving him around the line again). There are some other guys out there — like Tennessee’s Josh Kline or New York’s Justin Pugh — that could wind up costing more than Fulton in free agency. 

Or the Bears could look draft an offensive lineman after the first round, perhaps like Ohio State’s Billy Price, Georgia’s Isaiah Wynn or UTEP’s Will Hernandez. How the Bears evaluate guards at the NFL Combine next week will play an important role in how they go about replacing Sitton. 

The trickle-down effect of releasing Sitton will impact more than the offensive line, too. Freeing up his $8 million in cap space -- which wasn't a guarantee, unlike cutting Jerrell Freeman and, at some point, Mike Glennon -- could go toward paying Kyle Fuller, or another top cornerback, or a top wide receiver, or some combination of players at those positions (as well as outside linebacker). The Bears were already in a healthy place cap-wise; that just got healthier on Tuesday.