The Broncos overcame a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit against the Panthers to deny reigning MVP Cam Newton some sweet revenge. Instead of revenge, the Panthers depart Denver knowing full well they blew a winnable game against the team that left them broken and bruised after Super Bowl 50.
In the first game of the 2016 NFL season, the defending Super Bowl champion Broncos knocked off the Panthers, 21-20, despite three costly turnovers that nearly sunk them.
A wild final drive from the Panthers ended up coming down to Gary Kubiak's decision to ice Carolina kicker Graham Gano, who pulled a potential game-winning 50-yard field goal wide of the uprights. The game also included an injury to Newton's leg -- and repeated, questionable, and mostly uncalled shots to his head -- as well as C.J. Anderson turning into the fantasy player of his owners' dreams and Kelvin Benjamin's triumphant return.
In the end, the Broncos survived opening night despite trotting out a quarterback with zero career passes to his name, riding on the back of Anderson and the Broncos defense -- and a little luck -- to win the Super Bowl rematch.
But those few paragraphs alone can hardly capture the madness that went down in Denver on Thursday night. Here are nine more takeaways:
A wacky final drive
Gano made his first game-winning try from 50 yards, squeezing the football through the right upright. But Kubiak called timeout a second before the Panthers snapped the football, so Gano was forced to kick again.
He missed the one that mattered, pulling the kick wide left.
He should've never even have gotten the chance. With just over three minutes remaining in the game, the Panthers regained possession of the ball down by a point. They didn't get off to a hot start, committing a false start and allowing a sack on first down. On third-and-15 with 2:15 left, Von Miller sacked Newton for a loss of 6 yards.
Facing a fourth-and-21 after the two-minute warning, the game appeared to be lost. Stupidity extended Carolina's life, when the Broncos' Chris Harris was flagged for illegal hands to the face, which resulted in an automatic first down at the Panthers' 34-yard line.
The Panthers returned the stupidity, calling their final timeout before a third down because they broke the huddle too slowly. They did, at least, gain the necessary yards to prolong the game.
Stupidity, again, followed. This time, with Newton in their sights and with nowhere to throw, Broncos defenders targeted Newton's head, walloping him as he tossed the football away. They were flagged for roughing the passer, but the penalty was negated because Newton's floater failed to reach the line of scrimmage.
Two teams that played into February a year ago hardly looked like composed contenders.
Eventually, Newton drove the Panthers into field-goal range in the final seconds. But Gano couldn't convert on the chance to send the Panthers home with a win.
C.J. Anderson fuels a comeback
Entering the final frame, the Panthers held a 10-point lead over a Broncos team that featured the first-ever quarterback with zero career passes to start a season opener for a defending Super Bowl champion. The Broncos, a team built around running the football and playing defense, needed to make up ground in a hurry.
And that's what they did. The Panthers could not hold that lead. Rather, they couldn't slow down Anderson.
On the opening play of the fourth quarter, Trevor Siemian dropped back to pass and Anderson picked up a pass rusher. Suddenly, Anderson, along with a few members of the offensive line, stopped blocking. The Panthers' defensive line surged forward toward Siemian while Anderson drifted ahead into space. Siemian, with a defender in his face, floated a simple screen pass into Anderson's arms.
Anderson did the rest.
Less than five minutes later, Anderson was back it. After the Broncos defense picked off Newton in Panthers territory, the offense faced a fourth-and-1 from the 2-yard line.
The Broncos called on Anderson, again. With some help from left tackle Russell Okung and fullback Andy Janovich, Anderson pushed through the line and fought through contact, mounting a second surge to pick up the necessary yardage. Three plays later, on third-and-goal, Anderson gave the Broncos a four-point lead with his second touchdown.
Anderson finished with 92 rushing yards on 20 carries and added four catches for 47 yards.
Broncos' defense starts slow
In the Super Bowl, the Broncos, led by MVP Von Miller, sacked Newton six times and hit him 13 times. They also forced two fumbles, both of which Newton lost.
That pass rush was nonexistent for much of Thursday night. For the most part, Panthers right tackle Mike Remmers held his own, preventing Miller from creating chaos in the backfield.
As NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth pointed out, the depth of Newton's dropbacks in the shotgun weren't as significant as they were in February. Instead of using a three-step drop, Newton took a single step, meaning Miller couldn't simply run past Remmers to get to Newton. He had go to the inside or bull-rush Remmers into Newton. Pressure up the middle would've helped the Broncos counter Newton's shorter drops, but the Broncos couldn't push back the Panthers' line. Malik Jackson, who cashed in big-time with the Jaguars this offseason, would've helped.
But as the game wore on, the Broncos defense began making plays. They began hitting Newton.
In the third quarter, Newton hobbled off the field and trainers gathered to check on his right leg. He never missed a snap, but he continued to take shots down the stretch.
Along with Anderson, Denver's defense spurred the comeback. After Anderson's touchdown catch cut the deficit to three points, Harris stole a reception from Benjamin by popping the ball high into the Denver air. Benjamin had no clue where the deflected pass went, but Harris did.
He dove for the ball and secured a game-changing pick.
The defense would have to stop the Panthers offense on two more drives. It did exactly that.
First, the Broncos held the Panthers to a field goal, which protected the Broncos' slim lead. For that, they can thank Aqib Talib for enforcing Denver's no-fly zone.
After the Broncos offense failed to muster a first down, the defense came back onto the field to finish off the Panthers. Two poor decisions let the Panthers hang around, but those penalties didn't come back to bite the Broncos.
In all, the Broncos' defense sacked Newton three times and landed eight quarterback hits.
Cam Newton looked like the MVP for a half
Cam Newton was still super -- for a half, at least.
His first touchdown, a bullet to Kelvin Benjamin in the first quarter, showed off his cannon for an arm. Later, he showed off his athleticism and awareness.
On the Panthers' second touchdown-scoring drive of the game, they faced a third-and-10 at the Broncos' 35-yard line. The Broncos sent pressure and nearly got to Newton, but Newton spoiled that pressure by escaping the pocket and lofting a touch pass to Greg Olsen for a first down.
Three plays later, he connected with Olsen again, which pushed the ball to the 4-yard line. Then, the reigning MVP capped an 18-play, 89-yard drive with his first touchdown run of the season on a power sweep to the right.
After, Newton immediately turned to look for the football, because he set a couple of records by scoring that touchdown. He passed Steve Young for the most career rushing touchdowns (44) by a quarterback and set the record for the most career games (32) with at least one touchdown through the air and another on the ground.
He struggled in the second half, though. As a result, his final stat line was less than impressive. He completed 18 of 33 passes for 194 yards -- an ugly 5.9 yards per attempt. With his touchdown and interception, his passer rating came out as 69.5. He added 54 yards on the ground.
Shots to Cam Newton's head
Considering how many head shots Newton suffered during the game -- lots -- it's worth wondering if Newton suffered from a head injury at some point during the game. According to The Charlotte Observer's Joe Person, a Panthers' PR official said after the game that Newton was receiving treatment, which is why his press conference was delayed.
When the press conference finally began, Newton expressed an opinion that most quarterbacks -- and human beings -- would agree with: Getting hit in the head isn't fun.
Cam: It's not my job to question the officials. I like this officiating crew...it's not fun getting hit in the head— Jonathan Jones (@jjones9) September 9, 2016
Cam: I try to warn the refs every time I do get in the head, but if the flag is not called then it's OK— Jonathan Jones (@jjones9) September 9, 2016
"I feel sh---y," Newton said. "I just don't like to lose."
Why didn't the officials stop the game and force Newton to undergo a concussion test? Where were the concussion spotters?
Tried to talk to ref Gene Steratore RE why no one stopped to have Cam Newton checked after last hit. Steratore referred me to league office.— Joe Person (@josephperson) September 9, 2016
Broncos' turnovers doom efficient drives
On Siemian's first-ever NFL pass, he turned to the left to fire a quick screen to Demaryius Thomas. Only, a Panthers' defender stood between Siemian and his receiver. Showing more poise than, well, Mark Sanchez probably would've, Siemian pumped to get the defender into the air. Then, he threw a sidearm pass around the defender. Thomas picked up 11 yards.
Gary Kubiak ended up calling four more passes to begin the Broncos' opening drive. And Siemian looked -- dare I say -- adequate, completing three of his first five passes.
Then rookie running Devontae Booker entered the game to take his first-ever NFL carry. He fumbled, the Panthers recovered, and marched down the field for the first touchdown of the season.
On the Broncos' second drive of the game, they -- again -- journeyed into Panthers territory. Again, a turnover doomed their drive. On third-and-long, Kubiak called for another screen to make a field-goal try easier on Brandon McManus. Unlike the first screen of the day, Siemian didn't pump fake to free up a throwing lane. This time, his pass was tipped by Star Lotulelei and intercepted by Thomas Davis.
The recipe continued in the second half. After the Broncos defense stopped the Panthers' first drive of the third quarter, the Broncos offense marched down the field again. On first down at Carolina's 30-yard line, Siemian made another mistake, floating a gimme pick to Bene Benwikere.
The Panthers scored only seven points directly off those turnovers, but that's hardly the point. The point is, the Broncos offense -- helmed by Trevor frickin' Siemian -- looked effective at times against the Panthers from the get-go. Outside of three sloppy plays, the Broncos moved the football effectively. Anderson ran the ball with power and showed off some newfound quickness, using quick cuts to repeatedly burn the Panthers defense.
According to Pro Football Reference, the Broncos had five drives last year that journeyed to their opponents' 30-yard line and ended with a giveaway. They had three of those drives against the Panthers -- nearly four considering Siemian was inches away from being picked on the Broncos' winning, fourth-quarter drive.
Trevor Siemian doesn't look like the answer
Siemian ended up going 18 of 26 for 178 yards, one touchdown, two costly picks, and a 69.1 passer rating. In other words, he looked like Trevor Siemian.
Siemian missed a touchdown on third down. pic.twitter.com/urXnH3JSE9— Cian Fahey (@Cianaf) September 9, 2016
How long until rookie Paxton Lynch is ready?
The Broncos will always be a tough out with that defense of theirs, but Siemian isn't their answer -- at least based off his first start.
Kelvin Benjamin's triumphant return
Benjamin missed all of the 2015 season with a torn ACL. Entering this game, Benjamin was supposedly on a limited snap count. The injury took place last August, so Benjamin is 13 months removed from tearing up his knee.
Even though expectations weren't high for Benjamin in his first game since his rookie season, which included 1,000 yards, he came out firing.
On the Panthers' first offensive series of the game, Newton targeted Benjamin on two occasions. The first pass granted the Panthers a fresh set of downs on third-and-9.
The second handed the Panthers an early 7-0 lead. On second down from Denver's 14-yard line, Newton found Benjamin in the middle of the end zone and Benjamin used his massive frame to win the jump ball.
That was Benjamin's first touchdown since Dec. 7, 2014.
Meet Andy Janovich
After two turnovers, the Broncos finally finished a drive in the second quarter to knot the score at 7. But it wasn't Siemian who notched his first-ever touchdown or Anderson who scored the Broncos' first points.
It was fullback Andy Janovich.
Who? The slowest back at the combine.
Andy Janovich had the slowest 40-yard dash (4.81) among all RBs and FBs at the 2016 NFL Combine. Was just fast enough on that TD run.— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) September 9, 2016
Broncos fullback janovich who scored td shows some skin. pic.twitter.com/KKba5d0lN0— Outsports (@outsports) September 9, 2016
According to NFL Network's Andrew Siciliano, fullbacks have scored the first rushing touchdown of the season for three consecutive years.
The Broncos will play host to the Colts two Sundays from now while the Panthers return to Carolina to play the 49ers.