SANTA CLARA, Calif. --Last week, the Broncos defense tempered their confidence with platitudes and praise for Carolina's offense and Cam Newton.
But in their hearts, they knew what they could do. Just as they held the Steelers and Patriots to fewer than 20 points in the two previous games, they knew they could do the same to Carolina, and force the Panthers to play the game they didn't want, the game they'd avoided for most of the season: a tight, low-scoring, smack-'em-in-the-mouth slugfest.
Super Bowl 50 was the Broncos' kind of game. Of course they would win it in the manner they did, becoming the first Super Bowl winner with fewer than 200 yards of total offense, a stat that didn't matter because of the defense's prowess.
Carolina had rarely been tested under fire, which meant that Sunday's 24-10 win felt like a reversal of scenarios from the Broncos' last Super Bowl trip two years earlier.
"They had their way all year," said inside linebacker Brandon Marshall. "They hadn't been in any tight games with a real team -- a real team.
"We're a real team. A real defense."
The 10 points scored by the Panthers were their fewest of the season. Everything that went right for their offense in keeping defenses off-balance was off-kilter because the Broncos were too fast, too smart, too tenacious and too strong.
It brought back memories of the Nov. 1 game against the Packers, who were undefeated and riding high. But Denver's defenders said, "They haven't faced us," and the Broncos stymied the Pack, holding it to 140 yards in a 29-10 win.
Sure Carolina was dominant coming into the game. But the same sentiment held true three months later.
"They hadn't faced us," Marshall said. "And my thing is this: When you look at who they'd played this year, what great defense had they played? I think the best defense other than us is Seattle, but Seattle is not the same as they were two years ago."
In this conversation, I made the comparison to the Seahawks of 2013. Denver's defense had the same kind of power up front and speed on the back end to close every lane and choke the flow of the Panthers offense as Seattle did to the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII.
But Marshall sees this defense as better than that one. Better than the 2002 Buccaneers and 2000 Ravens, even.
"Come on," he said to me, smiling. "Look, I feel like we're the greatest defense of all time. And nobody can convince me that we're not."
At the very least, it was perhaps the finest Super Bowl defensive performance of all time. Others have allowed fewer yards and fewer points. But in this offensive-centric era, the Broncos became the first team in 15 years to win a playoff game in which it allowed more than 300 yards and gained fewer than 200.
The last team that did it? The 2000 Ravens, against the Titans in that season's divisional playoffs. Like the Panthers, the 2000 Titans were widely considered to be the league's best team. Like Sunday, the final score of that game was 24-10.
Those Ravens are, of course, in the conversation for the best defense in NFL history. So are the Broncos.
"Definitely," defensive end Antonio Smith said. "The stats say it. The Super Bowl says it. The only people who disagree with are probably the '85 Bears.
"Forever, they're going to be like, 'No, we're the best,' but hey, man, if the proof is in the pudding, and it's there down on paper, we're No. 1."
Sunday's magnum opus in a season of masterworks began with the Broncos choking off the Panthers inside. The between-the-tackles runs that were the foundation of Carolina's offense weren't there. Denver's defensive linemen won their matchups, and Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan filled the gaps. Newton and the Panthers had to venture outside -- or backward.
"Definitely. We wanted to get them out of running the ball, and get him out of being able to scramble and run the ball and force him to pass the ball," defensive end Antonio Smith. "He completed some good passes, but at the end of the day, this defense does what this defense does."
And what this defense did was pressure and force the opponent into mistakes, just like it had all year. They knew what they could do -- even if they kept their confidence bottled in.
Sunday, they did it -- again.