SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Peyton Manning wanted to make one thing perfectly clear when he arrived in the Golden Gate City for the golden anniversary of the Super Bowl: "Our defense is what got us here."
Von Miller, Chris Harris Jr., Derek Wolfe, all sideline spectators last time, leading the way.
His boss, John Elway, said something similar 17 years ago before riding off into that orange sunset with a second Super Bowl ring. Manning can do the same Sunday if he musters one more magical performance out of his 39-year-old body and that quick mind.
Two years ago, Manning brought along the league's top offense — in fact, the highest-scoring team in NFL history — and things didn't work out. This time, he's tagging along with the league's No. 1 defense.
The "Orange Rush" finished first in the NFL in sacks, yards per play, pass defense and total defense. But to earn their place atop or even alongside the '85 Bears or '00 Ravens, Denver's fearsome front-seven and star-studded secondary will have to corral Cam Newton and beat the favored Carolina Panthers.
"We got goal boards in our locker room and we see everything that we've done this year," cornerback Aqib Talib said. "But everything will be forgotten by next season if we don't come home with that trophy. So, the most important stat is winning this game."
They're very capable of doing just that.
This is a defense that knocked Aaron Rodgers silly, limiting him to 77 yards in the worst game of his career, sent Andrew Luck into the hospital and ushered Tom Brady into the offseason with a 23-hit beat-down.
The players say that it's hard for them to study film of how other defenses played the Panthers.
"Nobody's really playing like how we play and it makes it kind of hard to watch the film because you see these other teams and they're not as good. They're nowhere close," Harris said. "They have a great offense, so it's going to be a tough battle. But I don't think they've seen anybody with the speed we have."
What the Broncos (14-4) need to do is keep things close and not let the Panthers (17-1) get off to a fast start — they've outscored their opponents 55-7 in the first half in the playoffs.
Denver knows how a punch to the gut can ruin great game plans.
The Broncos were ill-prepared for the noise and the nerves two years ago, as the first snap sailed into the end zone for a safety 12 seconds into the Super Bowl.
Denver never recovered in a 35-point shellacking by the Seahawks that prompted Elway to spend more than $100 million to sign DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Talib, then draft cornerback Bradley Roby and linebacker Shane Ray.
Even-keeled Gary Kubiak pumped up the jams at practice to prepare for noise.
"The goal is don't let them get off to a fast start. Let it be a boxing match, let them keep punching back and forth," running back C.J. Anderson said.
Should the Broncos find themselves behind, though, they're not going to freak out, Anderson said.
They're the only team in NFL history to overcome two-touchdown deficits to beat three playoff-bound teams in a season. They did it against the Chiefs in Week 2, the Patriots in Week 12 and the Bengals in Week 16.
"Us being down 14 to some very, very good teams, it lets us know we're battle tested. We've been there before. We know what we have to do to get back in the games," Anderson said.
The Broncos have won an NFL record 11 games by seven points or less, and they went 7-2 against playoff teams while facing the toughest schedule in the league.
Still, old man Manning faces his doubters and some think the Panthers defense is just as good as Denver's.
"Every time we turn on the TV people are just talking about how we're going to get dogged this game, we're going to get blown out," Harris said with a laugh. "We love that, it just makes us hungrier."
Denver 24, Carolina 14
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