Seven months after the Denver Broncos manhandled the Carolina Panthers to become NFL champions, the 2016 season opens with a rematch of Super Bowl 50 on Thursday night. A lot has changed since Feb. 7, and the Week 1 matchup could produce a much different result with the two teams heading in opposite directions.
After winning their third title in franchise history, Denver doesn’t enter the upcoming season as one of the favorites to win Super Bowl LI. Following the retirement of Peyton Manning, second-year quarterback Trevor Siemian takes over the reins as the team’s starter, leaving plenty of questions surrounding the Broncos’ offense and the team’s chances of making it back to the playoffs.
Very little is known regarding what type of production Siemian can give Denver. After being taken near the end of the seventh round of the 2015 draft, the Northwestern product didn’t attempt one pass as a rookie, taking a knee in his only in-game appearance. He won the job over rookie backup Paxton Lynch and Mark Sanchez, who was eventually released, playing in three preseason games and looking largely unimpressive. Siemian never posted a passer rating of better than 81.2, and he threw for less than 300 yards on 43 attempts.
Siemian makes his debut against a Carolina defense that lost cornerback Josh Norman to the Washington Redskins, but still should be one of the NFL’s best for yet another season. The Panthers have ranked in the top 10 in total defense every year since 2012, and they return three All-Pro defenders.
The Broncos didn’t need a top quarterback to become Super Bowl champions last year. In fact, Manning and Brock Osweiler combined to give Denver some of the worst quarterback play in all of football. After doing very little in the AFC playoffs, Manning was as bad as any winning quarterback in Super Bowl history, completing 13 of 23 passes for 141 yards and an interception.
Manning rode the NFL’s best defense to the second Super Bowl championship of his career, and the Broncos should have an elite unit, once again. Beating the Panthers for a second straight game with poor quarterback play, however, won’t be as easy a second time around.
Denver’s front seven wreaked havoc on Cam Newton and Carolina’s offensive line in Super Bowl 50. The Broncos sacked last year’s MVP six times, limiting him to just 18-of-41 passing for no scores and one interception. Super Bowl MVP Von Miller is back to lead Denver’s defense, but the leading tackler from that game, Danny Trevathan, signed with the Chicago Bears in free agency. Malik Jackson, who led the Broncos’ defensive line with five tackles, also signed elsewhere this offseason.
Newton might not throw for 300 yards or three touchdowns, but he should perform much better than he did on Feb. 7. He’ll have more weapons at his disposal with the return of Kelvin Benjamin, who missed all of 2015 after catching 73 passes for 1,008 yards as a rookie, and Newton is too good to have another dud against the same team in consecutive games.
Manning faced a similar situation in 2014, visiting the Seattle Seahawks less than eight months after they embarrassed him in the Super Bowl. Seattle needed overtime to beat Denver and Manning, who threw for 303 yards and two touchdowns in defeat. In Super Bowl XLVIII, Manning was intercepted twice in a 43-8 loss.
It’s rare that defending Super Bowl champions are home underdogs to start the season, but that’s the position in which the Broncos find themselves. Denver is getting three points at Las Vegas and online sportsbooks, via OddsShark, and the over/under is down to 41.5 points two days before the game.
Considering Siemian’s inexperience and the fact that Denver allowed 20 points or fewer in 13 of 19 games last year, Thursday night’s opener should be a low-scoring affair. But it’s one that could prove Carolina will be back in the title picture, while Denver is facing a tough road ahead.
Prediction: Carolina over Denver, 23-13