SANTA CLARA, Calif. --History is at stake.
It's more than just a Vince Lombardi Trophy that is on the line for the Broncos against the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50 on Sunday. It's a legacy, in three crucial ways.
Start with the primary thrust behind the Broncos' eighth Super Bowl trip -- their top-ranked defense, which led the league in yardage allowed per game and per play, was No. 1 against the pass and No. 1 against the run on a per-carry basis.
In an era defined by spectacular offenses, the defense has limited one attack after another, with perhaps its best performance coming in the AFC Championship Game, when it held the Patriots 13 points below their per-60-minute average when they had Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman available and in the lineup.
Fast, deep at key positions like cornerback and outside linebacker and smart, the defense has been so effective that it has limited the options of one team after another. Lapses have been rare.
"I think this game would determine that," said Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips.
He should know; his work in the NFL dates back nearly 40 years, to the NFL's version of the "dead-ball era" in the mid-1970s before rules changes outlawing contact on receivers within five yards of the line of scrimmage.
The challenge from the Carolina Panthers will be stern.
"It's not the best offense that we've faced. But they might be the most complete team that we've faced," ILB Brandon Marshall said, citing New England and Pittsburgh as better overall offenses.
"They're the best run game that we've faced," Marshall said. "So we've got to be on it."
Added Phillips: "They have got a great running game. They're 142 yards a game in the regular season and 148 yards in the playoffs. So, we've been good against the run but they'll really test you."
The Broncos lead the league in rushing defense on a per-carry basis, allowing just 3.3 yards per rush.
"I think if we stop the run, get them into some third-and-longs, some third-and-8s, third-and-7s, I think we can win the game," Marshall said.
Of course, when Newton scrambles, he's picked up first downs on eight of 13 runs -- all of which been on third-and-5-or-more.
"I've never seen one like him and nobody else has," Phillips said.
History is on the line for Peyton Manning, as well. His Hall of Fame credentials are secure, as is his status as one of the finest quarterbacks in NFL history, based on his career records for yardage and touchdown passes and matching Brett Favre for regular-season games his teams have won when he started.
But a win on Sunday would take him into uncharted territory. It would make him the first quarterback in NFL history to start and win Super Bowls with two different teams. He already holds records by making it with four different head coaches, and taking two different teams to the Super Bowl twice. Manning isn't thinking about that, nor should he, but in the big picture, this is a talking point that will ensure that Super Bowl 50 lingers in the memory, one way or another.
And then there's Broncos history ... the search for their third world championship and first of the 21st century, but the knowledge that a loss will make the Broncos the only team with six Super Bowl losses is a notion of that is probably so painful that no Broncos fan wants to consider it.
But that is the risk that comes with flying so high. When two titans collide in a Super Bowl, one must follow. It doesn't mean the vanquished team isn't a great one.
But the higher the climb, the longer the fall. This is the reality of the Super Bowl.
How can the Broncos put themselves on the right side of history Sunday? How the three keys transpire will have plenty to do with it:
- Protect the football.**
No team amassed more points off takeaways this year than the Panthers. Between points scored off turnover returns and those the offense scored after taking advance of turnovers, the Panthers averaged 10.0 points per game following takeaways.
Meanwhile, nearly one-third of the points allowed by the Broncos -- 106 of 330 -- came off giveaways. Denver was one of just six teams to concede 100 points in the regular season following giveaways, and short-field touchdowns were directly responsible for their only two losses since Week 11.
If the Broncos' giveaway issues return Sunday, it will be a long afternoon for the orange and blue.
The Broncos and Panthers have only played four times before in the regular season (the Broncos lead 3-1), though Denver did beat Carolina in Super Bowl 50.
- Limit Cam's options.**
Newton's effectiveness running the zone-read option starts with Jonathan Stewart, who has been able to gash opponents between the tackles. That forces defenses to commit an extra defender into the box to help contain the run -- or, if they opt to empty the box, opens lanes inside.
If you crowd the box, then that opens up horizons on the outside, whether it's Newton taking off and running or finding receivers in single coverage. That's where the cornerbacks must do what they have done all year: take care of the opposing wide receivers in man coverage. One cornerback and a safety might be involved with covering Greg Olsen, who has been dominant down the seam.
Denver's efforts to contain Carolina's explosive offense will likely start with their defensive line and inside linebackers Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan clogging lanes and limiting the inside run options. Then DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller must do a good job setting the edge; while they will attack and pressure Newton, they will also be mindful of containing Newton and limiting his chances for big runs.
The Broncos attacked Tom Brady quickly and hit him 20 times in the AFC Championship Game. If the front seven is equally effective at disrupting Newton, that will force him to throw downfield, and if the coverage from Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr. and Bradley Roby is on point, the Broncos could be in position for takeaways.
The quality of the Broncos' secondary -- if it remains healthy -- gives the Broncos the option of forcing Newton to throw. That equation has worked against elite quarterbacks this season; if it can work once more, the Broncos have a good chance to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
3. Withstand the first punches.
Carolina has been able to play its game by bursting to quick two-score leads not only in the last two games, but four of their last eight overall. And although the Panthers showed comeback mettle in rallying from a 14-point deficit against the Saints in New Orleans, their defense isn't in the same galaxy as Denver's, which would offer far more resistance if the Panthers had to mount a rally to keep pace.
The Broncos have three comebacks from 14 points down against playoff teams. They won't get rattled at an early deficit. But at the same time, Carolina is the best team they've faced, and their offense and defense are in perfect symbiosis at feeding off each other's bounty.