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Ranking the reasons for Denver's Super Bowl 50 upset

An early strip-sack that turned into a touchdown looked like a random moment in a game. Instead, it was the start of a trend. Tim Rasmussen/ESPN

Denver did it again. For the second game in a row, after being written off as healthy underdogs before the contest even began, Gary Kubiak's Broncos went up against a team of destiny and whacked it on the head with a hammer.

It wasn't necessarily implausible that the Broncos could prevail in Super Bowl 50, but to win 24-10? That was virtually unforeseeable. Of the 74 ESPN football contributors who made Super Bowl picks, 19 (25.7 percent) picked the Broncos. Just one -- Trey Wingo -- picked the Broncos to win by more than a touchdown. The Vegas prop on the Broncos winning by more than 10.5 points had a line of +600. Remove the vig and the implied odds from the line suggest that the bookmakers saw Denver with just a 13.7 percent of winning by more than 11 points.

And yet, that's exactly what happened. It wasn't the prettiest Super Bowl we've ever seen, but it featured brilliant performances from the league's two best defenses. Even grouping them together might sell Denver short. Advanced metrics suggested that the Broncos were the best defense in football by a comfortable margin. On Sunday, they showed up and delivered a defensive performance as dominant as the one laid on this same Broncos team by the Seahawks two years ago.

Von Miller and company were unquestionably the better team and deserved to win. Let's run through the reasons why they were able to prevail and claim the franchise's third Lombardi Trophy, in relative order of how much (or little) the person, coach or concept contributed to Denver's chances of winning. These selected, abridged power rankings start with the unit which did the most to prevent the Broncos from winning on Sunday, a juggernaut whose wildly impressive work was lost in sight of an even better performance from their competitors:

101. The Panthers' defense

It's tough to swallow when you lose the Super Bowl by 14 points, but the Carolina defense has a lot to be proud of after delivering an exceptional effort Sunday night. While the offense misfired, made ugly mistakes, and left the defense in poor positions, Sean McDermott's unit did everything it could to keep the Panthers in the game. The Panthers didn't collapse until late in the fourth quarter, when a Cam Newton fumble gave the Broncos the ball on the 4-yard line and set Denver up for a game-sealing touchdown.

The drive stats for the game show just how dominant Carolina was throughout the contest. Luke Kuechly and company allowed a 64-yard drive to start the game, ending in a Brandon McManus field goal. A 36-yard drive in the second quarter ended with Peyton Manning's only interception of the day, on a pick by the wildly impressive Kony Ealy. And Denver's first drive of the second half resulted in a field goal after seven plays and 49 yards.

Those are reasonably impressive. Also impressive? Denver's 11 other drives each failed to generate 10 yards of offense. Seven of those 11 possessions were three-and-outs, which combined to add up to just 45 yards from scrimmage. Total. They allowed the aforementioned back-breaking touchdown on a 4-yard field, a field goal on a drive which began on the Carolina 14-yard line, and had seven points flung onto their total for Miller's stripsack and the subsequent touchdown recovery by Malik Jackson.

The Panthers sacked Manning five times on 28 dropbacks, limited the Denver running game to 3.2 yards per carry on their 28 rush attempts, and allowed the Broncos to pick up just one of their 14 third downs. They did enough to win the football game. The rest of Carolina's roster would be hard-pressed to say the same.

97. Aqib Talib

While the Broncos cornerback deserves a Super Bowl ring for his excellent play during the season, he won't look back at his on-field performance from Sunday fondly, and that's without considering his postgame slip. Talib committed a pair of personal fouls during the first half, including a needless taunting call and a brutal face mask on Corey Brown inside the 5-yard line. Even more abhorrently, Talib admitted after the game that he committed the penalty on purpose, knowing that the flag would only cost his team a yard because of where the foul was committed. It's a window into the bizarre mindset of the NFL that there was more talk after the game about Newton's petulant news conference than there was about a player deliberately trying to injure a member of the opposition.

Talib finished the first half with three penalties, and the Panthers had more success throwing at him than they did at either Chris Harris Jr. or Bradley Roby, each of whom played superbly. Talib's a good player, and he was part of a phenomenal defensive effort, but this wasn't his day.

81. Cam Newton

Speaking of the Panthers quarterback, let's get to him here. Newton's disappointing night became a flashpoint for postgame discussion in a number of different ways, all of which are worth unpacking.

Let's start with the actual work Cam did as a quarterback. His numbers weren't great -- he was 18-of-41 for 265 yards with an interception and six sacks -- but they also fail to tell the story. Newton was constantly under pressure all night, and while the critical strip-sack by Miller in the fourth quarter came on a play in which Newton simply held onto the football too long in the pocket, most of the pressure was a result of subpar play from his pass protection, notably overmatched tackles Michael Oher and Mike Remmers.

He also got precious little help from his receivers. Cam's painful third-quarter interception deep in Broncos territory came on a pass which hit No. 1 wideout Ted Ginn square in the hands. He hit veteran wideout Jerricho Cotchery in stride for a what should have been two big gains that could have been game-changing moments, only for Cotchery to drop both passes. One would have been a 23-yarder to push the Panthers toward midfield; instead, Ron Rivera fruitlessly spent his first challenge trying to overturn the call, and on third-and-long two plays later, Miller's first strip-sack of Newton resulted in a Broncos touchdown. Later, with Miller in coverage, Cotchery dropped a Newton pass up the sideline which might have gone for a touchdown. Cam sailed several throws, especially early in the game, but his receivers failed to come up with plays which were there for the taking.

On that second strip-sack, Newton was criticized for choosing not to dive to the ground for the ball while it was rolling around the ground. The argument has been that Newton somehow chose in the moment to avoid diving for the football because he had given up on the game or didn't have the heart to sell out for his team, which is absurd, lowest-common-denominator fodder.

This is the same Newton who clearly played through injuries behind a porous offensive line last year for a Panthers team that was falling rapidly out of playoff contention, the one who rushed back from a car accident to suit up for a 5-8-1 team. The one who screwed up his Florida career so badly that he had to transfer to a junior college before working his way back into becoming the first overall pick. Does anybody really think that a veteran team with Thomas Davis -- who suited up with an arm that looked like a football yesterday -- would get behind a quarterback and treat him like an unquestioned leader if he was a fraud? The idea that Newton is soft or unable to overcome adversity is unsupported by his entire career up to that one play.

Why didn't Newton dive for the football, then? It's hard to say. Football's a fast game, and fumbles aren't exactly the easiest things to recover. Maybe he got caught thinking the ball was about to move as DeMarcus Ware dove toward it. That's exactly what happened, which would have rendered a Newton dive worthless, but that's been lost in the discussion. Maybe he froze, in the same way that Bill Belichick might have frozen when he didn't call a timeout before the Malcolm Butler interception in last year's Super Bowl. Maybe Newton was injured and couldn't move the way he wanted to. There's no obvious explanation, but that doesn't justify pushing some lack of intestinal fortitude to the top of the excuse pile because it fits a pithy storyline. It's far more likely to be a football mistake than a sign of emotional weakness.

It didn't help when Newton basically sulked his way through his postgame news conference, giving curt answers to several questions before walking out. It's reasonable to criticize Newton for acting grouchy and not taking the game stoically because that has become the ideal, but it's also a case of perpetually moving the goalposts. How would people have reacted if the famously happy-go-lucky Newton showed up to the news conference smiling and suggesting that the Panthers would come back and return to the Super Bowl next year?

For a guy who was criticized as fake before the 2011 draft, Newton sure seems very happy when things are going well and despondent when he loses in the biggest moment of his life, which makes him a lot like everybody else on the planet. He wears his heart on his sleeve; when that heart gets broken, it doesn't mean Cam will -- or should -- suddenly retreat into becoming a professional cliche. It was a disappointing performance from the league MVP, but it wasn't nearly as destructive as some will suggest this morning.

60. Peyton Manning

And on the other side of the field, there was Manning, who may still be drinking Budweiser as you read this Monday morning. Manning finished the day with a staggeringly-low 9.9 QBR, the lowest single-game figure for a winning quarterback in the playoffs since the statistic was invented. Passers with a QBR of 15 or less were previously 0-19 in the postseason, and in 2015, passers with a similar QBR were 5-39 (.114).

The traditional numbers weren't pretty -- Manning finished 13-of-23 for 141 yards with an interception and six sacks -- and unlike Newton, they actually undersell how much Manning struggled. Carolina dropped a number of potential interceptions, including a pair of would-be picks by star cornerback Josh Norman. Manning was stripsacked twice on the same series, losing the second one to Ealy. Ealy was also in for the interception, which came on a brutal decision by Manning against a zone blitz that Peyton either didn't see or thought he could throw past.

You know what, though? If anybody ever deserves to have a playoff game where he was carried to a victory by his teammates, as Football Outsiders noted, it's Peyton Manning. Peyton had shockingly little support from his teammates in the playoffs early in his career, when the labels which would become unfairly associated with his playoff performance began to take shape. He's still the greatest quarterback in NFL history, and now, he has a second ring to cement his legacy as such.

41. Ron Rivera

The 2015 Coach of the Year didn't cost Carolina the game, but this wasn't Riverboat Ron's finest hour. Nobody could fault Rivera for his first challenge, when he threw the flag after Cotchery's first drop when replays appeared to show that Cotchery had held onto the football. The resulting decision to keep the call as it stood on the field indicated that there was a lack of evidence to overturn the decision, as opposed to confirming the call, which is used when replays verify that the initial call was correct. It was too close to call.

Rivera's second challenge was far more questionable. Knowing that he would be out of challenges if he threw his flag a second time, Rivera threw the flag out at 11:25 of the second quarter on a would-be Ealy sack that turned second-and-10 into second-and-15. Rivera won the call, but the gains were modest at best and eventually irrelevant, given that the Broncos threw incomplete passes on each of the next two downs. It left the Panthers vulnerable for the ensuing 37-plus minutes football, unable to challenge any mistaken decisions. None popped up, but having seen two questionable calls in a matter of minutes, Rivera couldn't have known that things would go smoothly the rest of the way. It felt like Rivera made the challenge while he and his team were still angry about the first call not going their way.

The famously-aggressive Rivera also passed up an opportunity to go for two after Carolina's only touchdown, when Talib went offsides on a PAT attempt. The penalty would have given Carolina the chance of converting from the one-yard line, where they would have had the league's second-best short-yardage rushing attack against its second-worst short-yardage rushing defense. The odds are heavily weighted in favor of converting from a yard out there, to the extent that going for two would have been the obvious move. The Panthers then subsequently ran the clock bizarrely during the end of the first half, with their two-minute drill petering out around midfield. Rivera's one of the league's best in-game tacticians, but that wasn't on display Sunday.

21. Sloppy Carolina play.

As brutally efficient as the Panthers had looked previously during the postseason, they delivered what can only be described as a wildly disappointing display in Super Bowl 50. I've already mentioned the drops by veteran receivers which plagued the Carolina passing game, but the entire offense made mistakes throughout the game. Eight of Carolina's final nine possessions included either a turnover or a penalty, with tackles Michael Oher and Mike Remmers combining for three false starts. Carolina wasn't aided by the crowd in Santa Clara, which reports suggests were heavily weighted towards Broncos fans. They had to go to a silent count early in the contest. The Panthers eventually finished with 12 penalties for 102 yards, exactly doubling Denver's totals (six for 51).

11. Ted Ginn

The league's winningest player over the last five years, Ginn has to be disappointed with his performance on Sunday. He caught just four of the ten passes thrown to him for a total of 74 yards, including the aforementioned interception which bounced off of his hands. Ginn ran an ugly route directly into Roby on a play which was rightly not called for defensive pass interference for that exact reason. He also took a four-yard sack on a pass play where Ginn could have thrown the ball out of bounds, while his three punt returns produced two yards.

6. Wade Phillips

He did it again. After crafting a brilliant defense game plan to beat the Patriots, the guy nobody wanted to interview for a defensive coordinator gig last season showed up and delivered another gem during Sunday's victory.

Last time out, the name of the game was coverage. Phillips blitzed less frequently and sent fewer men after the quarterback on pass plays than he had in any game since the 2007 season. This time, Phillips decided to blitz Newton and see what happened. Denver pushed players into the box and sent five or more men on 51.0 percent of Carolina's pass plays, pressuring Newton on 44.9 percent of his attempts. ESPN Stats and Info notes that Newton was blitzed 25 times, the second-highest total in Super Bowl history, and pressured on 21 of his dropbacks, which is tied for the second-highest figure with a party who had a happier day on Sunday, John Elway.

The Broncos blitzed quite frequently, but they actually got pressure more frequently when they didn't do so. Denver placed Newton under duress on 46 percent of his dropbacks when they sent four or fewer men, with that figure dropping to 40 percent when Phillips dialed up five men or more to send pressure. Phillips mixed up his coverages and gave Cam different looks, like when he spied Miller on the opening third down of the game before sending him to wreak havoc as a pass-rusher for most of the contest. He put together packages which seemed to befuddle the Panthers, like the feigned blitz by Danny Trevathan before halftime which confused Fozzy Whitaker into stepping up to try and block a man who wasn't there, giving DeMarcus Ware enough time to get around Michael Oher for the sack which begat Coldplay. And Phillips did enough to take away star Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, who finished with just four catches for 41 yards while being covered by as many as three Broncos at times. The result has to be sweet: after 40 years in the NFL, Phillips finally has his Super Bowl ring.

5. The Broncos' run defense

And in part, his ring is here because of how incredible Denver was against the Carolina running game.

One of the keys to the game for the Broncos had to be stuffing the Panthers on first-and-10. If they were able to get the Panthers in third-and-long, you can imagine Phillips telling his team, Carolina would be stuck throwing the football and unable to do anything to slow down Miller and Ware as pass rushers.

That's exactly what happened. The Panthers carried the ball 16 times for 53 yards on first-and-10 on Sunday, producing a 3.3-yard rushing average which will hit the books as their fifth-worst yards per carry figure on first down all season. In their two previous playoff games, Carolina carried the ball 33 times for 175 yards on first-and-10, an average of 5.3 yards per attempt. In part as a result, the Panthers were almost never in third-and-short, where they would have held an enormous advantage over the Broncos. Their one attempt on third-and-3 or less was when Newton plunged forward for a first down on third-and-2 during Carolina's disastrous attempt at a two-minute drill.

Denver will look back fondly on how they played. Carolina averaged 4.4 yards per carry, but some of that came from Cam as a scrambler; Jonathan Stewart produced just 29 yards on 12 carries, going out for part of the first half with a foot injury. At the same time, given how much I wrote about Carolina's state-of-the-art rushing attack heading into the game, I have to admit that I was pretty underwhelmed by how little Carolina did to spice up their ground game. Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall felt the same way.

The Panthers rarely brought motion across the formation to try and fake (or execute) the jet sweep, which could have slowed down the Denver edge rush. A triple option early in the first half sparked the first signs of life from Carolina's offense when it went for 14 yards and a first down, but Mike Shula didn't really go back to it or much else in the way of exotic rush concepts. Carolina went with a few packaged plays which didn't seem to do very much, including the would-be touchdown dropped by Cotchery. And when they did run out of the shotgun on first-and-10, their 11 tries gained just 35 yards, including a pair of fumbles.

4. Denver's special teams

Judging the Broncos special teams is always difficult, by virtue of the fact that they play their home games in the thin air of Colorado. Even after adjusting for the conditions, though, the numbers suggested that the Broncos would have a competitive advantage over the Panthers when it came to kicking, punting, and returning.

The gap between the two ended up being enormous on Sunday, with the Broncos holding virtually advantages across the board. Denver kicker Brandon McManus made three short field goals, while Graham Gano hit from 39 but had a 44-yarder clang off the uprights. The two teams were identical on kickoff returns, with two returns for 21 yards, but there was an enormous gap on punt returns. Jordan Norwood took a punt 61 yards to set up a field goal, while Ginn could only muster two yards across six tries.

It was an excellent punting performance from Denver's Britton Colquitt, who pinned Ginn all day and pushed three punts out of bounds. He had seven punts of 44 yards or more, with one 28-yarder in garbage time sullying his numbers. He kept Denver in better field position than its offense implied. That was an advantage on Carolina's Brad Nortman, who had a touchback and a 28-yard punt on that play Norwood nearly took to the house.

3. Fumble Luck

It's a word that will make some Broncos fans angry, but luck is part and parcel of any team's path to the championship, and that wasn't any different for Denver on Sunday. It's a little more complicated than saying that fumble recoveries are a 50-50 proposition, but that's close enough to the truth to illuminate just how meaningful and unlikely it was for the Broncos to recover five of the seven fumbles which hit the ground during Super Bowl 50. Forcing fumbles is a skill, as Panthers cornerback Charles Tillman can attest, but the art of recovering fumbles is still a murky mystery.

Even more important was just how meaningful those fumbles were. The three most valuable fumbles in the game, by far, all went to Denver. That includes the two Miller stripsacks, which resulted in a fumble recovery touchdown and a four-yard drive which produced Denver's other touchdown, as well as the Trevathan recovery of the fumble at the end of T.J. Ward's interception return, which came inside the Denver 10-yard line and would have given the Panthers a first-and-goal situation. The other four recoveries were split evenly and all within 12 yards of midfield. Recovering those three key fumbles was, after accounting for game situation and field position, worth somewhere in the range of 13-14 points for the Broncos.

2. DeMarcus Ware

1. Von Miller

After it all, though, the two most impactful players on the field were the same two guys who dominated the AFC Championship Game. I didn't think that Ware and Miller could come up with something to match their career day against the Patriots two weeks ago, but truthfully, they weren't far off. Ware and Miller combined for six of Denver's 13 knockdowns of Newton. This Broncos pass rush has taken things to a new level when Denver needed them most. Their two most productive pass-rushing days in terms of knockdowns have come during the AFC Championship Game (officially 17 knockdowns) and the Super Bowl (13) after never topping 12 knockdowns in a game during the regular season.

The numbers on Ware and Miller are stupefying.

With Phillips dropping either player into coverage periodically while resting them for Shane Ray, the duo only rushed after Newton together on 16 dropbacks, per ESPN Stats and Information. Those 16 dropbacks did not go well for Cam: they generated four sacks and two forced fumbles, while Newton otherwise went 1-of-12 on those those passes.

Miller, in particular, should be in right tackle Mike Remmers' nightmares for weeks. The Carolina right tackle was overmatched by his occasional assignment, and while the Panthers did move him around a bit as part of an unbalanced line, Remmers was obliterated in pass protection. Again per Stats and Info, when Miller came after Newton from the right side of the line, his 16 rush attempts produced four sacks, two fumbles, and just 3.7 yards per play. Ware finished with four knockdowns as part of a 12-hit, three-game postseason. That's as many as Jerry Hughes had all season, and more than the likes of Brian Orakpo, even over a full season.

At the end of the day, as great as it was to have Phillips around against four limited tackles in pass protection over the last two weeks, as much as it was about finding third down after third down in situations advantageous to a pass rush, as much as they're surrounded by talented defenders, Miller and Ware had to get home. They had to beat the guys across from them over and over again to try and win a Super Bowl. That's exactly what happened. When the Broncos needed their stars, their stars came up with two of the best games of their respective careers. We always think of quarterbacks (or other skill-position players) as the guys who rise to the occasion when their teams need them in the postseason. This time around, it was the pass rushers who came through in the clutch and brought another title to Denver.