8:30 PM EST, NBC – Line: Panthers -3, Over/Under: 41.5
It’s not often that the NFL’s annual Thursday Night Kickoff Showcase features a rematch of the previous season’s Super Bowl, but that is in fact the reality as the reigning champion Denver Broncos host the Carolina Panthers at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. After putting together a franchise-best 15-1 record in the Regular Season led by the league MVP, Cam Newton, it’s unrealistic to think that the Panthers felt anything but disappointed after falling to the Broncos in Super Bowl XLX, a sloppy 24-10 affair in which neither Newton or the rest of the offense was able to really get anything going. The sixth-year veteran was nothing short of spectacular in 2015, throwing for a career-high thirty-five touchdowns, while rushing for another ten more scores, and racking up a grand total of 4,473 yards with his arm and legs. In fact, the former No. One Overall Pick accounted for a whopping 76.2% of Carolina’s offensive yardage, and a staggering forty-five of thier fifty-four offensive touchdowns (83.3%). With that said, he was in for quite a rude awakening in the Super Bowl, as Denver’s vicious defense confounded him consistently throughout the night. The Bronocs did a masterful job of keeping Newton contained in the pocket, where he attempted forty-one passes, completing just eighteen for 265 yards and an interception, while sustaining six sacks and losing a pair of fumbles. And you know the rest of the story from that point; Newton was essentially non-responsive in the post-game Press Conference, and was ridiculed for weeks afterward by the media. Fast forward six months and the opportunity for retribution is within the Panther’s grasp. After all, there are plenty of reasons to believe that this team could be even better than they were a year ago, which is really saying something. First and foremost, Newton will have the benefit of a healthy Kelvin Benjamin roaming through the Secondary. The towering Receiver was selected in the First Round of the 2015 Draft, only to miss the entire campaign after tearing his ACL in Training Camp. Standing at 6-4, Benjamin should develop into a very effective weapon in the Red Zone, taking the burden off a Receiving Corps that despite overachieving greatly in the Regular Season, was ruthlessly exposed in the Super Bowl. Then there is the defense, which had just as much to do with their run to San Francisco as Newton and Co.; Rivera’s defense ranked sixth in the league in points allowed (19.3) and total defense (322.9), while forcing an NFL-best thirty-nine turnovers. Granted, All-Pro Cornerback Josh Norman (and his four interceptions and eighteen deflected passes) departed for greener pastures in the Nation’s Capital after refusing to sign his Franchise Tender, but with the likes of Luke Kuechly (118 tackles, 4 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles) and Kawann Short (11 sacks) anchoring the unit, hustling backwards is highly unlikely. And given the current situation under Center in Denver, one would have to imagine that these guys are frothing at the mouth to hit the field.
Meanwhile, the Broncos rode the wave of a dominant defense to their first Championship since 1998, as Peyton Manning called it a career and ventured off into the sunset for the final time a champion. It was a storybook ending to a very entertaining season, and a sure-fire Hall of Fame career. Now with the celebrations and parades long gone, the really interesting part can begin, as just how this team goes about defending thier crown should be one of the top stories of the season. First and foremost, let’s talk about what exactly Gary Kubiak and his Staff are doing about the Quarterback position. Though Manning was little more than a shell of himself last year, replacing him was sure to be an arduous task for Denver, particularly after the Brock Osweiler fiasco. Though Osweiler played reasonably well in place of the injured Manning, the team took a very “wait & see” stance with him, and after low-balling him in contract negotiations, were left standing at the altar as the Quarterback signed with Houston. Management then explored a multitude of options, acquiring oft-maligned veteran Mark Sanchez from the Eagles, intriguing prospect Paxton Lynch with their First Round Pick in the Draft, and young Sophomore Trevor Siemian to compete for the positional vacancy. As the Offseason progressed none of the passers appeared to distinguish themselves, leaving Kubiak to use the Preseason as his experimental canvas. With that said, it became painfully obvious that Sanchez wasn’t capable of securing the job, as he was released last week, while Siemian was pronounced the starter. Now we know what you’re thinking: who the hell is Trevor Siemian? The Nortwestern graduate was the 250th selection (7th Round) in last year’s Draft, and largely stalked the sidelines with the exception of one lone rushing attempt in a Week Four loss at Pittsburgh. In fact, by starting this kid tonight, the Broncos will become the first Super Bowl Champion to start a Quarterback with exactly zero starts in the Season Opener. Hell, and this is by no means a dig at Northwestern (surely, it’s a fine academic institution), but Siemian will become the first Quarterback from that particular alma matter to make a start since Y.A. Tittle. That’s either an indictment on Sanchez and Lynch, or perhaps Kubiak knows something we don’t, then again, maybe the skipper just thinks he can put anyone under Center and win games these days. Then again, given the level of play that the defense exhibited last year, can you fault him for being so confident? Wade Phillips did a masterful job with a loaded unit, headlined by Super Bowl MVP Von Miller (35 tackles, 11 sacks, 4 forced fumbles), whom the franchise inked to a massive $114.5 million contract (a whopping $70 million guaranteed) in the Offseason. Denver was dominant across the bord in 2015, ranking atop the league in total yards allowed (283.2), passing yards allowed (199.6), net yards per pass allowed (5.1), yards per rush allowed (3.3), and sacks (52). As is the case with most Super Bowl Champions, a number of players left for greener pastures in Free Agency, particularly in the form of Malik Jackson (46 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 1 safety) and Danny Trevathan (109 tackles, 2 interceptions, 1 TD), but there is little reason to believe that this group will regress. Indeed, the majority of the faces that shit Newton and Co. down in February will be on the field for this rematch.
Predicted Outcome: Panthers 20, Broncos 10