SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Giant banners featuring Super Bowl 50 quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Cam Newton welcomed visitors entering Levi's Stadium. That was as good as either quarterback looked during a Super Bowl that was brutal for both offenses.
Utter offensive futility is the flip side to any great defensive battle. The Broncos made 11 first downs and gained 194 yards of offense in their 24-10 victory, the lowest yardage total for a Super Bowl winner. Newton completed 18 of 44 passes (44 percent). Both quarterbacks threw interceptions and lost fumbles. There were two offensive touchdowns, on 1- and 2-yard rushes.
"Man, we've got the best defense on the planet," Broncos running back C.J. Anderson said after carrying 23 times for 90 yards and scoring Denver's only offensive touchdown. "On the offensive end, we just did enough. That's what it's been all year for us with a new system."
The Broncos (1-of-14) and Panthers (3-of-15) combined to convert 13.8 percent of their third-down chances. The combined third-down conversion rate was another record low for a Super Bowl.
Trent Dilfer, Kerry Collins, Craig Morton and even Johnny Unitas could have related. They were behind center in the only other Super Bowls approaching this one for third-down futility on offense. Manning, like Dilfer and Unitas before him, could celebrate because his team won anyway. Newton was there with Collins and Morton after suffering a frustrating defeat.
"We dropped balls, we turned the ball over, gave up sacks, threw errant passes," Newton said.
Unitas' Baltimore Colts (3-of-11) and Morton's Dallas Cowboys (1-of-5) combined for a 16.7 percent conversion rate in Super Bowl V, which the Colts won, 16-13. Dilfer's Baltimore Ravens (3-of-16) and Collins' New York Giants (2-of-14) matched that percentage in Super Bowl XXXV. The Ravens won that game, 34-7.
Denver had converted 34.4 percent of its third-down chances from Week 1 through the AFC Championship Game, 27th in the NFL. Carolina had ranked fifth at 44.0 percent but everything changed Sunday when the Broncos repeatedly forced the Panthers into third-and-long. That was the No. 1 way for Denver to pull off the upset, and it worked. Carolina entered the game ranked fourth in third-down conversion rate with 6-plus yards to go, but getting into those situations was going to be trouble against the Broncos' fearsome pass rush.
"If they can get Carolina into third down and maybe 6-plus, and then that 97 [Broncos DL Malik Jackson] gets to play in some nickel situations against those guards while the two edge rushers do their thing, Cam is in trouble," an offensive coordinator had said during the week.
Edge rusher Von Miller's fumble-forcing sack in the first quarter came on third-and-10, enabling Jackson's touchdown return. Miller and Derek Wolfe sacked Newton on a third-and-8 later in the game. Miller had another fumble-forcing sack on third-and-9 during the fourth quarter, leading to a recovery for teammate T.J. Ward. Wolfe delivered a hard hit to Newton on a third-and-24 incompletion late in the game. A penalty against Denver negated another third-and-8 sack, this one by safety Darian Stewart.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he thought the Broncos' linebackers excelled at diagnosing run plays, a key to shutting down Jonathan Stewart. The RB said the Broncos' frequent stunting gave the Panthers problems. Succeeding against Carolina's running game forced the Panthers into third-and-long situations, allowing Denver to rush the passer without regard for the run. Before Sunday, Carolina's diverse ground game had succeeded in keeping Newton from pure drop-back passing situations.
Getting Carolina into obvious passing situations helped Denver win despite Manning averaging 0.5 yards per pass play on third down. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Manning's 2.9-yard average per pass attempt on third down is the lowest by a Super Bowl-winning quarterback since Tom Brady averaged 1.6 against St. Louis in Super Bowl XXXVI.
If playing offense in Super Bowl 50 was a grind for Denver, it was a nightmare for Carolina.
"I'm just glad that I was on the same team as our defense and I don't have to play against them," Manning said.