The Denver Broncos’ win over the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50 capped off a postseason that included some unbelievable finishes, the ascendancy of the NFL’s new MVP, a dominant run of defense and potentially the final game of one of the greatest quarterbacks in league history.
Here are the top five takeaways from the NFL’s 2015 postseason:
1. Broncos defense was historically great
The Broncos defense was great in the regular season, finishing first in the NFL in total yards allowed, sacks and yards per play. The postseason ensured the unit will be remembered as one of the most dominant of all-time. Denver beat quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady and Cam Newton over three playoff games, allowing just one touchdown pass and sacking the trio 14 times. All three quarterbacks had a chance to tie or win the game late in the fourth quarter, but the Denver defense made clutch stop after clutch stop. Overall, the Steelers, Patriots and Panthers combined to score only 44 total points, despite all three offenses finishing in the top five for scoring in 2015. The Broncos saved their best for the Super Bowl, where NFL MVP Cam Newton and the Panthers were held to 10 points in one of the most dominant defensive performances in the game’s history. Wade Phillips’ group might not have been the best defense of all-time, but it’s certainly in the discussion after Denver’s incredible postseason run.
2. Even elite QBs need help
The 2015 postseason proved that even the elite quarterbacks in the game can’t win a Super Bowl by themselves. NFL MVP Cam Newton was under pressure all night and plagued by his receiver’s miscues in the Super Bowl; Tom Brady was all but beat into the ground as the Broncos ran circles around the New England offensive line in the AFC Championship Game; Aaron Rodgers was throwing to Jared Abbrederis and tossing Hail Mary’s to Jeff Janis during Green Bay’s overtime loss in the NFC Divisional Round; and Ben Roethlisberger managed just 16 points without receiver Antonio Brown and running backs Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams in the AFC Divisional Round. Four of the best quarterbacks in the game tried and failed when too much was put on their plate this postseason. An elite quarterback can will a team to the playoffs, but in January and February, it still takes a team effort to achieve the ultimate goal.
3. Peyton cashes in
After years of winning games for his teammates, Peyton Manning cashed in his chips for a second Super Bowl win. He completed just 13 passes for 141 yards and an interception against the Panthers, while the Broncos offense produced 194 total yards, 11 first downs and one third down conversion in 14 tries. It was more than enough, as the Denver defense pounded Carolina’s top-ranked scoring offense into submission from start to finish. The 39-year-old Manning played exceedingly poor in what looks to be his last NFL game, but it was still fitting that he’ll go out a champion as a result of all those around him. A quarterback who carried so many teams for so long was finally carried over the finish line in Super Bowl 50.
4. Packers-Cardinals won’t soon be forgotten
Neither the Packers nor the Cardinals made it to the Super Bowl, but their playoff thriller will live on as one of the craziest finishes in NFL postseason history. The final two minutes of the contest—spanning the end of the fourth quarter and the start of overtime—featured a 60-yard completion from Aaron Rodgers to Jeff Janis on 4th-and-20, a 41-yard Hail Mary between the same combination to tie the game with no time remaining, an insane coin toss from referee Clete Blakeman that didn’t flip, a 75-yard catch-and-run from Larry Fitzgerald on the first play of overtime and a walk-off shovel pass from Carson Palmer to Fitzgerald to win the game. Can the Packers and Cardinals play an overtime playoff game every January? Is that too much to ask?
5. The Bengals really, really need a playoff win
Since the start of the 2011 season, only four teams have more regular season wins than the Cincinnati Bengals (52): The New England Patriots (61), Denver Broncos (58), Green Bay Packers (56) and Seattle Seahawks (53). Those four franchises have combined to win 24 playoff games and three Super Bowls. The poor Bengals have zero wins in the postseason over the same span. In fact, the franchise hasn’t won a playoff game since 1990. The 12-4 Bengals looked like they’d snap their drought after they came back from 15 points down to take the lead over the Pittsburgh Steelers late in the AFC Wild Card Round. But then the Bengals started doing Bengals things, and the Steelers were able to leave Cincinnati with one of the more improbable playoff wins. Marvin Lewis will be back as head coach in 2016 despite an 0-7 record in the postseason. The craving for a playoff win has only been intensified.