Broncos' defense is 'in the argument' as best ever

The Denver Broncos' defense in the playoffs stymied the Nos. 1, 3 and 4 scoring offenses in the league. Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In powering the team into Super Bowl 50, the Denver Broncos' defense set itself apart. With Sunday’s victory over the Carolina Panthers, the Broncos carved out a slice of league history.

And they did it by closing the deal.

“To be remembered, I think, when you look back years and years from now, you have to put the finishing touch on something … and that’s what they did," Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said. “That’s what makes it so special. They were relentless to the football, all of them. You knew they had control of the football game."

The Broncos held the Panthers -- who were the league’s highest-scoring offense in the regular season averaging 31 points -- to 10 points. They applied consistent pressure on Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, sacking him six times and hitting him 19 times. It was also just the second time this season that Newton was held without a passing or rushing touchdown.

“That was a historical performance," said John Elway, the Broncos' executive vice president of football operations/general manager. “Incredible."

“You got to put us up there, up with the best all time," cornerback Chris Harris Jr said. “Look who we played this season, look who we played in the playoffs and we finished it out."

The Broncos won five regular-season games against teams that made the playoffs, scored five times on defense, held Aaron Rodgers to 77 yards passing and beat New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady twice. They had postseason wins against Ben Roethlisberger, Brady and Newton to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

They led the league in total defense, yards allowed per play, pass defense and sacks, and were third against the run and fourth in scoring defense. Toss in the Super Bowl win, and the Broncos are in elite company.

Of the great defenses that have also been a part of a Super Bowl win, the gold standards are essentially the 1969 Kansas City Chiefs (five Hall of Famers on the defense), the 1985 Chicago Bears, the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (returned three interceptions for touchdowns in Super Bowl win over Oakland), the 1974 Pittsburgh Steelers, the 2000 Baltimore Ravens and the 1972 Miami Dolphins.

Elway has been a part of the NFL since his rookie season in 1983. Asked where these Broncos would fit in the discussion of the best-ever defenses, he said, “I know one thing, I wouldn’t want to play 'em. I’m glad I didn’t have to play them. We’re biased to the fact that we rode their coattails all the way to the championship. This team did, we put it on their shoulders … and we rode them and they accepted that challenge."

Elway continued: “You look at that performance in the Super Bowl, they’re in the argument to be among the best ever and, you know, it’s hard to say that they’re going to be that, but they’re in the argument. That’s a hell of a compliment to them."

Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who has more than three decades’ worth of work on his NFL resume, cited the postseason run in sharing his vote. The Broncos surrendered 16, 18 and 10 points in playoff wins over the No. 4 (Steelers), No. 3 (Patriots) and No. 1 (Panthers) scoring offenses in the league during the regular season.

The Broncos had 14 sacks in those three games, and Roethlisberger, Brady and Newton combined for one touchdown pass (Brady’s in the AFC Championship Game).

“Any team that holds Pittsburgh to 16 [points], New England to 18 and Carolina to 10 … all big-time offenses -- I think we’ve got to be up there somewhere," Phillips said. “Tremendous performance all through the playoffs. We almost led the league in every category, so we’ve got to say this is a special, all-time defense. … Winning the Super Bowl makes them the best overall as players. I’ve been lucky to be around a lot of great defenses and a lot of great games, but this one topped it off."