In his left hand Denver cornerback Aqib Talib held the Lombardi Trophy, pressing his face against the silver football while using his smartphone to Snapchat the moment with his right. "We['re] like twins!" he shouted, having noticed a similarity between the gleaming spheroid and his own bald cranium. Turning to address the trophy, he murmured, "I love you, baby."
He'd taken the Lombardi Trophy from a younger, far more anonymous Bronco who certainly had earned his time with the hardware. Kayvon Webster is a third-year backup to Talib who earns his salary on special teams. As a gunner, or sniper, on the punt team, it's his job to sprint 50 yards downfield while being clubbed, mauled and otherwise legally assaulted by a pair of defensive backs known in special teams parlance as the vise.
Against the Panthers, Webster and fellow sniper Cody Latimer were superb, as was punter Britton Colquitt. They had to be. While Peyton Manning was likely playing the final game of his glorious career, the moment could have turned more bitter than sweet: In one of his worst starts ever, he completed no touchdown passes and failed to convert on 13 of 14 third downs. The Sheriff needed all the help he could get.
That help came from the punt team. After tormenting New England in the AFC title game, thrice pinning the Pats inside their own 12-yard line, Colquitt took the field eight times on Sunday, averaging 45.9 yards per punt. His near-identical net average—45.6 yards—reflected both his mastery of directional punting and the virtuosity of vise-breakers Latimer and Webster, who spent much of the game in the grill of Ted Ginn Jr., whose three returns totaled ... two yards. Eight of Carolina's 16 drives started inside the Panthers' 20.
Ginn's Broncos counterpart, Jordan Norwood, returned just a single punt, but he made it count. Charging forward to field a short Brad Nortman boot at his 47-yard line in the second quarter, Norwood weighed his options. "It entered my mind to fair-catch it," he recalled, "but it left my mind pretty quickly."
By fielding a kick he had no business fielding, Norwood injected a smidgen of doubt in the minds of cover guys Teddy Williams and Ben Jacobs, who momentarily pulled up, wondering if a fair catch had been semaphored and they'd missed it.
Norwood's 61-yard punt return was the longest in Super Bowl history, and almost certainly the only one in which a returner was run down from behind by a 6'3", 260-pound defensive end. (Nice hustle, Mario Addison.) That play set up the second of three Brandon McManus field goals, this one providing the margin of victory.
Denver's special teams dominance was comprehensive. While McManus didn't miss, Panthers kicker Graham Gano kneecapped his team's momentum four minutes into the third quarter, doinking a 44-yard attempt off the right upright. And Nortman's net average, on seven punts, was 33.4 yards, a full dozen shy of Colquitt's.
Colquitt, you may recall, is a member of the clan known as "the Mannings of punting." Dustin, his older brother, does the job for the Chiefs. Craig, the patriarch, punted for the Steelers in Super Bowls XIII and XIV. Like Manning, all three starred at Tennessee. On Sunday, Britton was the best ex-Vol on the field. After the game there was Manning, taking pains to thank the "coaches, family members and friends" who have supported him throughout his remarkable NFL journey. To top it off with a Super Bowl win, he noted, was "very special."
AL TIELEMANS FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (WEBSTER)
PUNTING GROUND While Webster (far left) helped hold Ginn to just two return yards, Norwood (11) exploded for a 61-yard run that set up the winning score.
DEANNE FITZMAURICE FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (NORWOOD)
[See caption above]