2016 NFL season kicks off as Panthers look to avenge Super Bowl loss to Broncos
The 2016 season begins just as the 2015 season ended -- with Carolina battling Denver on 'TNF'
It's been 213 days since we had meaningful football and the 2016 season begins just as the 2016 season ended: With the Panthers facing the Broncos. Because what ratchets up September drama like a Super Bowl rematch? Truthfully, the league doesn't need to manufacture the theatrical; this is a sport where demand consistently outstrips supply, especially after four weeks of mind-numbing preseason facsimile football.
So welcome back, NFL, we missed you.
The last time we met ...
Back in February, Peyton Manning was the Broncos' quarterback, hoping the duct tape held together for one final game before he called it a career. Meanwhile, Cam Newton was 60 minutes away from cementing his place as a Super Bowl winner -- and staking a claim as the rightful heir to Manning's legacy as the face of the league.
Things didn't go as planned for either quarterback; Manning finished 13 of 23 for 141 yards, with no touchdowns and an interception. He was also sacked five times and lost a fumble. Newton was 18 of 41 for 265 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT, two lost fumbles and on the business end of six sacks. One final stat that encapsulated both players' mediocrity: Manning had a passer rating of 56.6; Newton's was 55.4.
The biggest difference: The Broncos' defense was dominant, and that conversation begins and ends with Von Miller, who was unblockable during the postseason -- and particularly in the Super Bowl. He parlayed that domination into Super Bowl MVP honors and a shiny new six-year, $114 million deal.
And guess what? Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips says Miller is better now than he was 12 months ago.
"He seems to be more comfortable in everything," Phillips told reporters on Monday. "He's really focused. I'm really pleased where he is right now. That seemed to be where he was at the end of last year. ... Maybe it's just the comfort in the defense, but I think he wanted to prove to everybody that maybe he's the best player. Maybe he's the defensive player of the year. He was the MVP in the Super Bowl, but I think his next goal is to be the defensive player of the year."
During free agency, the Broncos' D lost Malik Jackson to the Jaguars and Danny Trevathan to the Bears. One concern this offseason was whether this unit could replicate their 2015 success again in 2016, and this time without a future Hall of Fame quarterback (even one on the downside of a stellar career). It's unwise to put too much stock into preseason performances, but coach Gary Kubiak must have taken some pleasure in watching the first-team defense smother opponents in August, mostly because he knows Phillips' guys will likely have to do the heavy lifting again now that 2015 seventh-round pick Trevor Siemian has been named the Broncos' starting quarterback.
The man has no name
Siemian started 14 career games at Northwestern before suffering a torn ACL in November, 2014. The knee injury played a part in him lasting until the seventh round of the 2015 draft. In fact, Siemian was so uncertain of his NFL future that he lined up a job in commercial real estate before the Broncos called his name with the 250th pick.
As a rookie, Siemian saw the field just once, against the Steelers in Week 15, when he rushed one time for -1 yards. The rest of the season was spent standing on the sidelines watching Manning and Brock Osweiler. But that time was invaluable, not only because Siemian got to watch Manning at work, but also because he was able to learn Kubiak's offense, which put him ahead of veteran Mark Sanchez, acquired in the offseason (and since released), and Paxton Lynch, the team's 2016 first-round pick.
Trevor Siemian said Peyton's preparation Monday-Saturday is what sticks out the most from what he's learned from watching Manning— James Palmer (@JamesPalmerTV) August 29, 2016
"The thing about replacing Peyton -- nobody is going to replace Peyton," Siemian said shortly after Kubiak named him the starter. "Those shoes are a little too big to fill. For me, I'm not reading too much into anything and trying to be the best teammate and leader I can be."
If this sounds slightly familiar, it should. Back in 2006, months after veteran Jake Plummer led the Broncos to the AFC Championship Game, the team drafted Jay Cutler. Plummer started the '06 season, but he knew it was only a matter of time before he would be replaced by Cutler. Siemian, who doesn't have Plummer's experience, is in a similar situation with Lynch. Plummer actually talked to Siemian about his experiences, and what the young quarterback's expectations should be in the coming weeks and months.
"I told him, 'Fans aren't going to want to see Trevor Siemian," Plummer told the Denver Post's Nicky Jhabvala last month. "They want to see Paxton Lynch, the guy they screamed and yelled about when they picked him in the first round. I think Trevor's highly capable of playing -- he's got the skill set and the talent -- but he's just in a spot where he could do well and still not be the guy, with a first-round QB behind him. It's a tough spot to be in, but I told him don't worry about that. 'Go do your job, go do your thing and people will ultimately respect you even more for that.'"
10 minutes you won't get back
Will Brinson and I fire up the podcast machine for the season opener:
Keep an eye on these guys
Mike Remmers -- The Panthers right tackle allowed two Miller strip-sacks in the Super Bowl, which led to 15 points for the Broncos. Not surprisingly, Remmers was criticized, though coach Ron Rivera explained at the start of training camp that Remmers wasn't solely responsible for Miller wreaking havoc in Carolina's backfield.
"A lot of that criticism was unwarranted," Rivera said. "People didn't understand what we were trying to do in terms of our protection. But he's done a nice job and he's handled it very well, as a professional."
The Panthers thought enough of Remmers to use a second-round tender on him this offseason, which guarantees he'll make $2.55 million in 2016.
Kony Ealy -- Everyone knows about Panthers linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, but Ealy was the second-best player on the field at Super Bowl 50. And if the Panthers had found a way to win, Ealy probably would have earned MVP honors. Instead, he's a footnote, though still an impressive one; he sacked Manning three times and intercepted him once, and generated the Panthers' two turnovers.
Kelvin Benjamin -- The 2014 first-round pick missed the last season with an ACL injury, but after a surprising rookie season, the expectation is that he'll return to the form that made him one of Newton's favorite targets. Along with veteran tight end Greg Olsen and second-year wideout Devin Funchess, Newton will have plenty of big downfield targets. Add Ted Ginn Jr. and Philly Brown, and one of the team's biggest perceived weaknesses a year ago is now a strength.
Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders -- The Broncos have their own big-play receivers, and unlike the Super Bowl, the Panthers won't have Josh Norman to slow them down. Norman is now in Washington and Carolina will turn to ... two rookies. Second-rounder James Bradberry and third-rounder Daryl Worley will see extensive action, and their introduction to the NFL won't come gently. Thomas and Sanders play two completely different styles but both can beat anywhere on the field.
Cam Newton -- Much was made of Newton pouting his way through an abbreviated post-Super Bowl press conference, and the fact that he didn't look interested in diving on a fumble late in the game also led to criticism. At the time, he explained it this way: "OK I didn't get the fumble. We can play tit-for-tat. I've seen numerous quarterbacks throw interceptions and their effort afterwards and they don't go. I don't dive on one fumble because the way my leg was, it could have been contorted in some way."
While Broncos safety T.J. Ward had another interpretation of the play: "If he would have touched that ball, I was gonna hit him right in his face, and I wasn't the only one," Ward told NFL.com at the time. "We were hungry for that one. We saw that ball and it was like hyenas on an antelope. And I don't know -- maybe he needed to stay healthy for next year."
Well, next year is here. How will Newton respond?
"We won't have nearly this much agreement moving forward, but it's nice to see everyone on the same page -- nice for everyone who didn't draft Newton with an early pick, at least. Newton badly struggled against the Broncos in the Super Bowl, and the Broncos were tops in the league in Fantasy points allowed to quarterbacks, at 11.8 per game. It's not crazy to think the Broncos may take a step back this season, but it isn't likely to come from the defensive side of the ball. This should be a top-notch unit yet again, and that is certainly a concern for those of you who drafted Cam early. You probably still can't justify sitting him -- unless Derek Carr is out there on waivers in your league -- but don't be surprised if Newton gets off to a slow start. The good news is, he gets the lowly 49ers in Week 2."
Who ya got?
"Siemian will be making his first NFL start -- and throwing his first real NFL pass -- in this one for Denver. That's a lot of pressure. But it helps he's at home and he has that defense behind him. The Broncos got all over Cam Newton in the Super Bowl last February, and I expect the same here. The Broncos find a way late, even with their young passer."
-- Pete Prisco, who has the Broncos winning, 23-21
They said it
Chris Harris Jr. on the skeptics who don't think the 2016 Broncos' defense can match last season's unit: "We feel like we have the same group of core guys, we have guys who are going to play more than they did before and be great," Harris said. "We've heard all those things about the guys who left, and that's fine. We know we have to go out and play anyway. So what anybody says won't matter if we play the way we know we can."
Kubiak on Siemian: "Somebody asked me when I felt like Trevor looked like he had a chance to get to this point [as the starter] and really, I thought it was through the offseason, OTAs. I knew he was a good kid. I knew he worked hard. I knew he watched Peyton go about his business. ... I think every day he showed us, I can do this, I'm going to be competitive in this situation and I believe in myself."
Panthers wideout Philly Brown on Thursday's rematch: "[Denver's] got great pass rushers. ... They had a great game plan and we weren't at our best that day. And we know that. We've watched the film over and over again and we realize the little mistakes that we made that game that need to be fixed to get the victory. And we're gonna do it."
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