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Preseason Power Rankings No. 16: Vikings

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The Vikings start the 2013 season smack in the middle of the pack.  They likely won’t finish there.

The unlikely 2012 wild-card team will get either a lot better with the development of a strong passing game, or a lot worse without it.

And so the focal point of the entire franchise becomes the man who is the most important player on every NFL team:  the quarterback.

The Vikings will go as far as Christian Ponder will take them.  And before we go much farther with that point, let’s defer to the various categories we use for every team.

Strengths.

The Vikings’ biggest strength comes from an offense built around Adrian Peterson, the reigning league MVP.  If Peterson, who came within nine yards of the single-season rushing record despite tearing an ACL on Christmas Eve of 2011, runs in 2013 like he ran during the second half of 2012, he could put up 2,500 yards or more.

Helping him try again to topple Eric Dickerson’s record is an offensive line that returns all five starters, even though questions swirl around John Sullivan’s knee, which required microfracture surgery to simulate cartilage growth.  They stepped up to pay right tackle Phil Loadholt, and Matt Kalil had a solid rookie season at left tackle.

Elsewhere on offense, the tight end position features tight end Kyle Rudolph and fullback Jerome Felton.  Both made it to the Pro Bowl; Rudolph was the game’s MVP.

The defensive line continues to be a strong suit for the Vikings, but the winds of change are blowing like that big horn that blares whenever a touchdown is scored.  Defensive end Jared Allen and defensive tackle Kevin Williams enter contract years.  The Vikings need rookie Sharrif Floyd to make a quick impact, and they need guys like Brian Robison and Everson Griffen to show that they can get it done if/when Allen is elsewhere in 2014.

The safety position went quickly from perennial weakness to strength with the arrival in 2012 of Harrison Smith.  If he can continue to develop, the Vikings could soon have one of the strongest last lines of defense in the league.

The Vikings have one of the best kickers in the league in 2012 rookie Blair Walsh, and they could have one of the best punters in 2013 rookie Jeff Locke, who was deemed to be good enough after one minicamp to justify jettisoning veteran Chris Kluwe.

Weaknesses.

The Vikings’ biggest weakness, like their biggest strength, comes from an offense built around Adrian Peterson, the reigning league MVP.  Similar to the pre-Favre years, the Vikings have been unable to take advantage of the attention paid to Peterson with a passing game that stretches the field, in turn making it easier for Peterson to pile up even more yards.

Despite all the bouquets being thrown to third-year quarterback Christian Ponder, he enters a distinct “prove it or lose it” campaign in Minnesota.  And the verdict could come even before the end of the coming season.  If Ponder, the 12th overall pick in 2011, stinks it up badly enough, Matt Cassel could get a chance to resurrect his own once-promising career.

It’s hard to label the receiver position as a strength or a weakness in isolation, but it doesn’t matter.  Together with Ponder, the unit will be viewed as a weakness until they prove otherwise, with Ponder reaching his potential, free-agent Greg Jennings staying healthy and playing effectively, raw rookie Cordarrelle Patterson making an impact more like Randy Moss and less like Troy Williamson, and veteran Jerome Simpson living up to the hype that made him a free-agent arrival in 2012.

On defense, middle linebacker isn’t a weakness as much as it’s unsettled, with Erin Henderson sliding in from the outside and newcomer Desmond Bishop hoping to get healthy and reacquainted with the 4-3 defense.

The cornerback position also has question marks with the departure of Antoine Winfield, but first-round rookie Xavier Rhodes bolsters a group that features quietly improving former second-rounder Chris Cook.

Changes.

The release of veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield could be the first gust that will impact the defense in the coming years, with standouts like Jared Allen and Kevin Williams likely making way for cheaper, younger players.  Two of those guys came via round one, with defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and cornerback Xavier Rhodes joining a gradually improving defense.

With Jasper Brinkley gone for Arizona, the middle linebacker spot is wide open.  Former Packers linebacker Desmond Bishop joins Erin Henderson as the primary candidates to fill the void.

On offense, two new receivers — veteran Greg Jennings and first-rounder Cordarrelle Patterson — make it harder for Christian Ponder to cite a lack of weapons if the passing game doesn’t improve.  They replace Percy Harvin, who was shipped to Seattle for more than the Vikings, who made their playoff push without him in 2012, should have gotten.

Finally, one of the most intriguing players on the roster isn’t a new arrival, but he has a new position.  Three years after switching Joe Webb from receiver to quarterback after his rookie minicamp, Webb has returned to the receiver position, where he’ll have to win a roster spot any way he can.

Position battles.

On offense, many of the jobs are set.  Christian Ponder enters the season as the unquestioned starter; questions will arise only if he stinks it up.

The depth chart at receiver starts with Greg Jennings and continues with a cluster of guys who’ll earn their playing time during training camp and the preseason.  Jerome Simpson, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Jarius Wright will battle for playing time.

The biggest question comes at the bottom of the depth chart, where converted quarterback Joe Webb will have to earn his roster spot.  If he can contribute on special teams (he could be returning punts), it’ll help his cause.

First-round rookie Sharrif Floyd will have a chance to take reps from last year’s starters at defensive tackle, Kevin Williams and Letroy Guion, even if Floyd doesn’t get a starting job himself.  Generally speaking, the rotation on the defensive line needs to be determined, with the Vikings hoping to get defensive end Everson Griffen on the field.

At linebacker, Erin Henderson and Desmond Bishop will battle both in the middle and elsewhere, since the guy who loses out on the chance to replace Jasper Brinkley could end up starting on the strong side, across from Chad Greenway.  Don’t rule out Gerald Hodges for some playing time, since he had a very strong offseason.

In the secondary, Xavier Rhodes and Josh Robinson will fight for a starting spot across from Chris Cook.  A.J. Jefferson could have a chance, too. Robinson also will battle Jacob Lacey for the nickel position.

At safety, Jamarca Sanford, Mistral Raymond, and Robert Blanton will compete to start alongside Harrison Smith.

Prospects.

The Vikings won three games in 2011 before rebounding in unexpected fashion with a playoff berth in 2012.  The team currently lands somewhere in the middle, and it will skew toward good or bad based on Christian Ponder’s ability to develop into a consistent starting quarterback.

At a time when parity has allowed any team to get to the playoffs, only teams with franchise quarterbacks win Super Bowls.  Still, the Vikings have the ability if Ponder is merely competent to become an elite team, thanks to the skills and abilities of Adrian Peterson, an underrated defense, and a young kicker and punter who can contribute three-pointers and field position.

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Join us at 6:00 a.m. ET for the new PFT Live

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The midnight oil will soon yield to 10 cups of coffee. In fewer than five hours, the first 6:00 a.m. ET edition of PFT Live on NBC Sports Radio will launch.

The last hour of the program will be televised on NBCSN, leading in to The Dan Patrick Show.

For our friends on the West Coast, the entire show re-airs from 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. ET, and producer Rob “Stats” Guerrera promptly will carve up a “best of” podcast for downloading.

Monday’s guests include Peter King of TheMMQB.com and PFT’s Darin Gantt. We’re also hoping to get Super Bowl 50 MVP Von Miller in hour three, our debut hour on NBCSN.

I picked the original 2011 web show logo for the post because I really haven’t been this excited since we launched the program more than five years ago at 12:00 p.m. ET. Hopefully, we’ll be in the new time slot for another five years, and longer.

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DeMarcus Ware feels like he’s arrived

during Super Bowl 50 at Levi's Stadium on February 7, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. Getty Images

Peyton Manning has been the veteran focus of attention around the Broncos throughout their postseason run, but he wasn’t the only member of the team with a chance to burnish his legacy with a win in Super Bowl 50.

Linebacker DeMarcus Ware accomplished plenty over the course of his 11 NFL seasons, including sacking quarterbacks 134.5 times, but he had never played in a Super Bowl before Sunday. He made his first appearance a memorable one by sacking Cam Newton twice as the Broncos rolled to a 24-10 victory that left the veteran pass rusher feeling he’d finally made it.

“I wouldn’t say there’s a sense of relief. I would just say that there’s a sense of ‘I have arrived,’ just being a champion. It was a hard-fought battle for so many years for me. It just feels great to [enjoy] this moment right now.”

On Sunday night, linebacker Brandon Marshall said that General Manager John Elway “built for this moment” after losing to the Seahawks two years by bolstering the defense with players like Ware. Ware made Elway look very smart for making that move with his play against the Panthers and he made his own career accomplishments sparkle a bit more brightly in the process as well.

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Thomas Davis shows how much it meant to him to play

during Super Bowl 50 at Levi's Stadium on February 7, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. Getty Images

Thomas Davis wasn’t going to let three torn ACLs hold him back, nor was a broken arm going to keep him off the field in the Super Bowl.

And he was willing to show what it meant to him after the game.

Davis tweeted out a photo of the stitched-up surgical incision on his right arm, which was broken two weeks ago in the NFC Championship Game. It’s a little graphic, but not overtly. If you’re squeamish about incisions and stitches and swelling, maybe don’t look.

“This post is not about me, or how tough I am,” he wrote. “It’s not to shine any light on me or my injuries. Our team doctors and trainers did an amazing job giving me an opportunity to get back on the field. This post is strictly to show how much love I have for my brothers and #PantherNation. Thank you all for your support and we will #KeepPounding.-TD”

Knowing he broke his arm two weeks ago and had surgery to put a plate and 12 screws in so he could play is one thing.

Seeing a graphic image of what it looks like underscores his commitment to the team, and to playing in the final game of the year.

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Mike Shula: Broncos D came in as best we’ve seen and proved it

SANTA CLARA, CA - FEBRUARY 07:  Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers is tackled by  DeMarcus Ware #94 of the Denver Broncos in the fourth quarter during Super Bowl 50 at Levi's Stadium on February 7, 2016 in Santa Clara, California.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Panthers scored 580 points in their first 18 games this season, an average of 32.2 points per game that they didn’t come close to hitting against the Broncos in Super Bowl 50.

Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula said after the game that he’s “not sure” exactly why the team was off on Sunday, but that the Broncos defense had a lot to do with knocking his unit off its game.

“Well, we tried a lot of different things. We knew those guys coming in were the best we’ve seen and they proved it. They’re fast to the ball, they can rush the passer, they do a good job against the run game. A lot of contested catches. They were contesting our receivers. You throw in the fact that we were just off on some things — had a couple turnovers early, just a little bit off on some other things. It can add up, and unfortunately it looked like that.”

When things have gone right for the Panthers this season, they’ve jumped out to early leads and then poured pressure on opponents who had to take risks in order to catch up. They found themselves on the other side of the fence this Sunday and their offense couldn’t handle the pressure that Denver threw their way. You can break things down more minutely than that if you like, but sometimes the simplest answers work best.

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John Elway: Previous Super Bowl loss made this win sweeter

during Super Bowl 50 at Levi's Stadium on February 7, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. Getty Images

Cam Newton may not have handled a bad night at the office particularly well.

But John Elway knows exactly how it feels, having gone through it two years ago.

The Broncos executive vice president said after Sunday’s Super Bowl 50 win, that the memories of their Super Bowl XLVIII thrashing at the hands of the Seahawks made it that much sweeter.

“There is nothing worse,” Elway said of that 43-8 loss. “Everyone crash lands unless you are this team, unless you are the team that wins it. It is always a crash landing for the other 31 teams. Watching [the Seahawks celebrate] and realizing and having looked at that and having been through all that — how special is it to be able to go through that.

“For us to be able to get back here two years from then and get back and have the orange tape flying is much better.”

In some respects, the crash landing for the Broncos was harder because of the different in score. Theirs was never particularly close, and they had to deal with humiliation in addition to a physical beating.

And if Newton and the Panthers want to put the pain of such a loss behind them, the Broncos have laid out the roadmap.

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Chris Harris Jr. says Broncos dared Cam Newton, Panthers to throw against them

Denver Broncos’ Chris Harris Jr. (25) reacts after the Broncos recovered a fumble by the Carolina Panthers during the first half of the NFL Super Bowl 50 football game Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016, in Santa Clara, Calif. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull) AP

The Denver Broncos didn’t respect Cam Newton and the Panthers passing attack.

Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said after Denver’s 24-10 victory over Carolina that their game plan was to make Newton beat them. They didn’t believe he was capable of accomplishing the task.

“We dared him to throw,” Harris said. “The game plan was can you throw on us? Me, (Aqib) Talib and (Bradley) Roby. We knew he couldn’t throw on us.”

Newton completed just 18-of-41 passes for 265 yards with an interception and was sacked six times by the ferocious Denver defense.

“We were too aggressive, man. He was tired of getting hit,” Harris said. “I watched the film all week, man. They did not play nobody on defense that plays like us. They had an easy schedule. We went through the gauntlet. We went (Tom) Brady twice. Big Ben (Roethlisberger) twice. Cam Newton… We knew if we got the lead it’s over. Our defense it too good.”

Panthers receivers Ted Ginn Jr., Devin Funchess and Corey Brown had difficulty getting open against the Broncos secondary, and even dropped several passes when they were open.

“After the first quarter, we got the sack/fumble for the score. He was nervous after that,” Harris said. “(How could you tell that?) His body language. Did y’all see him dance today? He didn’t dance.”

The Broncos heard all the people picking the Panthers to win this game. Instead, it just strengthened Denver’s resolve.

“You could feel it all week at practice that we were going to do something special. We knew it,” Harris said. “When 96 percent of the world said we were going to lose, we knew it was over. We knew we were going to win.”

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Seahawks confirm Marshawn’s retirement message

Marshawn Getty Images

A year ago, the post-Super Bowl chatter was dominated by talk regarding the decision of the Seahawks to throw the ball and not give it to Marshawn Lynch with the game on the line. This year, Lynch is still relevant, for different reasons.

He posted a tweet in the fourth quarter suggesting strongly that he’s retiring. To help remove doubt, cornerback Richard Sherman added this on Twitter: “Salute to my guy @MoneyLynch . . . It was an honor sharing the field with you.”

The folks at Skittles also chimed in with this: “Three words. Lifetime. Skittles. Pension.”

Lynch technically owes the Seahawks $5 million if he retires — unless the Seahawks agreed last year when signing him to a new deal or since then that he gets to keep the money if he walks away after one season.

If truly done, Lynch finishes at No. 36 on the all-time rushing list, with 9,112 career yards.

UPDATE 12:29 a.m. ET 2/8/16: Russell Wilson has confirmed it, too. And the Seahawks retweeted Wilson’s message.

UPDATE 12:48 a.m. ET 2/8/16: And now owner Paul Allen has confirmed it.

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Broncos gain fewest yards of any Super Bowl winner

during Super Bowl 50 at Levi's Stadium on February 7, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. Getty Images

For a long stretch of Sunday’s Super Bowl 50, it looked like the Broncos would become the first team to win a championship without scoring an offensive touchdown.

Running back C.J. Anderson’s late touchdown run squashed that possibility, but the Broncos offense still made some history on Sunday night. The 194 total yards of offense that the Broncos generated against the Panthers are the fewest by any team that won the Super Bowl.

That was one of five records set during the game. At 39, Peyton Manning became the oldest quarterback to start and win the Super Bowl while Jordan Norwood’s 61-yard punt return in the first half of the game is the longest in history. The 12 combined sacks by the two teams also set a new Super Bowl mark.

In addition to the new records, the NFL announced that several records were tied during the game. Panthers defensive end Kony Ealy’s three sacks match Reggie White and Darnell Dockett for the most in Super Bowl history while Broncos linebacker Danny Trevathan’s two fumble recoveries also equal the all-time high. No one has ever had more than one fumble recovery for a touchdown or two-point conversion in a game, leaving Broncos Malik Jackson and Bennie Fowler with a piece of history.

The Broncos also tied a record before the game even started by reaching the Super Bowl for the eighth time in franchise history.

 

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Archie Manning thinks Peyton is “done in Denver”

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It’s unclear whether Peyton Manning will play in 2016. To his father, it’s very clear that Peyton won’t play for the Broncos in 2016.

“I think Peyton’s done in Denver,” Archie Manning told Jeff Darlington of NFL Media. “I think Peyton’s done in Denver. He may be done everywhere. So that’s my — you know what? I don’t stick my nose in it, so I don’t know that. I don’t know that. But that’s my guess.”

Archie Manning is in a much better position to guess about Peyton’s future than most other people on the planet. And Archie’s guess suggests that, regardless of whether the Broncos want to bring Peyton back, Peyton isn’t willing to continue to run an offense that doesn’t fit his skills.

The question becomes whether there’s another team with a team in position to contend that would give Peyton the keys to the offense for 2016. The Rams reportedly are interested in him, and they’d surely let him run the offense however he wants.

We’ll find out Peyton’s plans soon enough. For now, there’s a clear piece of evidence to support the idea that, even if Peyton plays again, he’ll never play another game as a member of the Broncos.

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Emmanuel Sanders: Hopefully we’re not sending Peyton out

during Super Bowl 50 at Levi's Stadium on February 7, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. Getty Images

The big question for Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning after Sunday’s victory over the Panthers was whether he’ll be retiring from the NFL in the wake of his second Super Bowl title.

Manning’s play on Sunday was in line with what we’ve seen most of the season. The arm strength and command of the passing game was down from what we’ve grown accustomed to seeing, which would seem to make getting a ring and walking away a likely outcome.

Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders hopes that’s not the case, though.

“Hopefully we’re not sending him out,” Sanders said. “If we are, it’s amazing. It’s a lot of exclamation points to a great career and even crazier season — just dealing with the ups and downs with that one incident coming out, losing the starting spot so to speak — he handled his business and stayed true to his character, stayed true to the person that he is, and it all paid off and now he’s a Super Bowl champ.”

Demaryius Thomas echoed his fellow wideout’s sentiments about hoping Manning is back in Denver for another season and said the win was a good answer to the “naysayers.” With an overwhelming defense and big plays from special teams, the Broncos could win without big performances from Manning. Pulling it off again in 2016 would likely be even more difficult, which makes leaving on a high note look all the more appealing.

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Peyton’s performance reminiscent of Elway’s first Super Bowl win

during Super Bowl 50 at Levi's Stadium on February 7, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. Getty Images

If Peyton Manning’s performance in Super Bowl 50 looked familiar to Broncos fans, that’s because they’ve seen a quarterback play like that in a Super Bowl win before.

Manning’s numbers were virtually identical to those of John Elway when the Broncos won their first Super Bowl, beating the Packers 18 years ago.

Peyton Manning, Super Bowl 50: 13-for-23, 141 yards, 0 touchdowns, 1 interception, 56.6 passer rating.

John Elway, Super Bowl XXXII: 12-for-22, 123 yards, 0 touchdowns, 1 interception, 51.9 passer rating.

Elway did not play well in that Super Bowl, but his teammates played well enough to win, and it’s now been largely forgotten by football fans that the Broncos won that game despite Elway, not because of him.

Manning did not play well today, but his teammates played well enough to win. Some day we may remember this game as the day when Manning earned his second Super Bowl ring, not the day when he was bailed out by a great defense.

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Peyton repeatedly cites advice from Tony Dungy

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If you saw Friday’s PFT Live, you knew exactly what Peyton Manning was talking about when he referred on multiple occasions after Sunday night’s 24-10 win over Carolina to advice he recently received from his former coach, Tony Dungy. You knew it because you heard Dungy share the advice he gave.

Dungy said he was certain he’d retire after winning Super Bowl XLI. But former Rams and Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil had told Dungy to take some time and avoid making an emotional decision. So Dungy waited, and in two months he wanted to coach again. (He’d coach two more years before retiring and joining NBC.)

So that’s what Manning currently plans to do, under circumstances far different than the ones he faced in November, when he limped off the field and essentially was benched for Brock Osweiler. At that point, he needed another season to wash away the nightmare that had been 2015. Now, Manning can walk away on top.

The fact that he isn’t doing it immediately leaves the door open for Manning to decide at some point in the not-too-distant future that he wants to play another year. And even though it’s widely believed the Broncos won’t bring him back at $19 million for 2016, how could they cut him loose if he decides he wants to play again?

If Peyton wants to play, the Broncos have no choice but to want him back. And they’d be stupid not to welcome him with open arms for one more run.

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Panthers teammates circle the wagons around Cam Newton

SANTA CLARA, CA - FEBRUARY 07:  Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers reacts after the Denver Broncos defeated the Carolina Panthers with a score of 24 to 10 to win Super Bowl 50 at Levi's Stadium on February 7, 2016 in Santa Clara, California.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) Getty Images

When things weren’t going so well for the Panthers, Cam Newton was often criticized for sulking after losses.

With that back in full force after losing Super Bowl 50, his teammates were trying to take the pressure off their MVP quarterback by pointing out the collective nature of their offensive failures.

“I don’t think we played well around him,” tight end Greg Olsen said, rattling off a laundry list of their problems moments before Newton conducted a solemn-and-brief press conference. “I don’t think by any means this is all him.

“We can’t turn this into the ‘What’s wrong with Cam Newton?’ show.”

Panthers coach Ron Rivera was also careful to note the protection problems (six sacks) and drops that plagued his team when asked about his quarterback.

“When he had the opportunity to make plays he had plays,” Rivera said. “I’d like to see what would have happened if he had more time.”

While the Panthers offensive breakdowns were multiple, Newton’s reaction to them is going to be dissected for weeks and months to come. While he had seemingly pushed through some of his early career PR difficulties, his reaction to a bad night on the game’s biggest stage is going to bring them back.

And clearly, that’s a concern for a team that for too long had to listen to talk about body language and questions about his leadership.

“We all have areas we can grow,” veteran wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said when asked about Newton’s reaction. “He has his friends and his family and they’ll say what they need to say to him, . . .

“It’s hard. Guys are dealing with it the best way they can.”

Cotchery had his own issues, as his drops and the drops of others were alongside the protection issues that led to the beating that left Newton mumbling one-word replies.

But as the league’s MVP and the face of the franchise, Newton’s reaction will be a storyline until he has a chance to change it.

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Wade Phillips: This is a special, all-time defense

Wade Phillips, defensive coordinator for the the Denver Broncos, arrives before the NFL Super Bowl 50 football game against the Carolina Panthers, Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016, in Santa Clara, Calif. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum) AP

The Broncos went through the regular season allowing the fewest yards in the league, the fewest yards per rushing attempt and the fewest yards per passing attempt before allowing the Steelers, Patriots and Panthers to score 44 points on their way to the Super Bowl 50 title.

It is the first Super Bowl title of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ long coaching career and he was basking in the glow of his unit’s performance after the game. Phillips said that the team “played our defense” while recording seven sacks and four turnovers against a Panthers team that led the league in scoring during the regular season.

Phillips pointed that out when asked about where this Broncos defense should rank historically, a question that he answered by saying that he thinks it is a “special, all-time” unit. Cornerback Chris Harris was asked a similar question when he met the media after the win and said it was an “easy” answer to say that they have “one of the greatest” defenses that’s ever played the game. Harris referenced the Panthers’ offensive success heading into the game while talking about why he thinks they rank so highly.

“We beat [Tom] Brady twice,” Harris said. “We beat Big Ben [Roethlisberger] twice. What QB didn’t we beat?”

Where the Broncos defense ranks on the list of the best in NFL history is going to ultimately reside in the eye of the beholder. After the last three games, it’s hard to come up with much of an argument against their spot at the table.

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Cam Newton exits post-game press conference

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Panthers quarterback Cam Newton wasn’t smiling much on Sunday night. After the game, he wasn’t smiling at all.

Newton, sullen and subdued, sat at his press conference for a limited time, saying hardly anything before getting up and leaving. (The tweet from Cam Inman suggests it was less than a minute; others have said he was there for three minutes.)

At some point, Newton will face questions about his curious decision not to aggressively pursue a loose ball that he had fumbled late in the fourth quarter. It was a move that some called a “business decision” on Twitter, with Newton choosing not to risk injury over trying to save the game.

In his defense, he hadn’t been banged around and harassed the way he was in Super Bowl 50. After taking so much physical abuse, it would be hard for anyone to muster the will to take another big hit late in a game that likely felt like a lost cause regardless of whether Newton recovered the fumble.

The challenge now will be to accept the reset to 0-0 and start climbing again.

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