The 2016 NFL season kicks off with a Super Bowl 50 rematch between the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos on Thursday Night Football. Who will kick off the year with a win? Chris Burke explains his pick below. (Betting line via OddsShark.)
The lasting Cam Newton image from Super Bowl 50 is of the Panthers’s QB sitting sullen and stonefaced during his postgame press conference as mere feet away, separated only by a thin curtain, Denver defenders recounted for the media how they had pummeled the league MVP.
The 2016 season opener, a rematch of that title-winning 24–10 Denver victory, will provide Newton and his teammates either with a measure of redemption or a reminder of how overwhelmed they were back on Feb. 7.
Of course, a few very important things have changed since that previous meeting. Tops on the list is the Broncos’s new quarterback: Trevor Siemian, pick No. 250 at the 2015 draft, who has thrown zero career NFL regular-season passes. His challenge in replacing last year’s Peyton Manning/Brock Osweiler tandem may be more mental than anything—Manning’s Super Bowl numbers (13 of 23 for 141 yards, one INT, five sacks) make clear that he is far from irreplaceable in the physical sense.
Also new this season as the Broncos’s offensive tackles, with ex-Seahawk Russell Okung on the left side and ex-Chief Donald Stephenson on the right. On top of helping to keep Siemian clean, they’ll be keys to a Denver ground game that ranked third last season and will be counted on even more in 2016. Carolina’s imposing front seven held the Broncos to 90 yards rushing on 28 attempts in the Super Bowl, and 34 of those yards came on one C.J. Anderson run.
The Carolina defense, though, underwent a makeover of its own in the off-season. Out is high-priced star cornerback Josh Norman, as well as veterans Charles Tillman (missed the playoffs with a torn ACL) and Cortland Finnegan. In are a pair of rookies, James Bradberry and Daryl Worley, who will test Carolina’s scheme-centric mentality.
If the Broncos trust Siemian to throw, and believe they can protect him against Carolina’s pass rush, there very well could be holes for the new QB to find through the air. Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and TE Virgil Green will find space, provided Siemian has the wherewithal to scour his surroundings.
Newton faces a more known quantity in Denver’s loaded secondary. He threw 41 passes in the Super Bowl comeback effort but completed just 18 of them; he also led Carolina in rushing with 41 yards. At his disposal for Thursday’s rematch will be projected No. 1 receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who missed all of last year with an ACL injury.
Bringing Benjamin back into the fold makes an already dangerous Carolina offense even more potent. Counting the 2014 and ‘15 playoffs, Carolina is on a string of 33 consecutive games with at least 100 yards rushing. The Panthers scuffled to 118 yards on the ground in the Super Bowl, though they, like everything else in that outing, came tough.
Denver has swapped out a couple pieces from its phenomenal 2015 defense—LB Todd Davis takes over for Danny Trevathan; DE Jared Crick for Malik Jackson. There won’t be much of a drop-off in production, which is bad news for the Panthers.
Key player: Mike Remmers, OT, Panthers. Denver’s pass rush turned Carolina’s tackles into human blocking sleds during the Super Bowl, with game MVP Von Miller chalking up 2.5 of his team’s seven sacks. Remmers will receive help Thursday, be it from a running back sliding over or TE Ed Dickson lending a hand so Greg Olsen can run his routes. However, in the end, Remmers will have to shoulder much of the load in a critical matchup.
Bold prediction: One of Denver’s receivers finishes with 120-plus yards receiving. Thomas and Sanders topped that number just once each last season—the former with 168 yards vs. Green Bay, the latter 181 vs. Pittsburgh. However, Siemian’s effort to play it safe in his first start likely will come with a reliance on a favorite target. Thomas is the safer bet. In Week 3 of the preseason, when the starters saw extended minutes, Siemian targeted Thomas eight times resulting in four catches for 63 yards.