Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning said all the proper things. It’s what he omitted that was telling.
"We knew the Carolina Panthers would be our greatest challenge," Manning said following a 24-10 victory in Super Bowl 50. "They gave us all we could handle."
If Manning was talking specifically about the Broncos’ offensive unit, then that was accurate. The Panthers’ defense held the Broncos to a single third-down conversion in 14 attempts.
But all that good work the defense did became moot because of how poorly the Panthers’ offense executed. Takeaway-giveaway ratio had been huge in the Panthers’ 17-1 run to a Super Bowl berth They were plus-20 in turnovers forced versus committed.
Sunday all that flipped. The Panthers fumbled four times with the Broncos recovering three of those, including Denver’s first touchdown to take a 10-0 lead.
That just became too much of a burden for the defense to overcome, even with this being a one-score deficit late in the fourth quarter.
"It was really unfortunate what happened," said defensive end Koy Ealy. "At the end of the day it wasn’t what they did (to win). It’s what we did (to lose)."
Ealy had one of the best performances among the Panthers with an interception of Manning that probably avoided a score. He also had three of the Panthers’ five sacks of Manning for a combined 23 yards in losses.
"It (stinks), but what are you going to do about it? The better team won. We made mistakes and they didn’t make mistakes.
"We can’t do that. It ends in a loss."
Ealy’s interception was key to keeping the Panthers in this game. It came with the Panthers trailing the Broncos 13-7 late in the first half. The Broncos had the ball at midfield after Panthers running back Mike Tolbert fumbled.
Manning drove the Broncos to the Carolina 24 when he threw a lazy pass intended for Emmanuel Sanders. Ealy stuck up his right arm, grabbing in the ball one-handed to end Denver’s drive.
"I got to my spot, turned around and the ball was right there," Ealy said. "It was all in one motion."
The other significant play to avoid a touchdown in the first half was made by defensive end Mario Addison, but while on special teams. Denver punt returner Jordan Norwood burst to his right after receiving the ball. Some Panthers acted as if Norwood signaled for a fair catch, because the first two players to Norwood made no effort to tackle him.
Norwood got to the sideline and ran 61 yards – the longest punt return in Super Bowl history – before Addison chased him down from behind to avoid what looked like a sure touchdown.
That kept the Panthers in this game until quarterback Cam Newton’s fumble gave Denver possession just 4 yards from the end zone with about 4 minutes left.
That set up running back C.J. Anderson’s 2-yard touchdown run. A two-point conversion extended Denver’s lead to 24-10.
"It (stinks). It was a good game, and we’ll bounce back," said rookie linebacker Shaq Thompson. "I’d go to battle with this team every day against anybody."
But that didn’t soften the blow of losing, even for a rookie.
"I feel like this was my only opportunity" to win the Super Bowl, Thompson said. "You never know whether you’ll come back."
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; @rick_bonnell