As much as the Carolina Panthers wanted to make Thursday something other than a Super Bowl rematch, the first game of the NFL season played out in much the same fashion for Carolina.
Only more painful.
Panthers kicker Graham Gano hooked a 50-yard field goal try wide left with nine seconds left, giving the Broncos a 21-20 victory at Mile High and assuring there would be no avenging the Super Bowl.
Gano had made several field goals from 50 or longer in warmups in Denver’s thin air. Worse, he’d drilled the same 50-yarder moments before his miss after Broncos coach Gary Kubiak called a timeout to ice him.
The kick ended a wild game that featured all kinds of twists and turns, many coming late in the game.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton took a vicious, helmet-to-helmet hit from safety Darian Stewart on the final drive. Newton got up slowly, stayed in the game (surprisingly, without being checked for a concussion) and moved the Panthers into position for a game-winning field goal.
But it was not to be.
The Panthers did a much better job protecting Newton. The Broncos, who tied a Super Bowl record with seven sacks, had three Thursday.
Super Bowl MVP Von Miller was held to one sack. It was eerily similar to his second strip-sack of Newton in the Super Bowl, with Miller blowing around right tackle Mike Remmers.
Only this time Newton held on to the ball. On the next play, Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. was called for hands to the face, allowing the Panthers to convert a fourth-and-21 and keep hope alive.
But ultimately it was the Broncos celebrating again – minus the confetti that fell in Santa Clara.
The Panthers appeared to take control of a 7-7 game in the second quarter with a long drive that threatened to extend into Friday.
Carolina took over at its 11 after a poor decision by Joe Webb to try to field a bouncing, knuckling kickoff. The Panthers proceeded to maintain possession for 18 plays and 9 minutes, 15 seconds, before Newton dived for the pylon on a 2-yard touchdown run.
The Panthers were 5-for-5 on third downs, converting more on that single, 89-yard drive than they had the entire Super Bowl (3-for-15).
Newton was clutch on the drive, completing all four of his third-down passes for 52 yards.
A 44-yard field goal by Gano on the Panthers’ following drive pushed their lead to 17-7.
The score stayed that way until the first play of the fourth quarter when Broncos second-year quarterback Trevor Siemian tossed a screen pass that C.J. Anderson turned into a 25-yard touchdown.
Kubiak was smart with his play-calling for Siemian, whose only regular-season snap before Thursday was a kneel-down late in a game last season.
Kubiak had Siemian throw a lot of short passes on quick-developing plays to keep the Panthers’ pass rush from getting to him.
But Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott picked his spots to blitz wisely.
In the third quarter with the Broncos driving, McDermott sent Kurt Coleman on a safety blitz. Coleman arrived in Siemian’s facemask as he released the ball, which floated toward Emmanuel Sanders before Bené Benwikere intercepted it.
It was the Broncos’ third turnover – all at or inside the Panthers’ 30.
But the Panthers failed to pad their lead. And following a Newton interception, the Broncos went up 21-17 midway through the fourth quarter on a 1-yard touchdown run by Anderson.
Offensive coordinator Mike Shula threw six months worth of ideas at the Broncos to try to slow the Denver pass rush.
The Panthers opened their first possession with all three of their tight ends in the huddle, and used two tight-end sets for much of the game.
At various times, Carolina also:
▪ Widened their line splits to force Miller to line up farther outside the tackle box.
▪ Ran a shovel pass to Mike Tolbert to take advantage of Miller’s up-field push. (Safety Darian Stewart stuffed Tolbert, but it was a good concept.)
▪ Put two tight ends on Miller’s side, while Newton threw the other direction.
But the Broncos were able to get to Newton a couple times late.
The reigning league MVP showed big-time toughness on the final drive. But it wasn’t enough.