Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos are back in the Super Bowl for a second time in three years, but it’s not the quarterback and a top offense that has the team fighting for a championship this time around. The AFC champs are led by the NFL’s No. 1 defense and a few of the best individual defensive players in all of football.
Denver has eight total Pro Bowl selections, and six of those players come from the defensive side of the ball. But Denver’s defense will get its toughest test of the year when it goes up against the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50, facing Cam Newton and the NFL’s No. 1 scoring team. The Broncos’ defense has showed up in a big way this postseason, putting up great performances in wins over the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots.
While Denver’s defensive stars have stood out the most this season, a few players on offense and special teams have made an impact that could carry over in a 2016 Super Bowl.
Von Miller/DeMarcus Ware
When the combination of Miller and Ware are healthy, they might be the best pass-rushing duo in the NFL. Miller and Ware may also be the most pronounced reason why Denver advanced to Super Bowl 50. Denver barely gave Tom Brady any time to thrown the ball in the AFC Championship, recording four sacks and hitting the quarterback 20 times. Miller and Ware were responsible for 11 of those hits, and they’ll be looking to do the same to Cam Newton.
Denver ranked first in the regular season with 52 sacks, and Miller led the way with 11 sacks himself. He sacked Brady 2.5 times Sunday, and he has a good chance to make a game-changing play in the Super Bowl since he's tied for third in the league with four forced fumbles. Ware was injured for much of the season, but he has nine sacks in 13 games. He hit Brady seven times in the conference title game, and his ability to prevent Newton from making big plays with his legs could be a major factor in Super Bowl 50.
Chris Harris Jr.
The pressure Denver’s front-seven put on New England resulted in the Patriots posting just 18 points, but the performance by Harris can’t be overlooked. A week after Julian Edelman led the Patriots with 10 catches for 100 yards, he was clearly contained by Harris. Edelman was targeted 13 times, catching just seven passes for 53 yards. Harris limited Calvin Johnson and A.J. Green in regular-season games, though he was outworked by superstar Antonio Brown when the Broncos lost to the Steelers in Week 15.
Harris has been quite consistent, proving himself to be among the elite cornerbacks in football. If he can can shut down Ted Ginn Jr., Newton will have to rely more heavily on Greg Olsen in the Super Bowl.
Demaryius Thomas is the team’s No. 1 wide receiver, but Sanders could prove to be Manning’s most important target in Super Bowl 50. Since Manning’s last regular-season start in Week 10, Thomas has just one 100-yard game and two games of more than 61 receiving yards. Thomas was nowhere to be found against New England, and Sanders led the team with 62 receiving yards after leading Denver with 85 yards against Pittsburgh.
If Thomas draws the assignment of Josh Norman, there’s a good chance Manning will look for Sanders more than anyone else. Sanders usually has a major role in Denver’s best offensive performances, averaging 98.5 receiving yards when the Broncos score at least 24 points.
Most Super Bowls in recent years have come down to the wire, making kickers very important. If Denver’s season is decided on a field goal attempt, the Broncos will be in a good position with McManus trying to win the game for the AFC champs. The 24-year-old has been tremendous for Denver in the playoffs, making all seven field goal attempts, including kicks from 51 and 52 yards out. He might have been the biggest key to the team’s win in the divisional playoffs, hitting four field goals of 41 yards or more.
With Super Bowl 50 set for Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, McManus won’t have the advantage of kicking in Denver’s high altitude. But he only missed two field goals on the road in the regular season. No matter where the game is being played, his leg strength should make Carolina’s return game obsolete on kickoffs.