SANTA CLARA, Calif. — A sea of Denver Broncos had just chased a beleaguered Cam Newton around his own end zone one more time, and Carolina coach Ron Rivera had seen enough.
With 2:08 left in one of the ugliest Super Bowls you’ll ever see, he threw in the towel.
Actually, Rivera ordered a punt on fourth down. No reason to give Denver another easy score that would make future sports historians think this game was somehow worth watching.
Super Bowl 50 was supposed to be a celebration of all things great about the NFL — focusing on the old star Peyton Manning and Newton, the exciting face of the future. But the only thing to celebrate at the end was a vicious Denver defense that made enough big plays to set up Manning for the second Super Bowl ring he so coveted in what was likely the final game of his career.
At least let’s hope it was the final game of his career. It would be hard to watch No. 18 take the field again after a performance that exposed him as an aging quarterback hanging on for one final moment of glory.
Manning wasn’t terrible, but for a lot of the game he was simply awful. If not for a late gift from the Panthers, Denver would have gone the entire game without an offensive touchdown.
Not that it mattered. Not with Von Miller and the rest of a Denver defense that Wade Phillips unleashed on the Panthers.
They scored when Manning couldn’t. They harassed Newton on every snap, hitting him 10 times and sacking him six times. They kept getting the ball back, even if Manning and the offense didn’t seem to know what to do when they got it.
They gave the Broncos their first Super Bowl win in 17 years despite the most anemic performance by an offense of any of the 49 Super Bowl winners before them.
“This game was like this season has been,” Manning said. “It tested our toughness, our resilience and our unselfishness. It’s only fitting it turned out that way. A great bunch of teammates, a great bunch of guys to play with. I feel very, very grateful.”
The tone for this one was set early when Miller hit Newton inside the 5-yard-line, then stripped the ball from his arms for good measure. Defensive end Malik Jackson fell on it in the end zone and Denver had a 10-0 lead it would never give up.
That play might have never happened if the officials weren’t having a bad night of their own. They couldn’t wait to toss flags when players jawed at each other, and they still can’t figure out what a catch is as evidenced by the unsuccessful challenge two plays earlier of a catch by Jerricho Cotchery that wasn’t.
Miller would chase Newton all night in an MVP performance that played out pretty much the way Phillips drew it up. The defensive wizard was brought in by Denver coach Gary Kubiak, who was himself brought in by John Elway, to instill toughness in the Broncos in the wake of playoff disappointments that included a blowout loss to Seattle in the Super Bowl two years ago.
Mission accomplished. Carolina may have outgained Denver 315-194 yards, but Newton was never given a chance to get in a rhythm, never had an opportunity to break out into a Dab.
“It was nothing special that they did,” Newton said in the most expansive of his brief postgame comments. “We dropped balls. We turned the ball over. We gave up sacks. We threw errant passes. That’s it.”
That was about it, though there was incompetence aplenty from both offenses. Anyone who grew up scoring touchdowns playing Madden videogames probably turned this one off before Coldplay and celebrity guests trotted out for a halftime show that paid homage to shows of the past.
The greatest passer in the history of the NFL struggled to complete the most basic throws. Manning completed only 13 passes for 141 yards, threw an interception and lost a fumble.
But he managed to hold the Super Bowl trophy upright as he celebrated with teammates in the one he wanted most.
“He was on a team that could help him get a win,” Kubiak said. “He didn’t have to go out there and do it all on his own, and he knew that.”
Manning wouldn’t commit to retirement after the game, saying he got good advice from former coach Tony Dungy to never make a decision in the heat of the moment. But it’s hard to think that he would come back at the age of 40 to go through the rigors of another season.
Not when he’s now tied with brother Eli with two Super Bowl rings each. Not when his arm strength just isn’t there.
Yes, the game might have been ugly.
But for Manning and the Broncos the result was simply beautiful.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlbergap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg