SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- In this pass-happy NFL, in which the 4,000-yard season is almost the norm -- 12 quarterbacks topped the mark this season -- Super Bowl 50 is proof there is still room for defense at the grown-up table.
In fact, neither of Sunday's starting quarterbacks -- Cam Newton or Peyton Manning -- threw for 4,000 yards this season. It will likely be the defense of the Denver Broncos or the Carolina Panthers that decides the big game.
The Broncos finished the regular season No. 1 in total defense, No. 1 in sacks, No. 1 in pass defense and battered New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in the AFC Championship Game. The Panthers were No. 1 in turnover margin (plus-20), No. 1 in takeaways, No. 1 in interceptions and forced Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer into a four-interception day in the NFC Championship Game.
As Super Bowl 50 approaches, we take a tale-of-the-tape look at the two defenses from ESPN Panthers reporter David Newton and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold:
Panthers: Opportunistic. There’s a sign over the lockers of the secondary that says "Thieves Ave." The defensive backs put it there after the Panthers led the league during the regular season with 39 takeaways, including a league-best 24 interceptions. The sign even made its way to California for the Super Bowl. Two of the biggest thieves were linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly, each with four picks. Kuechly has two more in the playoffs, returning both for touchdowns. They deserve at least a reserved parking spot on the avenue. So does the defensive front, which forced quarterbacks to make errant throws. The Panthers generated a league-best 148 points off of turnovers. That’s 70 more than Denver, which had the No. 1 overall defense during the regular season.
Broncos: Bruised quarterbacks. The Broncos have harassed opposing quarterbacks. They hit Brady almost two dozen times in the AFC Championship Game, sacked Teddy Bridgewater seven times, beat Philip Rivers and Derek Carr twice, held Aaron Rodgers to 77 yards passing and sent Andrew Luck to the hospital with a lacerated kidney. Newton’s size, athleticism and ability to function as both a pocket passer and impact runner make him unlike anyone the Broncos have faced. But on the flip side, Newton has not faced a defense that can rush the quarterback from so many angles with so many different players -- 13 players had at least one sack this season for the Broncos, while five players had at least five sacks. The Broncos' defense scored five touchdowns this season and made a defensive play that decided games almost weekly.
Most impressive game or stretch of games
Panthers: This is simple: a 49-15 victory over the Arizona Cardinals and the league’s top-ranked offense in the NFC Championship Game. The Panthers made quarterback Carson Palmer, Cam Newton’s biggest competition for the NFC MVP Award, look like a candidate for the league’s worst quarterback. It was a microcosm of everything the Panthers did well all season. They intercepted Palmer four times, returning one for a touchdown. They forced him into two fumbles. They sacked him three times. Palmer finished with a passer rating of 43.2 after he compiled a 104.6 rating during the regular season. That it came a week after Carolina’s defense was criticized for giving up 24 points in the second half against Seattle made it all the more impressive.
Broncos: Pick a week, any week. The Broncos intercepted a pass in the end zone to preserve the victory over the Baltimore Ravens in the season opener, returned a fumble for a touchdown in the final seconds for a Week 2 win over the Chiefs, and secured a Week 3 win in Detroit with an interception with just under four minutes to play. Over and over again, a strip sack with a forced fumble (Minnesota in Week 4, Chicago in Week 10), an interception for a touchdown (Baltimore in Week 1, Oakland in Week 5), sacks (Cleveland in Week 6) or a well-timed punchout (Bradley Roby against the Steelers in the divisional round) powered the Broncos on their title-game trip. As Manning has repeatedly said this week: “We’re here because of our defense, let’s just make that clear."
The one to watch
Panthers: You may hear "LUUUUUKE!" a few times during Super Bowl 50. Luke Kuechly is the best middle linebacker in the NFL. He has a chance to go down as one of the best in NFL history. He has led the league in tackles since Carolina selected him with the ninth pick of the 2012 draft. He led the Panthers in tackles this season despite missing 3½ games with a concussion. But as mentioned above, Kuechly’s also huge in coverage. That was an area he worked to improve on during the offseason. Mission accomplished. But what will make Kuechly really worth watching against Denver is he’ll make the calls when Manning tries to confuse the defense with shouts of “Omaha," among other things. Kuechly has spent almost as much time during nearly two weeks of film study listening to what Manning says as he has watching what Manning does.
Broncos: The Broncos have plenty of star power on defense with Pro Bowl cornerbacks in Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib or linebacker DeMarcus Ware, as well as unheralded, but certainly not undervalued, players -- at least by personnel executives around the league -- such as Derek Wolfe, Malik Jackson, Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan. But the guy who is the potential game-wrecker is linebacker Von Miller. Miller was the league’s sack leader with 11, but defensive coordinator Wade Phillips doesn’t believe that tells the story. "Von affects play every play, he beats the guy, or the guys, he's supposed to beat on almost every play." Miller was at his best in the Broncos’ win over the Patriots that pushed the team into Super Bowl 50 with 2.5 sacks and an interception. If Miller has that kind of game against the Panthers, there is a good chance the Broncos will hold the Lombardi trophy at the end of the game.
Panthers: Rookie outside linebacker Shaq Thompson. If Thomas Davis can’t be effective playing with a cast on the fractured right forearm suffered in the NFC title game, the first-round pick out of Washington would fill that role. Thompson was drafted with the idea he could one day replace Davis, one of the more athletic linebackers in the NFL. A former safety, Thompson has a similar skill set as Davis in that the Panthers can match him one-on-one with a tight end or a back. It’ll probably take an act of God to get Davis out of the game. But if something happens, Thompson is more than capable of picking up the slack.
Broncos: Quarterbacks do what they are told, which is go where the coverage takes them. And when those passers look over the Broncos’ secondary, going after Harris and Talib isn’t a great option. So, quarterbacks try the Broncos’ No. 3 cornerback, Bradley Roby. And Roby has been prepared to be in the middle of the action. In Week 2 he scooped up a fumble and returned it for a touchdown in the closing seconds for the win, and in the AFC divisional round he knocked the ball out of Steelers running back Fitzgerald Toussaint's hands to set up the Broncos’ win. The Broncos have wanted to get Roby in the lineup badly enough to have played him at safety at times in the base defense. Or as Talib has put it, "Ro, man, he’s always where the action is."
Something you didn’t know
Panthers: Cornerback Josh Norman really does consider himself "Batman." Or the "Dark Knight," as he often calls himself. Norman has a small Batman statue in the upper left corner of his locker at Bank of America Stadium. He often wears a Batman T-shirt in interviews after a game. He has a black Dodge SRT Challenger Hellcat with red seats that he calls his Batmobile. Norman also wears red contact lenses, which makes him look even more like a superhero. But what makes Norman a real superhero for the Panthers is his ability to shut down the opposing team’s best receiver. Opposing quarterbacks had a passer rating of 54.0 against him during the regular season. No cornerback was better. Norman is at his best when he goes to -- you guessed it -- what he calls his "dark place."
Broncos: John Elway was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame for his work as a quarterback. So he loves the passing game, loves quarterbacks who can make plays with the game on the line and make things happen throwing the ball. Yet, as a personnel executive Elway has taken an entirely different approach, one that seems to surprise those who live outside of the Rocky Mountain region. Elway has overseen five drafts as the Broncos’ chief football decision-maker and used the first selection on a defensive player in each of those five drafts -- Miller in 2011, Wolfe (in second round) in 2012, nose tackle Sylvester Williams in 2013, Roby in 2014 and linebacker Shane Ray in 2015. Miller, Wolfe and Williams are starters in the league’s No. 1 defense. Roby played 57 percent of the snaps this season, while Ray played 31 percent of the snaps. “John Elway, he knows what defense means," Miller said. “You look at our defense and you see what he thinks about defense."