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Top 10 special-teams plays of the 2015 Broncos season

Posted Feb 15, 2016

Joe DeCamillis' unit showed massive improvement in 2015, and that led to a series of game- and season-changing moments.

Omar Bolden

There's no denying that there was a dash of good fortune involved in the Broncos' run to Super Bowl 50 -- as with any world championship team. All you can do is put yourself in position to capitalize, which the Broncos did, using the gaps created by missed placekicks in Week 16, the AFC Championship and the Super Bowl to come back or hang on.

But the Broncos made plenty of big moments happen on special teams with their own efforts, as well. Joe DeCamillis' unit showed massive improvement in his first season back with the Broncos since the Dan Reeves era, and the result was a series of plays that helped make the difference between victory and defeat in one game after another.

Here's one man's opinion of the top 10 special-teams plays of the Broncos' 2015 Super season:

10. Brandon McManus drills a 56-yarder.

This was his second successful attempt from beyond 50 yards in the first quarter against the Ravens in Week 1, and established his long-range accuracy in game conditions. Including the postseason, McManus would go 7-of-9 on attempts from 50 yards or beyond in the 2015 season.

9. Kayvon Webster downs a Britton Colquitt punt at the Pittsburgh 3.

Colquitt was sensational at placing punts in the postseason, but had plenty of help from his teammates. This punt helped stall Pittsburgh's momentum; the Steelers had driven to the Denver 32 on the previous series and were poised for more after the Broncos went three-and-out, but Colquitt's blast and Webster's splendid save to keep it from going into the end zone flipped the field, leading to a Pittsburgh three-and-out which set up a Broncos field goal after a poor Steelers punt.

A week later, Shaquil Barrett downed another Colquitt punt at the New England 4-yard-line. The Patriots subsequently got out of the shadow of their uprights, but only advanced to their 28-yard-line before punting.

8. Omar Bolden sprints 42 yards with a punt return.

After missing the last four games to close the regular season because of a hamstring injury, Bolden announced his presence with authority, dashing 42 yards 1:30 into the divisional-playoff game against Pittsburgh to set up a McManus field goal that opened the scoring. Bolden was lost for the season later in the quarter, but left having already made a massive difference in what would be a tough 23-16 win.

7. Shiloh Keo falls on the on-side kickoff.

If Keo fails to recover the football and touches it, the Patriots would have been one Tom Brady completion away from a potential game-winning field goal in the final seconds of the AFC Championship Game. Instead, the Broncos could celebrate their eighth Lamar Hunt Trophy and trip to the sport's biggest stage.

6. McManus hits the game-winner against Cincinnati.

McManus needed that kick almost as badly as his team did. He'd missed one placekick in five consecutive games, including a shanked game-winning field-goal attempt on the last play of regulation against the Bengals that he later called "the worst kick of my life."

But McManus compartmentalizes well, and was true on a 47-yard attempt that provided the game-winning points after DeMarcus Ware recovered an errant snap on the following series. McManus didn't miss another placekick the rest of the way; he closed the year with 13 consecutive successful field-goal attempts and 19 consecutive placekicks overall (including extra points).

His 51-yard field goal against the Steelers in the postseason was perhaps his best kick of the season, as it knuckled through winds that gusted to 30 miles per hour.

But without his quick recovery against the Bengals, that boot might not have been possible. Because of his mental fortitude and unflappable confidence, McManus' future in the league is as bright as the sun reflecting off a Lombardi Trophy.

5. Aqib Talib storms off the edge to block Matt Prater's PAT.

Chris Harris Jr. nearly put his name into NFL history; had he returned it all the way, he would have been the first player in pro annals to score for the defense on an extra point, a possibility created by last year's rules changes.

As it was, Talib's block was still significant because it forced the Lions into "chasing points" mode; they went for two in the third quarter and failed. That further affected their play-calling; instead of trailing by three points in the fourth quarter, they were down five and looking for a touchdown, leading Matthew Stafford to force a third-and-12 pass that David Bruton Jr. intercepted with 3:44 remaining.

4. Sylvester Williams blocks Sebastian Janikowski's field-goal attempt.

As with Talib's block, this changed the tenor of the game. Instead of trailing in the second half, the Broncos held a fragile 9-7 lead, which they extended to two scores thanks to Harris' pick-six of Derek Carr.

3. Shaquil Barrett recovers Chris Harper's muffed punt return.

Trailing 21-7 in the fourth quarter against the undefeated Patriots, the Broncos needed a spark. Barrett was in the right place at the right time, recovering the muffed punt and launching a comeback; the Broncos scored 17 consecutive points to take the lead, then won it in overtime, yielding a win that ended up being half of the equation that allowed the Broncos to win a three-way tiebreaker and earn home-field advantage for the postseason.

Barrett's recovery wasn't spectacular, but in terms of altering the Broncos' eventual destiny -- right down to the progress of Brock Osweiler, who seized the initiative led the comeback -- it was massive.

2. Jordan Norwood breaks a Super Bowl record.

When Norwood's heady return and jaunt up the right sideline was announced to be the record, it surprised even long-time Super Bowl observers. It's even more surprising when you consider that his return was the first of at least 50 yards in Super Bowl history, which includes 228 punt returns. (Last year, one out of every 56.2 punt returns league-wide covered at least 50 yards.)

1. Bolden goes to the house.

The Broncos' longest regular-season punt return since 2011 awoke the Broncos from a first-half slumber, kickstarted a comeback that eventually forged a tie game from a 17-0 deficit, and gave Bolden a claim to punt-return work after he'd established his worth on kickoff returns. As Bolden prepares to hit free agency, he does so as a legitimate dual-threat returner, which enhances his value.

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