SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Four years ago at the introductory news conference that brought quarterback Peyton Manning to the Broncos, Executive Vice President of Football Operations and General Manager John Elway famously said the organization did not have a Plan B.
“Plan B? We don’t have a Plan B. We’re going Plan A,” Elway said.
By all accounts, Plan A the past four seasons has been a rousing success for the Broncos. A 50-14 regular-season record with at least 12 wins each year. Four AFC West titles. Four first-round playoff byes. Two appearances in the the Super Bowl.
But one thing has been missing: A third Vince Lombardi Trophy.
With Manning possibly playing the final game of his Hall of Fame career – his “last rodeo,” as he has said — the Broncos get another crack at winning that elusive third championship on Sunday when they play the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50 at Levi’s Stadium.
The Broncos, who beat the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots in the playoffs en route to the title game, are in their record-tying eighth Super Bowl; they’re 2-5 in previous appearances. Two years ago, they gave up a safety 12 seconds into the game and were run out of MetLife Stadium in a 43-8 debacle against the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII.
In that game, the Broncos had the No. 1 offense that got shellacked by the No. 1 defense. The loss prompted Elway to overhaul the defense, spending more than $100 million to sign DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward, and drafting Shane Ray and Bradley Roby.
With Von Miller, Derek Wolfe and Chris Harris Jr. also in the mix, the Broncos led the league in sacks, yards per play and pass defense this season with a big assist from defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who was brought onto the staff of first-year coach Gary Kubiak.
Its strong front seven and highly touted secondary will have to contain quarterback Cam Newton and the rest of the high-flying Panthers, who come in as a five-point favorite.
But the Broncos shut down Aaron Rodgers and the then-unbeaten Green Bay Packers in November. On Thanksgiving weekend, they handed the Patriots their first loss, then beat New England again in the AFC Championship game by hitting quarterback Tom Brady 23 times.
“Everything will be forgotten by next season if we don’t come home with that trophy,” Talib said this week. “So the most important stat is winning this game.”
The Panthers have gotten off to fast starts in their two playoff wins, outscoring the Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals, 55-7, in the first half.
But the Broncos this season overcame two-touchdown deficits to beat three teams that eventually made the playoffs: Against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 2, the Patriots in Week 12 and the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 16. They have won 11 games by seven points or fewer.
But the buildup this week in the Bay Area has centered on Manning, who can cap an improbable season with a fairy tale ending. He was yanked from a deplorable loss to the Chiefs, then sat out seven games while recovering from torn plantar fascia in his left foot.
He was the backup to Brock Osweiler in the Week 17 game against the San Diego Chargers only to come off the bench and lead the team to victory to secure the AFC’s No. 1 seed. Now, it’s a fourth trip to the Super Bowl in his illustrious career, a chance to ride off into the sunset with a second title, just like Elway did 17 years ago with the Broncos.
“I have said it could be and maybe it will be (the end),” Manning said this week. “I get asked a lot about my legacy. For me, it’s being a good teammate, having the respect of my teammates, having the respect of the coaches and players. That’s important to me. I am not taking this for granted. I just love football. I always have.”