ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When Denver Broncos coach Gary Kubiak speaks to his team about how things should go or what he expects from them, he will tell the players “be the best you."
It turns out that Kubiak followed his own advice, and the Broncos have spent much of the past week enjoying the fruits of those decisions following Denver’s 24-10 win over Carolina in Super Bowl 50.
A team with a Hall of Fame quarterback (John Elway) as its chief football decision-maker and a former quarterback (Kubiak) as its coach simply was its best self on the way to the championship. And if that didn’t happen to be a quarterback-driven, throw-it-around offense, well then so be it -- another (future) Hall of Fame quarterback in Peyton Manning bought in as well.
“All teams are different," Kubiak said. “You don’t force something on them. We knew exactly what we were. As the season went along, we really held true to our identity as a football team and what we were doing. We had a lot of things going on offensively throughout the course of the year, but we hung in there and battled. We played great special teams at the end of the year. Our football team knew exactly who they were and how we were going to have our opportunities to win, especially over the course of this past month."
The Broncos did have “a lot" of things going on with the offense. Manning missed seven starts with a left foot injury, which meant backup quarterback Brock Osweiler started the first seven games of his career.
The Broncos’ offensive line was a jumbled mess at times, with left tackle Ryan Clady’s season-ending knee injury on the first day of the team’s OTA practices being the first domino to fall. Clady’s replacement, rookie Ty Sambrailo, suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in Week 3, and guards Evan Mathis (ankle) and Louis Vasquez (knee) were not fully healthy for much of the season.
Toss in wide receiver Demaryius Thomas’ struggles with dropped passes, especially after he suffered a neck injury against the Minnesota Vikings in October after a big hit from Harrison Smith, and the Broncos’ offense was an uneven affair for much of the year. But instead of constantly trying to jam the square peg into the round hole, the Broncos adjusted. They were the best team.
“It’s a whole team thing," linebacker Von Miller said. “That’s how it’s supposed to be. Our offense knew if they needed us, the defense would be there for them. We knew if we needed them, they’d be there for us."
For Kubiak, the unsteady offensive performances often meant he needed to have a greater willingness to simply punt and play the field-position odds at times, even after Manning returned to the lineup in the regular-season finale, throwing the ball far better than he had been earlier in the season. As Kubiak pointed out, the greatest quarterbacks were also the greatest game managers if they needed to be.
The Broncos’ performance on defense meant an offense that had carried the Broncos’ fortunes for much of the previous three seasons was having the favor returned. Which is why, in last weekend’s game, the Broncos simply ran the ball on a third-and-17 situation late in the third quarter. In previous seasons, they likely would have turned Manning loose there or the QB would have checked to a more aggressive play at the line of scrimmage on his own.
And with just under six minutes remaining in the game, with the Broncos clinging to a 16-10 lead, on a third-and-9 at their 26-yard line -- a prime throw-for-the-first-down situation with Manning in previous seasons -- the Broncos chose to run the ball. C.J. Anderson gained 2 yards, the Broncos punted the ball away and then added another chapter to the story of their season.
Three plays after the punt, Miller sacked Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, knocked the ball free and Broncos safety T.J. Ward recovered it at the Carolina 4-yard line. Two plays and a Panthers penalty later, the Broncos scored the title-clinching touchdown.
“I think we were playing smart," Kubiak said. “We felt like we had the field-position battle won. Our kicking game was very, very good. Had [a two-score lead, which] against our defense -- [is] really tough to come by. ... That’s what the NFL is about. It’s tough. There are highs and lows, ups and downs. Finding what you’re made of along the way. We were very tough to deal with late and played very tough as a football team."
Or as Manning put it: “This team is unselfish, tough, resilient ... I certainly knew with this defense, that this team would have a chance. They were awesome."