Heading into the 2015 season, the Broncos were considered legitimate Super Bowl contenders. Although Peyton Manning’s numbers had tailed off at the end of the 2014 season, he was still a Pro Bowler, and new head coach Gary Kubiak’s offense was designed to take pressure off of him and allow the Broncos to win with offensive balance.

But it was the defense that ended up seizing the spotlight.

Two years after the Broncos’ offense delivered the best statistical season in NFL history, their defense proved equally formidable. Under the direction of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips — who returned to Denver 21 years after his dismissal as head coach — a deep, talented unit featuring four Pro Bowlers dismantled one opponent after another, leading the league in most metrics.

Finally, it powered a run to the Broncos’ third world championship by dismantling two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks and that season’s NFL MVP in the postseason.

Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger, New England’s Tom Brady and Carolina’s Cam Newton were neutralized one-by-one during the Broncos’ playoff run. Their offenses averaged just 14.7 points per game — a stunning number in the mid-2010s NFL, enjoying the most offensive-centric era in league history.

To those who had watched the Broncos since their first offseason practices, the dominance was no surprise. Phillips’ transition to a 3-4 alignment that emphasized pressure and man-to-man coverage was a perfect fit for the personnel on hand, and it made life difficult for the offense from the first snaps of OTAs throughout training camp before turning its focus to every other offense in its path.

“I can still remember having a conversation with Gary probably three days deep into training camp,” General Manager John Elway said. “Maybe a week into a week into training camp, I looked at Gary and I said, ‘You know what, I think we’re going to be pretty darn good on defense.’

“If I was right on one thing, that was it this year.”

Super Bowl 50 was its magnum opus. A Von Miller sack of Newton forced a fumble that Malik Jackson recovered for a touchdown. Another Miller sack put the Broncos in goal-to-go, setting up C.J. Anderson’s game-clinching touchdown burst through a horde of Panthers.

The defense was so dominant, it allowed the Broncos to win despite being held to just 194 yards of total offense — their lowest total since October 2003.

“They were relentless to the football, all of them,” Kubiak said. “You knew they had control of the football game. That’s amazing, especially against the quarterback and the group that they were playing against.

“It was special.”

Manning struggled and eventually missed six games because of a foot injury. Brock Osweiler replaced him and went 4-2 in his first six starts. But in the seventh, the regular-season finale, the Broncos trailed 13-7 in the third quarter, buckling under the weight of five turnovers — three fumbles and two interceptions.

Osweiler was lifted for Manning, who immediately drove the Broncos to a touchdown that put them back in front. Manning went just 5-of-9 for 69 yards, but his hands steadied the entire team, and he got the call for the postseason.

Relying on guile and his innate ability to adjust at the line of scrimmage, Manning and the offense eked out just enough production to guide the Broncos to Super Bowl 50. A month after the 24-10 win over Carolina, he retired, his voice quaking with emotion as he thanked the myriad people who helped him craft a record-setting career.

Manning retired as the only starting quarterback to guide two different franchises to Super Bowl wins. Miller earned the Super Bowl MVP trophy, and five months later, a long-term contract extension. Elway and Kubiak, the two old roommates from their playing days, shared the ultimate success. And Phillips, in his 38th NFL season, got the ring he’d chased for so long and so far in a career that took him from Houston to New Orleans to Philadelphia to Denver to Buffalo to Atlanta to San Diego to Dallas and, finally, back again to Houston and Denver.

2015 schedule

Date Opponent Score
9/13 baltimore ravens 19-13
9/17 at kansas city chiefs 31-24
9/27 at detroit lions 24-12
10/4 minnesota vikings 23-20
10/11 at oakland raiders 16-10
10/18 at cleveland browns (OT) 26-23
11/1 green bay packers 29-10
11/8 at indianapolis colts 24-27
11/15 kansas city chiefs 13-29
11/22 at chicago bears 17-15
11/29 new england patriots 30-24
12/6 at san diego chargers 17-3
12/13 oakland raiders 12-15
12/20 at pittsburgh steelers 27-34
12/28 cincinnati bengals (OT) 20-17
1/3 san diego chargers 27-20
1/17 pittsburgh steelers (afc divisional game) 23-16
1/24 new england patriots (afc championship) 20-18
2/7 carolina panthers (super bowl 50) 24-10

2015 offense

Pos Player Starts
qb peyton manning 9
qb brock osweiler 7
rb c.j. anderson 6
rb ronnie hillman 10
fb virgil green 1
fb juwan thompson 1
wr bennie fowler 1
wr cody latimer 1
wr jordan norwood 5
wr emmanuel sanders 15
wr demaryius thomas 16
te owen daniels 16
te vernon davis 4
te virgil green 4
c matt paradis 16
t ryan harris 16
t ty sambrailo 3
t michael schofield 13
g max garcia 5
g evan mathis 12
g louis vasquez 15

The Broncos earn a 31-24 win against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium for their NFL-record 13th consecutive divisional road win

Broncos Owner Pat Bowlen is officially inducted as the 28th member of the team’s Ring of Fame

Denver erases a 14-point, fourth-quarter deficit to earn a 30-24 overtime win against the previously unbeaten New England Patriots

Chris Harris Jr., Von Miller, Aqib Talib and DeMarcus Ware are selected to the Pro Bowl

AFC’s No. 1 Seed

Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning returns from injury in the second half of Denver’s regular-season finale against the San Diego Chargers and helps spark the team to a 27-20 win to clinch its fifth consecutive AFC West Division title and the AFC’s No. 1 seed

AFC Champions

Denver holds off New England for a 20-18 win in the AFC Championship game to propel the club to its eighth Super Bowl appearance. The Broncos’ two-point win against the Patriots was their 11th of the season decided by seven points or less to represent the most in NFL history.

Linebacker Von Miller becomes just the 10th defensive player to earn Super Bowl MVP honors

An estimated 1 million fans gather in downtown Denver for a victory parade and rally to honor the World Champion Denver Broncos

Denver beats Baltimore 19-13 in Week 1 to give Gary Kubiak a win in his Broncos debut as head coach

2015 defense

Pos Player Starts
de malik jackson 16
de vance walker 4
de derek wolfe 12
nt sylvester williams 15
slb von miller 16
wlb shaquil barrett 6
wlb demarcus ware 10
ilb todd davis 2
ilb brandon marshall 16
ilb danny trevathan 15
cb chris harris jr
cb bradley roby 3
cb aqib talib 15
s david bruton jr
s josh bush 1
s darian stewart 13
s t.j. ward 12

Record: 12-4
First place, AFC west
Super Bowl 50 champions