A Retro Super Bowl, Putting Defense and Running First

Peyton Manning is back in the Super Bowl, but it wasn’t his passing that put the Broncos there.

Perhaps no N.F.L. team has reinvented itself as quickly and successfully as the Denver Broncos — from No. 1 offense headed into the 2014 Super Bowl to No. 1 defense headed into the 2016 trophy contest, from postmodern quick-snap to traditionalist ground-and-pound.

Few N.F.L. teams have gone against the grain as much as the Carolina Panthers — in a pass-wacky league, they compiled a 15-1 regular season record by running more than throwing. League-wide this season, 58 percent of snaps were pass attempts; the Panthers threw but 49 percent of the time. In the postseason they’ve doubled down, with 78 rushes versus 50 pass attempts, just 39 percent passing.

Given how the pass has taken over professional football, it’s intriguing that the four most recent N.F.C. Super Bowl entrants — San Francisco, Seattle, then Seattle, now Carolina — are rare in being run-first clubs, while Denver, crushed in the 2014 Super Bowl with a pass-first approach, returns to the trophy contest with a defense-first philosophy.

The coming Super Bowl in Santa Clara will recreate the Super Bowl in New Jersey, and not just via cartographic disorientation. In 2014 in the swamps of Jersey, the No. 1 scoring team, the Broncos, confronted the No. 1 defense, the Seahawks. Two weeks hence, the No. 1 scoring team, the Panthers, will confront the No. 1 defense, the Broncos.

When offense meets defense in a football title game, defense holds the high card. The Denver offense that got crushed two years ago was the highest-scoring N.F.L. team ever. The second-highest-scoring N.F.L. team, the 2007 Patriots, also lost the Super Bowl, to the Giants. In the ultimate game, these aerial powerhouses produced just 14 points (New England) and 8 points (Denver).

Not only did the top two highest-scoring N.F.L. teams fail in the playoffs, but so so did the third (2011 Packers, lost in divisional round), the fourth (2012 Patriots, lost in A.F.C. title game), the fifth (the 1998 Vikings, lost in N.F.C. title game) and the sixth (the 2011 Saints, lost in the divisional round). Of the top 10 scoring clubs in N.F.L. annals, only the 1999 Rams won the Super Bowl the same season.

Carolina’s 500-point regular season ranks 16th for most points. It puts the Cats into the category of the unusually high-scoring team that meets a power defense in a championship contest. The big difference between Carolina and other high-scoring teams that have faltered in the end is that the Panthers are run-first. In a football artificial universe of pass-pass-pass, a traditionalist Super Bowl awaits.

Sweet Play of the Title Round. Carolina leading 3-0, the Panthers had second-and-2 on the Cardinals’ 22. The main action went right, including guard Andrew Norwell pulling right as misdirection. Castoff wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. — he’s been let go four times, most recently by Arizona — took a flip handoff left on an end-around, broke a halfhearted tackle attempt by Arizona’s Justin Bethel, cut back and outran defenders to the end zone.

Adding sweetness to Ginn’s day, late in the second quarter, hosts leading 24-7, Arizona’s Patrick Peterson intercepted a pass and seemed on the way for a touchdown. Ginn ran him down from behind, and on the next Arizona snap, Carson Palmer threw a pick. Preventing a momentum swing, Ginn’s tackle of Peterson was the hidden play of the title round.

Sweet or Sour Play That Never Happened. When the Patriots recorded their improbable fourth-and-goal touchdown with 12 seconds remaining, the score could have been Denver 20, New England 19, if New England’s normally reliable Stephen Gostkowski had not missed an extra-point kick earlier in the game. Bill Belichick would have faced the same choice Mike McCarthy faced at the endgame in the Packers-Seahawks postseason meeting — kick for overtime or one play to win or lose. We’ll never know what Belichick would have chosen, but I’m betting he would have gone for the win.

Sour Play That Did Happen. As it was, New England had no choice but to go for two. Had the try been for the win, a lot of the pressure would have been on Denver, which would have known that if New England scored, the Broncos would live with an off-season of hearing that their vaunted defense failed to hold a fourth-quarter lead at home. Because the try was to force overtime, most of the pressure was on the Flying Elvii.

Denver called a timeout, giving the Patriots a chance to get their ducks in a row. Rob Gronkowski, New England’s best goal-line receiver, was not split wide, rather in-line — he’d been in-line most of the second half, partly to help with blocking on Von Miller. He’d been in-line the down before, when he caught a fourth-and-goal touchdown pass. A five-man New England pattern left the Patriots only five to block five rushers, and the offensive line barely slowed three of them. Veteran tackle Sebastian Vollmer just gave DeMarcus Ware a quick shove and then stood watching him chase Tom Brady backward to the 12, where Brady threw an interception. Injuries have caused New England to reshuffle its offensive line many times this season, which would be a problem for any team. But on the Patriots’ do-or-die play, the whole offensive line was overpowered: sour.

Scorer’s note: Because no individual statistics count on two-point attempts, Denver was credited with only two interceptions, though Bradley Roby picked off the deuce try, attempted to run it the other way instead of simply going to the ground, and lost a fumble. Check the Game Book entry at 12 seconds “TWO-POINT CONVERSION ATTEMPT. T. Brady pass to J. Edelman is incomplete. ATTEMPT FAILS. DEFENSIVE TWO POINT ATTEMPT. B. Roby intercepted the try attempt. ATTEMPT FAILS.”

Stats of the Week. Tom Brady is 2-7 at Denver.

Peyton Manning is 3-1 versus Brady in the A.F.C. title game.

Defeating the Patriots twice in two months, the Broncos outrushed them, 278 yards to 83 yards.

The Broncos beat the Patriots during the regular season; in postseason rematches, teams that prevailed in the regular season (either 1-0 or 2-0 versus the opponent) are 59-44 in the postseason.

Denver is 7-0 with Ed Hochuli as the referee; New England is 4-5.

In consecutive home playoff games, the Panthers took a combined 55-7 first-half lead.

To halftime of the N.F.C. title contest, Carolina was on a home streak of outscoring opponents 168-31 in the first half.

In Arizona’s final three games, the Cardinals were outscored 105-46.

Carolina finished the season 10-0 at home.

The Panthers are on a 22-2 stretch.

Warning to Denver Fans; Teams with Orange on Their Primary Jerseys Are 2-7 in the Super Bowl. Denver allowed 18.5 points per game in the regular season and has held true to form in the postseason, surrendering 16 to Pittsburgh and 18 to New England. Denver hit Tom Brady hard 12 times by my count, several times forced him to throw the ball away, thrice forced what might have been intentional grounding calls, and chased him backward on the game-deciding deuce attempt. Most of the pressure came off a four-man rush — the same tactic the Giants employed to defeat Brady twice in the Super Bowl. Key stat of the endgame: The Patriots had 19 fourth-quarter snaps in Denver territory, resulting in six points.

Peyton Manning hasn’t thrown a postseason interception, after tossing 17 in just nine regular-season starts. If the Bronco defense remains stout while Manning resists the urge to launch crazy passes, Denver’s Super Bowl chances are good.

In the Pittsburgh game, Manning threw super-short. Against New England, Manning went deep five times, once for a 34-yard gain, once for a touchdown, thrice for incompletions. That’s an acceptable outcome for the Broncs — the occasional deep shot that falls incomplete prevents safeties from choking up versus the run. Before the field goal that made the count 20-12, Manning missed an open receiver in the end zone. But he threw no crazy passes, and by his recent standard, that’s a good day.

New England showed many press fronts, which seemed to frustrate Manning, so this tactic may be expected from Carolina. Twice in the fourth quarter, Brady sensed a Denver blitz and audibled to splitting tailback James White wide and sending him on a fly route. Both times he was open: Once he dropped the pass; the other time Brady missed him. Carolina coaches will notice that this tactic almost generated a big play. The Patriots “took away” Denver’s best receiver, Demaryius Thomas — seven targets for 12 yards gained. You’d best believe Carolina will look closely at film of how New England did it.

Both Denver touchdown passes were to vagabond tight end Owen Daniels, who really should change his first name to Godfrey. (Announcer: “Godfrey Daniels a touchdown!”) On the first, Daniels was in motion; Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins seemed confused and did not cover him. On the second, Daniels split far wide the way Rob Gronkowski sometimes does, and Collins made the mistake of looking into the backfield trying to guess the play, rather than stick with his man.

New England often operated five-wide, including when close to its own goal line. But the Patriots did not use a hurry-up, a small surprise since this tactic generally has been good for them. Brady threw one interception directly into the hands of Von Miller when the Denver sack artist surprised by dropping in coverage.

Both teams turned the ball over with sideways plays — New England losing yardage on a shaggy-looking sideways pass on fourth-and-1, Denver losing a fumble on an equally shaggy-looking sideways pass that was initially ruled an incompletion. The call was changed to fumble, a major gift to the Patriots, by Ed Hochuli, whom Flying Elvii faithful didn’t want wearing the white cap. That Hochuli was assigned to the game proves Roger Goodell is trying to destroy New England! Just ask any Patriots fan.

Nesquik Should Be Rebranded RealQuik. The verbal tic of saying “real quick” is surging ahead of “you know” in the American lexicon. “You know” is an empty expression, a verbal place-holder. By contrast, “real quick” has significance, reflecting the continuing acceleration of life.

“Good morning, I would like to order an espresso please” now is “real quick can I get an espresso?” People who once said “perhaps we should meet in the conference room to review the project” say “real quick what’s up with the project?” Insertion of “real quick” assures the interlocutor that the pain of actually listening to someone soon will be over, and multitasking can resume. It can’t be long until “real quick, want to get married?” is considered a romantic proposal or till some presidential candidate says, “Real quick, let’s declare war on Latvia.”

Here is what famous statements would have sounded like if including the contemporary vocal accelerant:

“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, real quick, creeps along. Blow out that candle.”

“When in the course of human events, real quick, we get pretty steamed, we mutually pledge stuff.”

Armageddon, spiritual recrudescence, boyish dreams: Old soldiers never die, they just, real quick, fade away.”

“Real quick, 87 years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation. It won’t perish. Thanks for coming.”

“Très rapidement , je ne ai pas besoin de cette hypothèse.”

“Verum velox, veni, vidi, vici.”

About that famous Douglas MacArthur line “old soldiers never die, they just fade away”: It’s memorable — and makes no sense. If you’ve got another famous oft-quoted statement that makes no sense, tweet it to me at @EasterbrookG.

Nike, Marriott Should Be Ashamed. One of the cynical things happening in high school sports is that in the last few decades, states have begun to allow year-round football practice. It’s not just that high school football teams play way too many games — some an N.F.L.-length 16-game season. Behind the scenes, increasingly, high school football squads practice way too much.

Year-round football causes the adults involved to feel important but interferes with students’ grades, while making it hard for them to participate in the extracurricular activities that college admissions officers look for. Year-round football allows hundreds of thousands of teenagers to spend their high school years living a fantasy of becoming N.F.L. stars. Then when recruiters don’t call, as they usually don’t — one high school footballer in 15 plays in college — teenagers who were sucked into year-round football may find themselves lacking the G.P.A.s and extracurriculars for regular admission to college. To top it off, of those who do get a recruiting boost to college — that is, of the success stories — 48 percent feel they spent too much time on football in high school. See Page 80.

So you’d think the grown-ups in leadership positions in the sports establishment would be working to reduce obsession with football at the high school level. You’d think wrong. Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports reports Nike will launch national off-season 7-on-7 football leagues for high school players. Marriott will sponsor. The leagues will be great for generating hype, and make it easier for big-college coaches to sustain their wealth by meeting and recruiting the tiny fraction of athletes bound for stardom. For the average player, time-consuming participation in Nike’s 7-on-7 leagues may have the effect of reducing the chance of regular admission to college. This is doubly vexing since many universities have more regular financial aid to offer than N.C.A.A. scholarship money.

Dodd reports Nike will charge high school players “at least $1,000 to participate.” Many disadvantaged families may shell out this fee because they’ll dream it will translate into an athletic scholarship, only to realize too late they’ve been duped. Nike and Marriott should be ashamed of themselves for dreaming up this latest way to exploit young football players.

Buck-Buck-Brawkkkkkk. Denver punted on fourth-and-1 from the Flying Elvii 46. Normally this would seem a bad choice, but since the Broncos’ offense was sputtering while the team’s defense was playing well, the decision was understandable.

The Cardinals’ Preposterous Punt was a different matter. Trailing 27-7 midway through the third quarter, Coach Bruce Arians sent out the punter on fourth-and-2. Who cares if the spot was the Arizona 28? The Cardinals were down by three scores in the second half of a title contest. The Cardinals had the league’s No. 1 offense during the regular season: If in the postseason they were afraid to try to gain just two yards, they stood no chance. As the punt boomed, T.M.Q. wrote the words “game over” in his notebook. Then in the fourth quarter Arizona did go for it on fourth-and-2. But by that juncture the Cardinals were down by 27 points, with the situation hopeless.

Buck-Buck-Brawkkkkkk Bonus. Scoring to pull to 34-15 — that’s three scores — with 14:16 remaining, the Cardinals did not do an onside kick.

Money Destroyed! One reason for the endless sense of unease many feel about the economy is exaggeration of negative numbers. Last Wednesday, when the stock market had a dismal outing, “NBC Nightly News” showed the country a scary graphic asserting that the typical American “lost $9,500” in retirement savings merely in that single day. Most Americans lost nothing — any more than they could be said to profit when the market rises. Unless you’re cashing out, market ups and downs are paper gains or losses. Housing prices also go up and down — unless you want to sell or must sell, you don’t “profit” when housing prices rise or “lose” when they decline.

Even national leaders exaggerate the impact of market swings. In 2010, Ben Bernanke testified before a huge graphic asserting “$17.5 trillion wealth destroyed July 2007-March 2009.” Federal Reserve net-worth statistics were used to back the claim. Both financial and housing markets plunged in that period, but value was not “destroyed” except for those who either wanted to, or had to, sell. Most sat tight and experienced no destruction.

The Fed’s most recent net-worth calculations (which correct some 2010 estimates) show United States household net worth was $66 trillion in 2007 when the recession began, bottomed at $56 trillion in 2008 and has risen since to $85 trillion. By the same logic of claiming a vast amount was “destroyed” from 2007 to 2009, a far vaster amount was “created” beginning in 2008. Both ways of thinking exaggerate the rate of change — and the sense of rapid, exaggerated change leads to unease.

Broncos Reinvention Details. Denver has both reinvented itself and done so by cleaning house from a coaching standpoint — Coach Gary Kubiak, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and offensive coordinator Rick Dennison are all in their first season. Normally the longer the coach’s tenure the better: Coaches for this season’s playoff field averaged six years in their present job, versus a 3.5-year average for head coaches of N.F.L. teams that did not reach the postseason.

“If He Hadn’t Tripped Over His Own Teammate in the Backfield, He Could Have Gone All the Way!” Last week T.M.Q. noted that television announcers cry “it was almost intercepted!” of passes that defenders have no chance of catching. In the N.F.C. title game, Fox’s Troy Aikman declared a defender “almost came up with an interception” when the pass was barely tipped. Later he enthused “that was almost intercepted!” of a pass no defender touched.

“Queen Isabella, Columbus Proposes to Sail the Ocean to Find a New Route for the East Indies Cement Trade.” Last week’s column noted the appearance in Washington supermarkets of $9 bundles of Estonian firewood, and wondered how 20 pounds of anything — dirt, sawdust — could move thousands of miles and sell at a profit for $9. Keaton Miller, an economist at the University of Oregon, notes this paper showing that transportation costs have dropped so much that even cement now is routinely shipped long distances.

If Peyton Manning Drank Gatorade While Driving a Buick to Purchase Nationwide Insurance… During the title contests, Peyton Manning and Cam Newton were featured in national television commercials as pitchmen for two different products. Carson Palmer did not appear in any national commercial, but his face is little-recognized. Then there’s Tom Brady — among the best-known N.F.L. players ever, magazine-cover handsome, yet he was in no national television ad. Manning is in so many adverts we could save space by listing the brands he doesn’t endorse. Brady is known to be more selective with his endorsements — his name graces a snazzy watch — though he still ranks at near the top of the league in endorsement earnings.

Newton’s combination of athletic skill and infectious smile is exactly the face that football wants to show the world. He’s always gotten a pass on leaving the University of Florida rather than face suspension or expulsion — he began his collegiate career as Tim Tebow’s backup — and then having his eligibility investigated by the N.C.A.A. at Auburn. Perhaps all that happened was youthful foolishness, which many, including George W. Bush, received a pass on. But now that Newton is about to start in the Super Bowl, he should brace for fresh scrutiny.

BOLO of the Playoffs. All units, all units, be on the lookout for the Arizona Cardinals offense. Arizona averaged a league-leading 420 offensive yards gained through its first 15 games — then in its final three games averaged 296 yards, below the league-worst 297 yards averaged by the Rams. The Cardinals turned the ball over 24 times in the regular season, or 1.5 turnovers per game, then in the postseason committed nine turnovers, 4.5 per game. At one juncture in the N.F.C. title contest, Arizona committed turnovers on four consecutive possessions.

Carson Palmer looked mighty good during the regular season at Arizona, but he was off-key in the postseason versus Green Bay and cover-your-eyes at Carolina. In the title game, his passer rating, 43.2, barely exceeded the 39.6 rating the N.F.L. formula assigns when every pass a quarterback throws clangs to the ground incomplete. At times Palmer’s passes were so bad you couldn’t tell who he was trying to throw to. Receivers including the great Larry Fitzgerald didn’t help, dropping passes on third down. But mainly Palmer seems to get the yips in money time. On his career, he is 1-8 in January.

Now the paragraph you knew was coming. All season T.M.Q. had warned that the Cardinals’ predictable big-blitzing on third-and-long would bring the team to woe. Carolina leading 10-0 late in the first quarter, the Cats faced third-and-8 on their 14. Arizona big-blitzed, and the seemingly easy 86-yard touchdown pass to the uncovered Corey Brown made the audience think, “This will be a walkover.”

More Indication That Defense Trumps Offense. Of the title-round final four, all finished in the top 10 for defense but only two (Arizona and New England) were top 10 in offensive yards. In the postseason over all, seven of the top 10 defenses reached the playoffs (Denver, Seattle, Houston, Arizona, Carolina, Kansas City and New England) while only four of the top 10 offenses for yards (Arizona, Pittsburgh, Seattle and New England) did. Six of the top 10 passing defenses made the playoffs while just three of the top-10 passing offenses (Arizona, Pittsburgh and New England) reached the postseason. Nine of top 10 rushing defenses made the postseason (only the Jets missed). For three consecutive seasons, the No. 1 passing defense — Seattle in 2013, Seattle in 2014 and Denver in 2015 — has made the Super Bowl. Only once in that time did the No. 1 passing offense — Denver 2013 — reach the finale.

Next Week. No football: Can that be legal? Tide yourself over with a bonus Tuesday Morning Quarterback. I will forecast the Super Bowl (I didn’t say I would be accurate, just would forecast) and will reveal a surefire system for predicting N.F.L. winners — without even knowing who’s playing.

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