Two years after being on the wrong end of one of the most lopsided Super Bowls in history, the Denver Broncos return to the grand stage with renewed focus.
Despite wielding the highest-scoring offence all-time in 2013, Denver were torn apart 43-8 by the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII.
This time, the Broncos enter the match-up with the Carolina Panthers boasting the league’s best defence and with key players healthy.
Missing in action against Seattle in that blowout were linebacker Von Miller, cornerback Chris Harris Jr and defensive end Derek Wolfe – all out to injury. Those three key cogs will be in uniform tonight, along with players who’ve been acquired since that Super Bowl that make up the stout unit.
“I think, you know, guys like me, DeMarcus (Ware) and T.J. (Ward), we weren’t here and they signed us after,” cornerback Aqib Talib said.
“(Executive vice president of football operations and general manager) John Elway said he wanted to add some tough-minded people to the guys that were already here.
“We’ve heard about that game. But this is a different team, different year; we just have to go play, man, like we’ve been playing all year.’’
The loss to Seattle was a thorough beating with the Broncos conceding points just 12 seconds into the game on a safety before Peyton Manning threw a pick-six to Malcolm Smith, who returned the interception 69 yards to give the Seahawks a 22-0 lead at halftime.
The nail in the coffin was an 87-yard kickoff return for a score by Percy Harvin to open the third quarter to ensure an uneven score, something this version of the Broncos haven’t faced much of.
Denver have 11 victories in the regular season and playoffs this year of seven points or fewer, setting an NFL record.
Whether or not they can erase the bad taste left by their most recent Super Bowl appearance, it’s clear this Broncos team is different.
“Anybody in this locker room who was there remembers,” Harris said, recalling the defeat to Seattle.
“I think we’ve just done the work this time around, kept our focus.”
Two of the NFL’s best defences this season will take centre stage in the Super Bowl, showcasing dominant players at various positions.
The prowess of the Denver Broncos is well known after they dismantled the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game a fortnight ago through constant pressure on Tom Brady.
With stalwarts like Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware and Malik Jackson crowding the line of scrimmage for Denver, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton will have to be wary of a pass rush that has seven sacks in the playoffs.
The Broncos have also had more takeaways (three) than turnovers (two) in their two postseason contests, which will they’ll need to continue against Carolina. Teams that win the turnover battle in the Super Bowl are a combined 36-5.
“We always talk about turnovers,” Ware said. “If a team gets three turnovers, there is probably a 94 per cent chance you are going to win. If you get two, it’s 87 per cent and so on and so forth. We always predicate ourselves on getting turnovers because you get either a short field and score points or you are able to score points on a short field.”
On the other side, the Panthers’ defence has been the king of takeaways this year, finishing with 24 interceptions and 15 fumbles for a league-leading 39 turnovers forced.
At the core of Carolina’s unit are linebacking duo Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, who are both adept at stopping the run and dropping in coverage.
Davis was part of the effort to hold the Arizona Cardinals’ offence – which averaged 30.6 points in the regular season – to 15 points in the NFC Championship Game, but exited with a broken arm.
The injury, however, won’t keep Davis out of the Super Bowl as the linebacker will start, along with
defensive end Jared Allen who missed the NFC title game with a broken foot suffered in the first round.
Pro Bowlers Kawann Short and Josh Norman, meanwhile, lead the Panthers’ defensive line and secondary, respectively.
“What makes this defense so special is that it’s not about one man,” Davis said. “When we go out and play the game, it’s all about playing for each other. And we are truly unselfish in our approach. We just approach the game plan like we’re going to dominate.”
Denver are in search of their third Super Bowl victory in eight appearances, while Carolina can earn the franchise’s first championship after losing to New England in their only showing in 2003.
It wasn’t a victory, but the signs of becoming a competitive team were there for the Al Ain Desert Foxes in the 16-6 loss to the Dubai Stallions.
In their best effort of the season, Al Ain flashed their potential in a closely-contested game and finally got on the board with their first points at The Sevens on Friday.
Though the contest was played nine-on-nine and the Desert Foxes benefitted from having three players from the league-leading
Dubai Barracudas in uniform, coach Johnny Sharp was optimistic.
“It was a statement game,” Sharp said. “It let people know we’re not just going to lay down, we’re going to lace up and suit up and play to the best of our abilities.”
Versatile star Mohammad Abdulla collected his team’s first points this season when he hauled in an 85-yard pass from Barracudas transplant Jan Pavlik in the fourth quarter to cut into the Stallions’ 16-point lead.
“It’s like getting the monkey off your back. You can’t go a whole season without scoring,” said Abdulla, who moved to receiver after playing quarterback the entire first half.
“I’ve been waiting for that go route, so the league is on notice.”
Abdulla also intercepted Stallions quarterback William Robinson three times, two of which came in the end zone, to keep Al Ain within striking distance.
"Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing..." - Vince Lombardi pic.twitter.com/lknXdubTZh— Dubai Stallions (@DubaiStallions) June 17, 2013
Dubai’s scored on a 1-yard plunge by Davion Miller in the first quarter and a 56-yard pass from Robinson to Gary Stillman in the fourth.
It’s unknown if Al Ain will have their transplants on a permanent basis, but their performance with some reinforcements was telling.
“That just shows that we’re one or two players away from making a strong playoff push,” said Abdulla.