For just the second time in NFL history, the previous year's Super Bowl matchup will kick off week one of the regular season. Not since the Super Bowl IV reunion between the champion Kansas City Chiefs and runner-up Minnesota Vikings in week one of the 1970 season has the last game of a season been the opening game of the next.
Both teams downplaying the idea of a Super Bowl rematch
"A lot of people want to make it a rematch," retorted Panthers quarterback and reigning league MVP Cam Newton. "It's just our next opponent."
A 24-10 loss to Denver in Super Bowl 50 left Newton visibly sour and surly after the game. The last image of Newton from that game was the dejected quarterback sitting hunched on the post-game press conference stage, hood over his head, giving short and combative answers to media questions.
"No one likes losing, so I took it extremely personal," said Newton.
He along with other Panthers prefer to look forward to the 2016 season and leave the disappointment of their Super Bowl loss in the past.
"We can't make or break our whole season on the first game," said Pro-Bowl tight end Greg Olsen. "What's done is done. The past is the past. We have a whole new season to look forward to. The more we try to hinge on correcting what happened in the Super Bowl, the more we're going to keep getting pulled back."
It's going to be hard for the Panthers not to enter their week one matchup in Denver seeking some kind of redemption when you consider what happened to the then 17-1 NFC champions.
The Panthers offense was a steamroller throughout the 2015 season and the first two games of the playoffs. The highest scoring offense regularly jumped out to fast starts, burying their opponents. The Panthers led the NFL with a +192 score differential. Once Newton and the offense obtained a comfortable lead the running game led by running back Jonathan Stewart and a top-six defense led by Luke Kuechly at middle linebacker took over.
In the Super Bowl, the Broncos defense smothered the Panthers offense. The usual mobile Newton was bottled up by the Broncos vaunted pass-rush.
Super Bowl MVP Von Miller led the Broncos defense in disrupting the Panthers offensive game plan. Denver quickly bottled up the run game, convincing Carolina head coach Ron Rivera of the need to go predominantly through the air. Miller and the rest of the pass rush were able to tee off on the Panthers, overwhelming the Panthers o-line and hitting Newton before he had an opportunity to go through his progressions.
What unfolded was six sacks of Newton, 2.5 by Miller that included a strip sack that ended up being recovered in the end zone by defensive lineman Malik Jackson, giving the Broncos an early 10-0 lead in the first quarter. It wouldn't get any better for Newton and the Panthers as Denver never relinquish their lead.
The Panthers have a reason for hope that the outcome of Thursday's game will be different with the return of wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who missed all of last season due to injury.
Benjamin is a rising star at wide receiver who can dominate opposing defenses with his size and speed. Last season nobody got more out of an otherwise average wide receiver corps than Newton. Now with Benjamin's return, the Panthers look for their passing game to be even better.
As Carolina enters Thursday night looking for some kind of redemption, Denver is using what they believe to be a lack of respect as their motivation.
Broncos are underdogs -- at home
The Broncos are three-point underdogs entering the game. The Broncos feel less than respected after a season in which they went 12-4 on the backs of a defense that can contend as one of the all-time best, defeated teams quarterbacked by Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady in the playoffs, and finally finished up with an impressive performance against the league MVP in Newton in Super Bowl 50. To be underdogs in their own stadium on the night they unveil their third Super Bowl championship banner is helping to keep players celebrating past efforts focused on the present.
The Broncos, especially the defense, used a lack of acknowledgment of the quality of their team last season to push them through to Santa Clara, CA and Super Bowl 50. This season they are doing the same.
"...we'll probably be underdogs Week 2 and so on," said Broncos running back C.J. Anderson. "We're fine with it."
With the retirement of Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning in March, they have turned to second-year player Trevor Siemian to try and fill those sizeable shoes.
A 2015 seventh-round pick from Northwestern University, who has taken one NFL snap in his career for a kneel-down, is credited with poise under pressure, command of the huddle, and a gun for an arm that Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders compares to Green Bay Packers star quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
General Manager John Elway and head coach Gary Kubiak, who spotted Siemian on video during his draft preparation last year, both praise their new quarterback.
"(Siemian) can go into that meeting room for two hours in the morning, walk out of here at 11:30 and take it to the field," Kubiak said. "You can't teach that. We need to help Trevor all we can. But I know Trevor is ready to do his part and we're behind him 100 percent."
How Siemian handles the pressure of a nationally televised game, under the immense spotlight that the game carries, is anyone's guess.
The Panthers won't be looking to make things any easier for Siemian. Carolina will be looking to rattle the young quarterback by bringing the heat with their seven-man defensive front that is considered one of the league's best. Kubiak is well aware of what Carolina can do defensively.
“I think it’s because of the pressure they can put on you,” Kubiak said. "(it's) as good as I’ve ever coached against.”
Siemian's best friend, not only on Thursday night but for the rest of the season, will be running backs Anderson and rookie Devontae Booker. Kubiak hopes that the Broncos can establish a solid ground game to keep the pressure off of Siemian.
However, with the strength of the Panthers defense being their front seven, Kubiak may be tempted to roll Siemian outside of the pocket and challenge the two rookie corners that will be covering wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Sanders.
Carolina has two rookies starting on the outside
The Panthers are the first team since 1991 to start the season with two rookies at cornerback. Carolina decided to withdraw their franchise tag from star cornerback Josh Norman and now he patrols the secondary for the Washington Redskins.
Hopes for both teams offensively to produce hinges on their offensive lines. The Panthers offensive line must prove that their horrible play during the Super Bowl was an aberration and they can handle Miller. The Broncos must show that their revamped o-line with four new starters, only center Matt Paradis remains as a holdover, can gel in time to keep Siemian upright.
Whatever the result, this NFL Classic looks to be aptly named.
NFL Kickoff Classic
Week 1 - 09/08/16
Time: 8:30 PM ET
Location: Sports Authority Field at Mile High
Line: Panthers -3 (Westgate Superbook)
Head-To-Head Record (1997-Present)
Regular Season: Broncos lead 3-1
Playoffs: Broncos lead 1-0
At Denver: Broncos lead 2-0
02/07/16 Super Bowl 50: Broncos 24 Panthers 10
|Offense||Position||NFL Experience (seasons)|
|Ted Ginn, Jr.||WR||10|
|Defense||Position||NFL Experience (Seasons)|
|Special Teams||Position||NFL Experience (Seasons)|
|Ted Ginn, Jr||KR,PR||10|
|Chris Harris, Jr.||RCB||5|
|Special Teams||Position||NFL Experience (Seasons)|
|Brandon McManus||K, KO||3|
|Riley Dixon||P, H||R|
|Total Offense||11th (366.9)||16th (355.5)|
|Passing||24th (224.3)||14th (248.1)|
|Rushing||2nd (142.6)||17th (107.4)|
|Total Defense||6th (322.9)||1st (283.1)|
|Passing||11th (234.5)||1st (199.6)|
|Rushing||4th (88.4)||3rd (83.6)|
|NFC South||W L T||PCT||PF||PA||Home||Road||Div||Conf||Streak||L5|
|Carolina Panthers||15 1 0||.938||500||308||8-0||7-1||5-1||11-1||W1||4-1|
|Atlanta Falcons||8 8 0||.500||339||345||4-4||4-4||1-5||5-7||L1||2-3|
|New Orleans Saints||7 9 0||.438||408||476||4-4||3-5||3-3||5-7||W2||3-5|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||6 10 0||.375||342||417||3-5||3-5||3-3||5-7||L4||1-4|
|AFC West||W L T||PCT||PF||PA||Home||Road||Div||Conf||Streak||L5|
|Denver Broncos||12 4 0||.750||355||296||6-2||6-2||4-2||8-4||W-2||3-2|
|Kansas City Chiefs||11 5 0||.688||405||287||6-2||5-3||5-1||10-2||W10||5-0|
|Oakland Raiders||7 9 0||.438||359||399||3-5||4-4||3-3||7-5||L1||2-3|
|San Diego Chargers||4 12 0||.250||320||398||3-5||1-7||0-6||3-9||L2||1-4|
*All stats via NFL.com