The favored Carolina Panthers and their No. 1 offense were reduced to rare displays of sustained efficiency in the National Football League's championship game.
The Denver Broncos' aged quarterback, Peyton Manning, made plays that may not have been "big," but were enough to help his team win the game.
The Panthers won the coin toss, but little after. They blitzed early on Denver's first offensive drive and it was obvious early that Denver's offensive line was up to the task. Manning completed four passes and running back CJ Anderson contributed 19 yards on the ground. Brandon McManus kicked a 34-yard field goal to put the Broncos up early 3-0.
For all of the fun and celebrating Newton has had this year, he looked overwhelmed by the moment. The first pass of the game was overthrown. It was the first of three overthrows in the first half and the first of 23 incompletions on the day. Newton finished the day 18-for-41 with one interception and was sacked seven times.
Broncos linebacker Von Miller blindsided Newton in the first quarter and ripped the ball out of his hands. Malik Jackson recovered the fumble for Denver in the end zone. With the extra point from McManus, Denver led 10-0. Miller was named the Super Bowl's Most Valuable Player.
In the ensuing Carolina drive, Newton rushed twice for 23 yards and completed passes to Greg Olsen for 19 yards and Corey Brown for 33. Jonathan Stewart plunged in from a yard out. Denver led 10-7.
And then, that was it. The Broncos gave Newton no one to throw to and forced him to fumble again. Panthers running back Mike Tolbert would also fumble, kicker Graham Gano would hit the upright in missing a 44-yard field goal attempt, Newton would throw an interception and Denver would win the battle of field position in posting three field goals and a late touchdown to seal the victory, 24-10.
After the game, Newton took responsibility for the loss. After a series of questions, he offered the obvious,
"They just played better than us," Newtown said. "I don't know what you guys want me to say. They made more plays. We had our opportunities," he said. "We dropped balls, turned the ball over, gave up sacks, threw errant passes. That's it. They scored more points than us."
He forgot to mention a blown punt coverage that allowed the Broncos Jordan Norwood to return a punt 61 yards. It led to Denver's third score of the game and a 13-7 lead.
He also could have mentioned the decision -- late in the game down 24-10 -- to make no attempt at a kickoff return from just two yards deep in the end zone and the team desperate for a big play.
He could have also mentioned the decision to punt the ball -- down 14 points with two minutes to go and only two timeouts remaining.
After the game, cornerback Aqib Talib told the NFL Network the Broncos knew the game was theirs to win.
"We knew it was on us today," he said. "We knew we couldn't let them come out and score 28 or 30 points. We knew we couldn't do that many. We knew they were gonna make some plays here and there. To keep them out of the end zone, we had to get turnovers."
He was right. Carolina had four turnovers. Manning had two, but Carolina could muster only three points from them.
After the game, Manning was asked about retirement following a season in which he was often injured and found himself in a backup role for the first time in a quarter century. He said he would take the advice of former coach Tony Dungy who had told him not to make "an emotional decision."
He turned most questions into praise for his teammates.
"This is a tough, resilient, unselfish bunch of guys," he said, and thanked them for "letting me be part of the journey."
If Manning decides this journey is his last in the league, the Pro Football Hall of Fame will undoubtedly enshrine him in five years. There he will join Dungy, his former head coach, and Marvin Harrison, his former wide receiver with the Indianapolis Colts who on Saturday were announced as members of this year's class.